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Monday, March 8, 2021
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: A rousing celebration of Black History Month

Screen Grabs: A rousing celebration of Black History Month

SF Urban Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, an Edward Owens showcase—plus a new release with LaKeith Stanfield as a Panther plant.

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There’s always a lot of relevant programming during Black History Month, but in this hopefully-first-and-last COVID February (March 16 is the one-year anniversary of SF’s initial shutdown), plenty of new streaming content marks the occasion in addition to familiar favorites. Among special events, there’s the already-in-progress 7th SF Urban Film Festival, which is not exclusively devoted to African American subjects or makers, but features a good deal of both. It runs through Sun/21, go here for full program info. 

The day that event ends, pop-up drive-in theater Fort Mason Flix commences a week of pertinent programming beginning that evening with Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’ enchanting The Last Black Man in San Francisco. There will also be an older indie gem, Julie Dash’s 1991 lyrical period piece Daughters of the Dust (Fri/26), and a KQED-sponsored night (Tue/23) of several shorts by local Black artists featuring documentary When the Waters Run Deep, about the Oakland activist performance collective SOL Development. Plus, showings of original Eddie Murphy hit Coming to America (whose sequel is just about to be released), family-friendly Disney ‘toon The Princess and the Frog, and Michael B. Jordan-starring Rocky followup Creed. For Fort Mason Flix’s current schedule and ticket info, go here.

Farther afield, while you’re waiting for the San Francisco Black Film Festival (next scheduled for June 10-13), there’s the Pan African Film Festival, which runs Feb. 28-March 14. The largest US Black film fest is LA-based, but 2021’s expansive array of over 200 titles from 45 countries will necessarily be “virtual,” and accessible online everywhere. It’s also got SF’s own Danny Glover, who co-founded PAFF in 1992, on board as this year’s celebrity ambassador. For full info, go here.

To get that film festival-type feeling in pocketsized form, several local institutions are currently hosting special shorts collections tied if not exclusive to Black History Month. SF Cinematheque and SFMOMA just kicked off a free three-month streaming series titled Assembly of Images: On Histories of Race and Representation. Running through Feb. 28 is Program One: Edward Owens, showcasing works by the NYC-based multidisciplinary queer Black artist whose few films have a kind iconographic intensity and melancholy. Two subsequent programs will focus on experimental makers Christopher Harris and Crystal Z Campbell (throughout March), then Garrett Bradley (April). For more info on the entire series, go here

Likewise emphasizing cinematic African American avant-gardism are the five recent shorts collected in New Labor Movements: Movement IV, Creation Emergence. It’s available currently as an on-site video program at McEvoy Center for the Arts in Dogpatch, and can be streamed via Roxie Virtual Cinema this Tue/16-Thu/16. Exploring “contemporary visions of America and concepts of transnational Blackness,” this frequently arresting program includes Jenn Nikiru’s audiovisual collage of new and archival elements (partly in tribute to Sun Ra) Rebirth Is Necessary, and Terrance Daye’s Cherish, an impressionistic miniature that builds from rural quietude to glimpses of religious ecstasy. 

Its last, most straightforwardly storytelling piece Buck (by Elegance Bratton and Jovan James) would also fit nicely into Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities, a roundup of African-American narrative shorts Roxie Virtual Cinema began hosting as of Feb. 14. Ranging from sendup of an Oprah-esque celebrity (A Hollywood Party) to dramas variously sensual (Nowhere), supernatural (The Black Banshee), polygamous (Love in Submission) and COVID-conscious (Pandemic Chronicles), it scores most mightily with the comedy home run of Zora Bikangaga’s Auntie Zariyah. In that last, a stand-up comedian on tour discovers his previously unknown Seattle “aunt” is an alarmingly precocious 12-year-old social media influencer. For deets on the full Gaze program, go here.

Among new feature-length films of particular interest this month, probably the most high-profile as well as justifiably acclaimed arrival is Judas and the Black Messiah. Shaka King’s movie (which released to HBO Max as well as available theaters last Friday) may well be the best screen dramatization of the Black Panther Party saga to date, perhaps in part because it doesn’t try to tell that whole complicated, nation-spanning story. Instead, it focuses on the organization’s Illinois chapter, and how the embedding of an FBI informant ultimately enabled a middle-of-the-night Chicago Police raid that killed leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out). That culminated the Panthers’ harassment at the hands of authorities all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who seemed downright obsessed with them. 

But the real central figure here is that Federal snitch, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an apolitical street hustler more or less blackmailed into infiltrating the group (he became its Security Captain) in lieu of a prison sentence for various petty crimes. While we get a fair gander at the Panthers’ ideological stances and community programs, the film’s emphasis is on this relentless effort to undermine the Panthers and, by extension, the Black Power and civil rights movements in general. O’Neal is seen vanishing down a Kafkaesque pit of betrayal and peril, with even his bribe-passing FBI minder (Jesse Plemons) eventually somewhat horrified at the extent to which the agency will play dirt. Their tricks did not exclude straight-up assassination, or engineering the murder of innocents just to heighten actvists’ paranoia. 

Judas is not simplistically laudatory towards all aspects of the Panthers. But it makes very clear the extreme prejudice with which our government’s operatives worked to entrap and eradicate them, far beyond whatever real or imaginary threat they posed to the societal status quo. In addition to the potency of its historical chapter and vividly acted personalities, the film is also an exceptional piece of craftsmanship, with a dynamic soundtrack and strong work by Steve McQueen’s usual cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.

One of the bitterest pills of the 21st century has been the realization that, with the original Civil Rights Movement era now over half a century behind us, life has improved so little for so many Black people. If anything, numerous social and political forces of late have striven to turn back the clock to Jim Crow days. One particularly sympathetic illustration of that continuing uphill struggle is Davy Rothbart’s 17 Blocks, which plays the Roxie and CinemaSF’s virtual cinemas as of Fri/19. Its 96 minutes are culled from 1000+ hours of footage shot over two decades’ course. He began videotaping Sanford-Durant family when he met nine-year-old Emmanuel and 15-year-old Smurf playing hoops in 1999. Soon they were also filming themselves, as the brothers, sister Denice, and their mother Cheryl moved from one home to another within one of southeast Washington DC’s most violence-plagued neighborhoods. 

It’s a verité epic in which it often seems like things will never get better, as Cheryl perpetually finds excuses to maintain her addictions, Smurf can’t seem to stay out of trouble with the law, and the arrival of grandchildren adds to adults’ treading-water desperation. It’s not an environment in which self improvement seems readily achievable, and when the worst thing imaginable occurs, it pitilessly snuffs out the one figure here who’d seemed most likely to rise above. Nonetheless, 17 Blocks does offer eventual hope for positive change, despite the fact that this family has had the deck heavily stacked against successfully conquering theirs since Day One. 

Moving beyond African American experience, three more new features provide different angles on Black culture and politics abroad.  

CinemaSF is streaming the two that are documentaries, Everything: The Real Thing Story (already available) and Softie (as of Tue/16). The first is Simon Sheridan’s portrait of the act that became the very first homegrown, all-Black band to top the British charts. They started in the early ’60s as doo-wop group The Chants, duly giggling a few times with the pre-fame Beatles. By the Me Decade they’d morphed into The Real Thing, finally achieving major success (albeit not in the US) with their Commodores-Earth Wind & Fire-esque danceable smooth soul in 1976.

Their string of hits ran out a few years later, but they survived that and other challenges (including a key member’s drug issues), remaining a big UK nostalgia act. Everything has too little vintage performance footage and too much latterday talking (worse, by people who don’t have much interesting to say); it might better have done the job in 30 minutes than 90. Still, this is a worthwhile musical-history footnote, particularly for those who’d like to explore every nook and cranny of the original disco era.

Sam Soko’s Softie captures a very different climb, that of political activist Boniface Mwangi’s run for Parliament in Kenya, which boasts Africa’s fastest-growing economy but also one of its most dismally corrupt governments. A former photojournalist, he’s a charismatic and inspirational figure in his opposition-candidate campaign. The state of elections is such here that many citizens fully expect to be bribed for their votes. Running a platform against such skullduggery, Mwangi attracts death threats that force his wife and children out of the country for some months. 

That’s before the head of the nation’s digital voting system is murdered, not to mention an election day marked by violence and shuttered polls. Then there’s the uncovered meddling of UK “political consulting firm” Cambridge Analytica, that loyal pal to Donald Trump and neocolonialists everywhere. At the fadeout, the mere fact that our protagonist remains alive must be taken as a happy ending of sorts. Shot over several years’ course, Softie doesn’t necessarily provide a 360-degree view of Kenyan politics, or even its hero (who attracted some controversy himself in the last couple years), but what we do get is pretty eye-opening. 

Finally, there’s the imaginative fiction of Dan Moss’ arresting UK/Uganda coproduction Imperial Blue. It follows Hugo (Nicolas Fagerberg), a globe-trotting white party boy and ne’er-do-well deep in hock to a London dealer after his smuggling plans go south in Mumbai. So he traipses off to Africa, hoping to score mysterious blue herbal substance that reportedly “makes you see the future,” gaining a wary ally in cash-needy villager Kisakye (Esther Tebandeke). 

Though it played SF’s own horror-tilted Another Hole in the Head festival a couple months ago, this unusual culture-clash story is low on genre content. It’s handsomely atmospheric and politically charged, however, drumming up suspense of both the hallucinatory and neuvo-hippie-capitalist-gets-his-neocolonialist-just-desserts variety. It memorably takes the measure of a particular kind of traveler you sometimes see messing about in Third World countries, always getting wasted and blundering onto the wrong side of the local law. It releases to US streaming platforms this Mon/15.

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