You can’t fault BAM for trotting out James Spooner’s 2003 debut yet again for its fourth annual DIY celebration of black rebellion; the 10-day Afro-Punk Festival is named for the biracial sculptor turned filmmaker’s doc— which chronicled the minority experience within the indie-rock community—and is co-curated by the man himself. But do we also need the New York premiere of White Lies, Black Sheep—Spooner’s first narrative and second “Afro Punk Film,” as it’s credited onscreen—which raises similar questions of identity and assimilation without a deeper evaluation or much dramatic heft?
Spooner plays his behind-the-camera self in an earnest mock-doc portrait of LES club promoter A.J. (Ayinde Howell), a spiky-haired, African-American scenester whose predominantly white friends, ladies, and demeanor are the bane of his dad’s soul-empowered existence. A.J. can’t deal with anything racial, at first dismissing his guilty-liberal friend’s recommendation to read Malcolm X . . . until he does. At sunset. With epiphany.
“All of a sudden, you’re black and shit,” whines the same bud, worried that A.J. is trying to steal the Afro-hottie on his arm. Not that the film suggests Crash‘s “everyone’s a racist” meme, but the confrontations feel more compulsory than earned, and the unnecessary faux-reality shtick distances whenever another camera films “the crew” (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm this ain’t). And then there’s A.J., whose brush with black-power literature doesn’t seem to deepen him in any substantive way. I guess, regardless of race, once a shallow hipster, always a shallow hipster.
Too bad BAM didn’t include Barry Jenkins’s thematically like-minded fest fave Medicine for Melancholy, which would’ve been an excellent corrective to Spooner’s well-intentioned banality. But the Afro-Punk event still rocks. Among the screening highlights are self-explanatory doc portraits (A Panther in Africa, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple), auteur rarities (Larry Clark’s 1977 jazz-man drama Passing Through, Jules Dassin’s Up Tight!), and a sidebar honoring Renaissance man Bill Gunn (director of blaxploitation art-horror Ganja & Hess, and writer of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord).