Harlem is as mythic as Hollywood and just as rife with history, mystery, sex, violence, and portent. It is probably more synonymous with Black people and the Mythology of the Black than even Africa at this point, and as any student of its literature, film, and streets can tell you, more of an unexplored continent.
Harlem’s demand for thick description has been well served on film. AMMI’s series makes the point with a historically wide-ranging program of docs, shorts, modern features, and antiquated “race movies” by insiders, outsiders, and sideline commentators alike. Several of the screenings will feature dialogues with a scholar or director—the most promising of them is the double bill pairing adaptations of Chester Himes novels: Ossie Davis will be around to talk after the screening of his Cotton Comes to Harlem, while Himes scholar Edward Margolies will help chew the fat following Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem. Shaft, as in the Gordon Parks original, opens the series, but that afternoon’s best side may well be the later showings of Dark Manhattan, a noirish Horatio Alger tale, and Harlem Is Heaven—a fragment, the program tells us, of a lost Bill “Bojangles” Robinson feature that finds him chasing O.P.P. rather than tapping along with Miss Temple.
The Blaxploitation quotient is further fulfilled by an obligatory Across 110th Street showing. More surprising is the inclusion of Gordon “Superfly” Parks Jr.’s rarely seen, Romeo and Juliet esque Aaron Loves Angela. Francis Ford Coppola and John Sayles take up the Token White Devils slots with Brother From Another Planet and The Cotton Club, the former easily beating out Coppola on the Racial Sensitivity tip. African American director and former race-movie star William Greaves has his day with showings of his 1949 acting vehicle Souls of Sin and his documentary From These Roots. The closing night is a wild-card scattershot that includes Black Roots, Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, choreo-film Harlem Hot Shots featuring the “Dance of the Bellhops,” and a 1955 Showtime at the Apollo extract, Harlem Merry-Go-Round, with Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and the Larks. The night winds up with A Great Day in Harlem, an essay on the legendary photo of the same name that appeared in Esquire in 1958. Look for director Jean Bach afterwards.