Education

New Black Voices Jolts the Big Screen With Black Life

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“In the city, black people are producing modern forms of life,” says influential scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman in Arthur Jafa’s brilliant docu-poem Dreams Are Colder Than Death. “These emergent formations are only recognizable on their initial appearance as monstrous….There’s a history of black anarchism, an everyday practice of revolution against certain forms of property arrangement.”

Though it appeared on no major best-of lists last year and only played the festival circuit, Dreams was one of 2014’s best and most important films, the only one to unambiguously capture the transitional American and global moment in which we live. Plugged right into the zeitgeist, it’s an exploration from the trenches of everything in play within the #BlackLivesMatter movement: police brutality; economic inequality’s steep costs and improvised remedies; and the pervasiveness of anti-blackness in every realm of American life and the toll that takes on black minds, bodies, and spirits.

Dreams crackles with controlled, unresolved tension as director-cinematographer Jafa juxtaposes a stream of images — a male dancer freestyling balletic moves in the street; strippers plying their trade in a nightclub; clips from classic films; vintage photos of black bodies scarred from slave-master whips or swinging lifelessly from nooses; close-ups on the faces of
everyday people alongside those of
academics, visual artists, and cultural critics — against an audio track of spoken ruminations that range from headily theoretical to intimately confessional, all of it wholly accessible. Interview subjects include Hartman, scholar Hortense Spillers, poet and theorist Fred Moten,
visual artists Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu, filmmaker Charles Burnett, and groundbreaking cultural critic Greg Tate.

Given Jafa’s iconic status as a cinematographer (Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn), it’s no surprise the film is gorgeous. But one of its most impressive feats is the shearing-away of the cloying homogeneity that has developed around the performance styles of many contemporary black public intellectuals and cultural critics, whose shtick so often becomes part lifestyle coach, part data- and pop-culture-reference-spewing showoff, part huckster, and part self-conscious manager of their celebrity brand. Maybe it’s because the folks Jafa puts before his camera are legit intellectual and artistic heavyweights with no need for such hackneyed showmanship. The absence of that kind of performance is refreshing, and the film movingly attaches theory, scholarship, and arts practice to the blood-and-death realities of contemporary black life.

While Dreams is unquestionably the highlight of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema festival, whose programming is culled from across the African
diaspora, other films on deck necessarily deepen and widen conversations about global blackness.

Joanna Lipper’s The Supreme Price is standard-issue documentary filmmaking in terms of craftsmanship, but the story it tells is riveting. After years in exile, Hafsat Abiola returns home to Nigeria to take up the mantle of political activism from her parents. Her father, M.K.O. Abiola, was imprisoned in 1993 after winning a presidential election that was immediately overturned by a military coup. Three years later, her mother, Kudirat, was assassinated after her political activism embarrassed the government on the global stage. As the camera follows the resilient Hafsat in her effort to educate and mobilize the women of Nigeria, Lipper deftly fills in the historical context. She also peels back the religious, cultural, and political realities that shape the battles Hafsat faces today. These include a brother who uses the Koran to justify his sexism and misogyny, laughingly saying to the camera that yes, men have made an utter mess of Nigerian politics — but that mess seems to him preferable to having a woman in power. It’s an example of what Hafsat labels male Ph.D. syndrome: “Pull her down syndrome.”

Writer-director Kiara Jones’s Christmas Wedding Baby initially inspires groans for the overfamiliarity of its romantic-comedy tropes. Andrea (Kimberley Drummond), the youngest of three bougie sisters, is days away from wedding her business-whiz fiancé when she learns that the photographer hired by the wedding planner is her first love, Gabriel (Sawandi Wilson), a handsome struggling artist who still inspires disdain from her snooty mom (a scene-stealing Maria Howell). But their unresolved history is just one of the complications threatening to torpedo the big day. There’s also the unwed older sister Lori (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), pregnant from a one-night stand; and ambitious middle sister Charlotte (Frances Turner), a newscaster contending with two young children; a stay-at-home boyfriend (Stephen Hill) who takes great care of the kids; and the romantic overtures of a white co-worker. Against a backdrop of aspirational luxuries and class privilege, Jones slowly crafts an engrossing tale of growth for all three sisters. Bickering and recrimination go hand in hand with familial love, and wisecracks give way to bitter truths and some tears. The sharp writing and smart performances will pull in even cynical viewers, and the film’s unexpected ending is an especially pleasant surprise.

Though C.J. Obasi’s low-budget Nigerian zombie flick Ojuju is too raw to be fully successful — the film suffers from huge holes in logic, as well as uneven pacing and performances — his ability to generate moments of both nail-biting tension and crisp comedy mark him a director to watch.

Of Good Report, written and directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, is an audacious
reimagining of the Lolita tale, in which
the somewhat creepy new male teacher at a rural South African school becomes
fatally drawn to a precocious female student. Shot in black-and-white, the film opens on a gory image — a man pulling two teeth from a bloody wound in the back of his head — before unfolding into a narrative full of expository (but never dull or heavy-handed) flashbacks and escalating madness that slowly brings the viewer back to that opening. Just as the whole thing appears to drift toward fetishizing or apologizing for the power imbalance in this dynamic of
inappropriate male lust — is there anything more played-out, in real or reel life? — Qubeka twists the plot and drives the film toward a chilling conclusion.

Maybe the most fully realized popcorn flick on this year’s roster is Gone Too Far, a British coming-of-age film directed by Destiny Ekaragha from a script by Bola Agbaje. The teenage Yemi (Malachi Kirby) has his life of soccer, rap, and unrequited crushes on girls thrown into disarray when his older brother Ikudayisi (O.C. Ukeje) arrives from Nigeria to live with Yemi and their mom. Embarrassed by his brother’s cornball fashion sense, Yemi keeps him at arm’s length while navigating the everyday
humiliations of being a teenage boy struggling to find his own identity. Vibrantly shot — the film’s saturated colors are a feast for the eyes — Gone deftly weaves smart social commentary on race, immigration issues, and teen sexuality into a script that is
unapologetic in its mission to make the viewer laugh. It’s a goal realized.

Also recommended: In the Morning; An American Ascent.