Heroes, Villains and the Rest of Us

Now playing at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival

What constitutes success when it comes to putting minority images on the big screen? Is it merely the fact that they're up there at all? Is it a preponderance of "positive" imagery that scrubs away any hint of stereotypical behavior, positing squeaky-clean heroes and heroines who'd be at home attending a Republican political convention? Or is it warts-and-all reality, voices unmitigated by concern for anyone's comfort zone?

Such questions date back to the first days of cinema, begetting tensions and contradictions that roil messily into the present. Antwone Fisher is a subversive triumph because of the underexamined ideas and rarely spoken truths expressed within the film's doggedly conventional outlines, ideas about the enduring legacies of slavery, truths about black folks' part in perpetuating their own emotional dysfunction. Biker Boyz—loud, flashy, testosterone-driven—strives for uplift (no use of the word nigger here, as slur or term of endearment; respectful treatment of women), but in truth it's merely a chance to see strapping black men roar through a hoary script and an aesthetically uneven piece of filmmaking. Blackness doesn't fuck with convention in Boyz; it bends over. But, ironically, it's thanks to Boyz's very mediocrity—the way it has race representation succumb to stultifying box-office demands and reductive notions of ennobling imagery—that the movie has been deemed a success by so many.

An intoxicating selling point of the Pan African Film Festival, now in its 11th year, is the opportunity to see a range of movies in which race identity is defined in myriad ways—as is the notion of what makes a film viable. One of the highlights of this year's festival is Flora Gomes' Nha Fala/My Voice (France). Dedicated to the memory of Amilcar Cabral—poet, politician, and assassinated leader of a liberation movement in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau (and also the subject of a documentary short that played the festival this year)—the film is a musical with sharp political edges. The heroine, Vita (model-beautiful Fatou N'Diaye), is about to leave her home in Guinea-Bissau to study in France. Before she goes, her mother reminds her of the family curse: The women of the clan must not sing—to do so leads to their death. As Vita is saying her goodbyes, the neighborhood again and again bursts into song, which director Gomes captures in a swirl of color and movement. (The music is by the great African musician Manu Dibango.) The film's bite lies largely in the songs' lyrics: stinging commentary on repressive and corrupt governments, unemployment, and the dearth of opportunity in modern Africa. The perils of globalization burn beneath these infectious grooves. "Build coffins," says Vita. "The only sure thing in this country is death." Yet the film is never less than upbeat, and late in Nha Fala, a song about death makes for one of the most joyous, life-affirming moments to unfold on the big screen in ages.

Waiting for Happiness (Mauritania/France), as its title suggests, seems more than a little inspired by Samuel Beckett, as writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako hops from vignette to vignette, offering a bird's-eye view of the small village that Abdallah (Mahmoud Ould Mohammed) is aching to flee. Leisurely paced and containing a minimum of dramatic tension, the film is nevertheless full of challenge: the gender contrast between the two young children in the tale, as the boy is taught a trade while the girl (whose mimicry of her teacher's raspy singing is eerily on point) is schooled in the traditions of her culture; the image of a dark-skinned, nappy-rooted girl holding a blond doll as her own hair is braided; endless stretches of beige desert as a backdrop for vibrantly colored clothes flapping on the line. Keep the film's title in mind as you watch, and it all begins to make sense.

Hip-hop is well-represented at the festival, in features and shorts from around the world. But while Marcos Antonio Miranda's much-hyped Big Pun: Still Not a Player (USA), intended as a tribute to the late rapper, succeeds in mapping out its subject's abusive childhood, filling in the blanks of his psyche, the film gives no real analysis—and almost no specimens—of his work. Instead, when it comes to his music, it offers a series of gushing, uncritical talking heads: friends, family and journalists. More damaging, though, is the portrait of Pun, the man, that emerges. As we're shown home-video footage of him coldcocking his wife in the face with a gun and are told by subject after subject that such abuse was a common occurrence, such sympathy as we may have for him evaporates. The most real moment in the film comes when his widow, Liza, says repeatedly that she loved him, but also admits, "It was more bad times than good. I been hit, punched, gun-clapped. It's just crazy, but that's how shit is. I'm relieved now that he's gone."

High points of the festival so far have included Alain Gomis' L'Afrance (Senegal/France), a searing look at an African immigrant's experiences with racism and poverty in Paris, experiences worsened through the choices he makes in dealing with already difficult circumstances; Raoul Peck's Profit and Nothing But (Haiti), which explores the consequences of the unbridled embrace of capitalism in our everyday lives; Shari Frilot's short experimental film Strange & Charmed (USA), a funky, charming urban sci-fi essay on female sexuality from preadolescence through pre-menopause; Alexander Abela's Makibefo (UK/Madagascar), Macbeth reworked through African mythology and set in a fishing village in Madagascar; and the chance to see classics and rarities like Jonathan Demme's Beloved, Ousmane Sembene's Faat Kine, Larry Clark's Passing Through and Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger on the big screen.

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