Ambitiously programmed with over 80 films in 17 days, the 13th annual African Diaspora Film Festival fashions distinctive dialogue among Flatbush Avenue, Cape Town, and the Caribbean, revealing kinships characterized by resistance and resilience in the face of hardscrabble contretemps.
The nonfiction slate presents the second documentary to premiere here this month exploring a curious subculture devoted to “wicked fashion” (the first was Jeppe R The Swenkas). The Importance of Being Elegant examines Congolese musician Papa Wemba and his cultish congregation of haute couture hustlers in Paris and Brussels. Established during Mobutu-era oppression, La SAPE (Society of Ambience and People of Elegance) and its designer-wardrobe worship constituted ingenious social rebellion against politically enforced cultural conformity; however, the film astutely exposes the frayed ends in Wemba’s mink-stole ideology for those who followed him to Europe. Draped in Cavalli and Armani, replete with nicknames like Anti-Gigolo and Archbishop, the sapeurs struggle for acknowledgement and acceptance, not only from their adopted homeland, but from the shrewd, sweet-voiced singer’s closed clothes system as well.
Dulcet-toned crooners—along with a few belters and beat-makers—feature in the BBC r&b doc Urban Soul. The genre’s evolution from organic ’70s soul to its mainstreamed, hip-hop-inflected contemporary iteration was, in many ways, inevitable; as the film’s commentators emphasize, r&b’s pop ascension was enabled by untroubled acceptance of its dual nature as cultural fabric and commercial product. While those musically well acquainted may tire as the film dawdles through recent history, it’s refreshing to see the influence of train-wrecked stars like Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown richly judged. A companion piece to Soul (and to his 2004 book, Post-Soul Nation), author (and Voice contributor) Nelson George’s documentary Smart Black People reunites some of the subjects of a generation-defining photograph to document the impact of the “New Black Aesthetic” that arose in the 1980s in arts, criticism, and entrepreneurship. Sixty minutes of panel discussion might peeve if George’s panelists—including Russell Simmons, Trey Ellis, and Voice critic Greg Tate—weren’t so darn pithy, engaging, and, well, smart.
For the fiction-hungry, Polanski’s Dickensian turn may have satisfied your orphan-redemption fix, but the South African production Boy Called Twist shows admirable pluck, due to its star’s nigh-on criminal kid charisma. And anchoring the festival’s Afro-Quebec Night, On the Verge of a Fever blends Rouchian ethnography with Godardian poetic text-play to tell the story of a 15-year-old Haitian boy on the lam from Papa Doc’s brutal Tonton Macoutes. Fugitive status has rarely been this sweet: Refuge is found with four indecently gorgeous coquettes.