Unseen Beauties: Stirring Life at BAM’s New Voices in Black Cinema


‘We dance on top of our history,” intones East Village DJ August (Columbus Short) deep into Julius Onah’s busy, vivid, grimly sparkling NYC-now noir thriller The Girl Is in Trouble, one of the most accomplished features at the fourth annual New Voices in Black Cinema festival at BAMcinématek. August says that in voiceover at just the point in the movie when the hunted-by-bad-guys hero and heroine would usually be headed underground, out of town, maybe changing her hair color and visiting the Redwoods. These two, instead, hit the club for a gorgeously shot bump-along night out, their lives all slow-motion glitter and tumult.

That’s the feeling of the best of this year’s festival: All may not be right in America or the world, and all certainly ain’t right with its history, but that doesn’t mean the men and women in these films — men and women left out of so many of Hollywood’s — aren’t going to make the most out of every beautiful moment.

That’s as true in the strong documentary lineup as it is in the features. The crowd-pleaser and most obvious example is Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols’s Flex Is Kings, an eye-popper showcasing the flex dance scene centered around Brooklyn’s BattleFest. Flex advances the old pop and lock to thrilling, disorienting extremes, often involving what looks like the dislocation of dancers’ shoulders as they work through their slo-mo, zero-g contortions. The best dancers build to mad flourishes they call “punch lines” and even incorporate some tough-minded storytelling into their self-taught routines — it’s autobiography as joyous athleticism.

Also contorting themselves joyously are the HIV-positive seniors of Megan Ebor’s short Even Me, which sets out to upend the thinking that it’s mostly the young and gay who are at risk. Ebor’s interview subjects include older African-American men and women with stories both heartbreaking and heartening. Their common threads: surprise that this could happen to them, disquiet at the stigma they feel they face, and a determination to keep on keepin’ on as sexual beings regardless. Talking up the unexpected pleasures of condoms, one chatty, hilarious sexagenarian gets the festival’s best line: “Oh, that’s strawberries! Ooh, you got bananas on there! You have fun with it!” But the film closes on an even greater surprise: the fact that by next year half of all people in the U.S. with HIV will be over 50.

Even Me is paired with another moving, seize-your-late-days true-life tale, Maia Wechsler’s Melvin & Jean: An American Story. This fascinating doc lays out how the boiling-over America of the ’60s drove a couple of nice North Carolina kids into the Black Panthers, then to highjacking a jet and demanding $1 million from the U.S. and passage to Algeria. For 35 years since, Melvin and Jean McNair have lived upstanding lives in France, at first under false names and separated from their kids — the cost of trying to draw international attention to oppressive racism back home. Now, the McNairs would love to come back home and, as Melvin puts it, “cry at the graves” of the family he’s not seen since.

Weschler’s film is sad, stirring, and strong. Also recommended on the documentary front at this year’s festival: Gabriel de Urioste’s The Unseen Beauty, a short portrait of painter Samuel Adoquei; Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s infuriating examination via old news footage of a devastating 1985 standoff between Philadelphia police and the radical urban group MOVE; and Homegoings, Christine Turner’s arresting portrait of Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, whom we see tenderly painting the nails of the recently deceased in preparation for moving — at times raucous — viewings and eulogies. He also speaks about the challenges of running a vital mom-and-pop shop in the thick of recession; says his son, with admiration, “This business is his life — 24-7-365, [he] eats, sleeps, and everything’s just funerals.”

Of the features, The Girl Is in Trouble is a standout, a film whose ambitions are matched by technical achievement, which isn’t always the case with these selections. Columbus Short proves a sturdy, appealing lead in a fractured, low-key suspense thriller distinguished by novelistic detail about its New Yorkers and its New York. The way it digs into the city and the viewpoints of the populations inhabiting it suggests Spike Lee, who served as an executive producer; perhaps as tribute, director Onah works in some dazzling variations on Lee’s famous character-floats-down-the-street traveling shots, all of which capture that most elusive of feelings — what it’s like to be here now.

The Girl Is in Trouble sticks to Lower Manhattan; my favorite feature of the festival never gets out of Queens. James Richard’s Bicycle is like a great short story rather than a novel, its simple, everyday situation squeezed for truth and feeling in something almost like real time. Like so many great movies, including last year’s Wadjda, this one centers on a bike. Ten-year-old Bobbi (Stormi G. Smith) and her mother’s boyfriend, Teddy (Cinque Northern), drive around the neighborhood to find the bicycle that she says a bigger girl stole from her.

From this classic setup comes much rewarding incident, including an offhandedly powerful moment when Bobbi and Teddy, out of gas many blocks from home, get approached by a brace of African-American teens, who all turn out to be helpful and nice, because this is something close to life — and a long way from Hollywood. Queens looks welcoming, just a little hardscrabble, and a kid’s-eye montage of the duo tooling around, set to lilting African guitar music, is uncommonly moving, all power lines and sleepy eyes. The key performances are persuasive, the climax suspenseful and satisfying, the feeling of warm, engaged humanity stirring. With rare patience, Richard captures specifics of city life and universals of growing up without wealth, too — if your young self ever had to steer a car while an adult tried to push it out of the street, there will be plenty here to move you.

Also recommended, with some reservations: Nicole Gomez Fisher’s noisy sister comedy Sleeping with the Fishes; Darious J. Britt’s ambitious debut, Unsound.