Diaspora Cinema

From South Africa to North Carolina, fest explores the black experience

As the name suggests, the two-week African Diaspora Film Festival's 72-film-deep program stakes claim to a vast territory—there's work here to represent almost every spot on the map that black people have made home. A big, borderless family-reunion vibe, with shared memories and heartaches remembered, is at the center of this thing.

Representative is Pierre-Yves Borgeaud's heritage-minded Return to Goree, which traces the migration of African griot rhythm over the Atlantic and back, following superstar Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour as he sits in with Atlanta gospel crooners and a New Orleans jazz combo and visits poet Amiri Baraka in Jersey (N'Dour's immaculate arrangements are supremely not my bag, but the tour of vernacular sounds has plenty to like). Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott Johnson's Iron Ladies of Liberia traces the Middle Passage backward, visiting the country founded by freed slaves to take an all-access look at Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—Liberia's first female president—during her premiere year in office. The tone approaches boosterism, though watching Johnson-Sirleaf and her cabinet (which includes several high-ranking women) work to shore up the rotted infrastructure left by her U.N.-deposed predecessor, you'll better appreciate the full burden of office. Adam Zucker's Greensboro: Closer to the Truth follows a contemporary "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," based on the post-apartheid South African model, as it exhumes a largely forgotten fatal 1979 clash between a mixed-race, unionizing Maoist Communist Workers Party and sharpshooting Ku Kluxers in central North Carolina, which may have been allowed by police indifference. Beyond the photo-op closure of the commission's progress and the busker-grade sentimental guitar fretting, the film finds complex truths, offering a portrait of age-dulled radicalism on both sides of the massacre, including an unexpectedly affecting eulogy for Southern provincialism from a gnomic ex-Klansman.

Fiction films are equally represented: Paul Leduc's hack-arty Cobrador: In God We Trust melds several short stories by the Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca to tell the obscurely interlocking tales of two killers—one an itinerant black man introduced wantonly capping crackers (Lázaro Ramos), the other an Aryan plutocrat who rolls over Hispanic women with his SUV (Peter Fonda). The narrative peregrinates between New York, Miami, Mexico City, and gruesome Argentine mines, suggesting an oblique anti-globalization screed, boorishly recycling provocations, and failing to capture a single viable human interaction. (The film's website is, however, a rich source of laffs: "In 1999, Paul Leduc registered the screenplay Cobrador. On September 11th, 2001. . . ") John Sayles provides marquee-director status, re-creating the atmosphere of an old Alabama juke joint for his '50's-set Honeydripper, starring Danny Glover, who also shows up in the Canadian feature, Poor Boy's Game, set in loading-docks-and-vinyl- siding industrial Halifax, onetime last stop on the Underground Railroad. The premise of Poor Boy is truth and reconciliation, pulp-style: A white boxer comes out of jail, penitent, for brutally beating a black man; the victim's friend, now an established fighter, ropes him into a meeting with the intention of in-the-ring homicide. Jamaican-born writer-director Clement Virgo is rarely content to let things play predictably—and so the film flirts brazenly with the absurd, but it manages an unsparing close-up of anguished machismo, and handles sexual ambivalence with rare intelligence.

 
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