Now in its eighth installment, the African Diaspora Film Festival remains a cannily programmed collection. This year’s highlights include a farcical homage, a harrowing snapshot of unemployment, and a totemic, titanic actor. Set in the summer of 1967 (a year after Ousmane Sembene won the Prix Jean Vigo for his landmark Black Girl), Melvin Van Peebles’s A Belly Full updates Sembene’s despairing take on postcolonial bonds. A buffoonish, vaguely embalmed-looking couple, Henri and Loretta Robert (Jacques Boudet and Andrea Ferreol), arrive at an orphanage, where they bribe the headmistress with a donation to acquire one of their “girls of colonial descent.” Soon they are given Diamantine (Meiji U Tum’si) to take their daughter’s place as waitress in their busy bar. Their genial first meeting turns into a schlock horror scene upon their arrival home: a doubled-over camera, some queasy zooms, an odd dissolve from someone’s eyes into the headlights of passing cars, the Roberts seen from below, as if they were surgeons.
Eventually they become gentle enforcers—controlling lunch-hour duties (played in fast-forward), leisure time, and finally a “pregnancy,” which the Roberts ask Diamantine to fake with progressively added pillows. As if to sharpen the sexploitational point further, Loretta begins to shorten their “adopted daughter’s” skirt and unbutton her blouse while explaining the plan with a mouthful of sewing needles. By the time Diamantine has fallen for a local blond rock ‘n’ roller who “wants to kiss Elvis’s feet,” the viewer has discovered the truth about who’s really pregnant, only after some psychosexual, incestuous, and racial points have been spiked. Van Peebles, who once filmed himself proposing “fucking” as a weapon against a white biker pack, is a mite cheerier here, as kooky as he is savvy about ferreting out the truth behind the Roberts’ charity.
Distinguished by muted, rhythmic shards of scenes contrasting a truck that won’t start with a guy who can’t get hired, Metal is a film that distrusts easy fix-its. A discussion between Ray (Wendrell Jones) and a friend leaps from car repair to prayer, and underlines Ray’s spiritual rusting. Shot on 16mm in a shady, working-class pocket near the San Francisco docks, Metal chips away at bits of trauma within the main characters, a process amplified in scenes involving Ray’s wife (Venitta Porter, whose figure and diction recall Ella Fitzgerald) and sullen son. Other great touches: a crack-pushing towhead declaring “y’all cool,” Ray watching from a window as his family strolls to church, and a snowballing Jerry Springer-ish morning fight between a former stripper and a deadbeat.
Most touching in this year’s fest is the Issach de Bankolé spotlight. Barely known stateside outside of his appearances in two Jarmusch films (at his sunniest in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, screening here), this goateed Ivory Coast-born Parisian is one of the most unaffected actors in the world, whose groundedness and grace is evident in the retrospective screenings of Claire Denis’s cockfighting study No Fear No Die, the satire Battu, and two films where he stoically incarnates a framed immigrant, The Keeper and Otomo. Traveling Miles, a documentary portrait of fiancée Cassandra Wilson’s Miles Davis-dedicated tour, is his debut as a director. The only thing missing, really, is a late-’80s Québécois film called How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.