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CINEMA Reel stories of fact and fiction from Africa and its diaspora

ED RAMPELL previews a unique global film festival

WITH  over 200 screenings, the 29th Pan-African Film Festival —  the US’s largest of its kind — draws upon 45 countries from Africa and its diaspora which highlight the black experience, with around half the features, documentaries, shorts and cartoons on show by and about African-Americans.
The festival is Los Angeles-based but most of the films are being screened online from February 28-March 14 and they include Royal Kennedy Rodgers and Kathy McCampbell Vance’s non-fiction biopic Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R Williams Story.

Breaking the colour bar, Revere Williams was to architecture what Tiger Woods is to golf. In addition to being the first black to win prestigious awards and join professional organisations, from Tinseltown’s Golden Age on, this talented African-American designed homes for actors such as Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, William Holden and, later, Denzel Washington.

Although his stellar work earned Williams the nickname “Architect of the Stars” and he drafted blueprints for many prestigious public buildings in LA and beyond, this documentary exposes the era’s racism.

While he could afford to, due to restrictive zoning codes, Williams was forbidden from living in wealthy neighbourhoods containing housing whose architectural plans he’d created. Nor was he  permitted to eat with whites while working on the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The focus of Abby Ginzberg’s documentary Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me is another African-American trailblazer. In 1946, Lee was born in Texas at a time when segregation still separated the races and her family moved north seeking greener pastures.

Yet in California, Lee still encountered racism and suffered hard times. The Black Panther Party (BPP), which originated in 1966 in Oakland, inspired Lee’s early activism and she became involved in the BPP’s free breakfast programmes.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black Congresswoman, persuaded Lee to pursue reform instead of revolution and the latter became a delegate for Chisholm’s presidential campaign at the 1972 Democratic Convention.

She rose through party ranks, serving as chief-of-staff for Oakland’s lefty Congressman Ron Dellums, eventually succeeding him in 1998.

But shortly after September 11, Lee faced her greatest challenge when she courageously became Congress’s only member to vote against the Authorisation for Use of Military Force, giving President Bush and all future presidents sweeping war-making powers, which she bravely denounced as “too broad” and “crazy.”

If Hollywood’s 1931 crime classic Little Caesar put the US’s immigrant experience into context, South African director Angus Gibson’s Back of the Moon, which he co-wrote, frames the gangster picture in the grim reality of apartheid.

It’s set in 1958 Johannesburg, where Badman (Richard Lukunku) is the ruthless mob boss of the vicious Vipers, who intimidate the residents of the Sophiatown area of the city.

Most of the action takes place the night before the police raid which will forcibly drive all blacks from the neighbourhood, so that whites can take it over. Under apartheid’s racist policy, the film asks: Who really are the criminals?

Set in Rio de Janeiro in a not-too-distant tomorrow, director and co-writer Lazaro Ramos’s dystopian Executive Order also has an ethnic cleansing theme — but on a much grander scale.

Brazil, of course, has an enormous black population and its white elite realises that instead of paying reparations for slavery, which wasn’t abolished until 1888, it’s cheaper to give so-called high melanin people one-way tickets to Africa.

In this futuristic fascistic state — think Orwell on steroids — riot police capture Brazilian blacks for coercive mass deportations with layer Antonio (Anglo-Brazilian actor Alfred Enoch) leading the resistance in what’s a provocative film.

Screenings online:


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