Thursday, June 05, 2008

10th Annual San Francisco Black Film Festival

I was running typically late; too early for carpool to be over as I crossed the Bay Bridge, but too late to make it to Sundance Cinema by 7 p.m. The garage was full when I arrived at Fillmore and Post, but when I turned the corner, there was a parking spot near the Boom Boom Room. Hallelujah! I parked, and then dashed over to the theatre, got my ticket and hurried into Theatre 3. The door was still open...all the seats taken except those on the front row, where I gladly sank into one. I sat right next to a friend from the San Francisco Art Commission, and then the film started--7:30 perfect timing. (I missed the short "Fillmo;" it plays again at Yoshi's 1300 Fillmore, Sunday, June 8, 2 p.m.)

"Shoot the Messenger," directed by Ngozi Onwurah (2006)was the opening night feature. What a great film! I see why Ave was determined to get it for her San Francisco Bay Area audience. Kevin, from Medium Rare TV, said the film was banned in Britain. BBC produced it, but didn't like it's content apparently and stopped distribution, and access. It's an underground classic!

There are so many layers to this story about a black man who wants to do the right thing for black youth. He gives up his career in computer technology to teach in a school where he is the only black man, the black students seventy percent in a student population of 800. He has no support system and his kids are adolescents with a lot of energy, i.e., "brats." Joe tries to cope--he keeps the black kids in perpetual detention--a strategy which is misunderstood. It is the only way some parents will ever come to school.

Then there is Jamal.

Jamal's mother is tired of coming to the school to collect him. After publicly humiliating Jamal in class one time too many, then to cap it off Joe later gives the kid a double detention that same afternoon, when Jamal threatens one of his's like waiting to the kettle to stop shaking to look for water damage...what degree are the burns?

It's a wacky situation that would come to haunt Joe.

Imagine, leaving a high paying job to teach inner city youth after attending a meeting where Black Brits are bemoaning the absence of black male role models in the public schools, only to get set up by such youth and lose one's career and reputation. It's no wonder Joe says as the film opens: "Everything bad that has ever happened to me is because of black people. Fuck all black people!" He takes can of spray paint and writes it on the school wall after he is "sacked," as the Brits call it, when someone is fired.

Joe's sense of humor and way of seeing the world is one most black people in his life don't agree with. Joe is not Mr. Black power, he's just a man who cares and wants to help and gets publicly humiliated for his efforts...but then again, so does Jamal. Over 18 months Joe has an opportunity to reflect on this as Jamal keeps showing up in his life again and again. He's haunted by this kid whom he hates and feels nothing but bitterness towards.

It's almost as if Joe has to walk in Jamal's shoes to know how he contributed to the kid's suffering. "Shoot the Messenger" opens with Joe sitting on his bed telling his audience how he came to hate black people, because as I said, everything bad that ever happened to him, from the broken leg to the loss of his job, was the fault of a black person. In the mental hospital where he ends up, he tries to get the orderly to move him to a room with a white roommate instead of the black one. He even tosses the coin out of his cup a black person tosses in. He even lets a black man bleed to death who is shot in front of him as he lies in the doorway inside his cardboard shelter.

It's deep.

What's deep is the permeation of self-hate messages throughout the film, messages his friend, a elderly church-going black woman from the Caribbean tells her grandkids about their dark skin, their kinky hair and the curse God put on black people, they can't seem to pray their way out of.

After 500 years, Joe says, its a bit much for what he sees as a minor infraction.Joe has many sleepless nights once he claims religion and the black people there, only to find out that they hate black people too. He has trouble with his girlfriend, who eventually can't stand herself when he brings up the childhood trauma associated with her dark skin and nappy hair. Joe tells her she needs to stop pressing her hair and that extensions are the same as pressing.

This extenalizing and thinking his perspective is the only valid perspective is all a means to ignore the fact that he is angry and hurt over what happened to him at the school, when all he was trying to do is help.

The black community, even Joe's family, ridicules and abuse him. His salvation is there with Jamal, who has his own demons to fight--the kid drops out of school and goes to prison, gets out then ends up at the mental hospital.

"Kill the Messenger" is a fable, but a very real fable society adopts, black people adopt, as the reality, whenever we assume someone is not black enough, or there is just one kind of authentic black person. Brian Copeland talks about this in his play and now book.

Kamau Bell's Curve addresses this also in his standup comedy routine. This biased and prejudicial thinking is present in the attitudes of so many people who assume black people are a species (forget people) without any internal, let aloud external variations. In America, we still have a long way to go before we are constitutionally recognized as human beings. It doesn't matter what the laws say, if they are still not inforced. The film Fauberg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, addresses this too. (It screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco.)

The shackles are no longer on our wrists and ankles, they are in our minds and we so readily assume the worse when a teacher like Joe participates, consciously and unconsciously, in the bigotry and racist attitudes that see nothing wrong with a school serving a 70 percent African Brit population, yet the faculty is less than 1 percent.

I think the story and its resolution, which is not really a resolution--just a point along the journey to more exploration of this thing called neocolonialism and residual effects of enslavement and its effects on black self-determination and black self-love, is at the core of these disputes: emotional disconnect and disengagement. Both Jamal and Joe's feelings were hurt.

Joe was no Sidney Poitier in "To Sir with Love," but his kids had a lot in common with Poitier's protagonist. "Sir's" kids were white, Joe's black. Both sets poor and disenfranchised. One film is a classic and the other banned. Interesting parallels. Why is it okay for a lone black teacher to civilize a class of white brats and when a black teacher tries to do the same, he is charged with a felony?

Joe didn't hit the kid, just pushed him slightly, a tap...a tap. "Kill the Messenger" is also a poke at the way laws governing children's rights give children power their guardian's, like Jamal's mother, can abuse.

"Kill the Messenger" reminded me of James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, where the jazz musician Sonny's brother, the narrator in the story. "Kill the Messenger" was "Sonny's Blues" meets "Street Soldiers," the Omega Boys Club program. Joe Marshall, Ph.D., co-founder, is also a former classroom teacher in the public schools. The parallels are endless, which is probably why we haven't seen this film around much. Cornelius Moore, California Newsreel, told me he'd seen the film and it left a lasting impression on him as we stood in line later at the reception down the street at Rassela's.

Black men are not welcome in classrooms any more than they are welcome in Western society, but they need to integrate these places where our kids are, anyway. Joe probably would have fared better if he'd had a support network, those folks from AIM HIGH that recruited him should have checked in with him. It's hard being the only one, whether that is a student integrating an all white institution or a teacher in an all white faculty.

He shouldn't have been the lone black teacher, the organization and the community should have pushed for other new hires to diversify and make the faculty more representative of the children served, even if that meant going into the colleges and universities and recruiting.

Day Two, Thursday, June 5
I was running late again, trying to get my grades filed at the college, and I left with just under half-an-hour to get to San Francisco from Alameda. Yes, I know, not possible.

I slipped in on the second to last film, "I Want You," a lovely film directed by Nefertite Nguvu. Shot in black and white, the short film explored the relationship between Lennox Jones, an aspiring novelist and Baldwin Wright--I know, great name right--a charismatic musician. The two meet as Lennox stops by the local cafe for coffee and sees Baldwin at the counter. Their eyes meet, the dialogue in both their heads certainly the walks and talks turn to something Lennox promised herself she would not entertain: love because after the pain of loss before she didn't know if she should trust another man and Baldwin proves she was right to have reservations, yet, sometimes love is stronger than fear.

It was so elegantly shot and the costumes and scenes between the two protagonists were so aesthetically pleasing, each frame remarkable to the film's delicious end.

The film I walked in on, a love story, was "I Used to Love Her." Great film also, even with the technical difficulties near the end when the sound went out and we had to imagine the dialogue. (It wasn't hard.)

I love a good black love story and Ave Montague's SFBFF has the best I've ever seen.
Directed by Mark Harris (USA 2008), the film is about a poet Ramadan El-Amin who meets the famous pop singer, Simee, who has recently returned to Chi town after a stint in Los Angeles where she compromised her moral values to get a break at the top. The bottom would be more accurate...when one realizes how low the singer had to sink to get a contract.

This was six or seven years ago, long before Ramadan comes into her life, yet, one's past certainly has a way of creeping forward into one's future, which is what happens to Simee and Ramadan. Ramadan wants to make her his wife and Simee helps get him a deal with an agency which likes his work and eventually publishes his poetry and secures deals with several artists looking for positive lyrics for their music.

The urban romance, a genre that includes drive-bys, and drug dealing and brothas out to get over on a sister, the crass and stereotypical black men and women, one sees too often on the screen and in the streets, is here in full bloom, but with a twist. Simee's mother and late father shared a love that she saw in Ramadan.

Ramadan's brother sees Simee's former boyfriend, a gangster rap artist, at the golf course. He tells this man about Simee and his brother, then pushes him. It's all bravado; however, when the men are pulled apart, the rap star, pulls up beside the van Ramadan's brother and his two friends are in, pulls out a gun and starts shooting. No one is hurt but this puts Simee in danger and well...the jilted boyfriend, whom Simee's big sister and mom never liked, roughs her up, and then sends Ramadan a tape that ruins their relationship or at least that's what we think when a hurt and shocked Ramadan can't forget or forgive his girl her trespasses, as if he has none himself...but once again, love is the most powerful medicine and what is redemption other than the highest form of love?

I dashed out after "I Used to Love Her," and went to Trader Joe's on Masonic for dinner. Dashed back and drove around looking for a parking spot, found one on Steiner and Post by a homeless spot: shopping carts, cardboard, blankets folded along wall. When I returned at 10:30 p.m. a saw a person sleeping on the sidewalk without a blanket or cushion--must have been really tired to suffer such horrible accommodations.

The evening feature was "Algeny: The Genetic Factor" (USA 2007). Directed by Andrew Burroughs, this film was a mystery about this kid, now adult, Justin Thomas, whose parents were involved in something strange and dangerous. When we meet Justin, a man is contracting a hitman to kill him. What is is, is that Justin has the perfect immune system, his body can fight of all diseases. It was a project his father and a group on international scientists were working on when pharmacutical companies got wind of it and killed Justin father and mother. Dr. Thomas took his son to a friend to save him. All of this is hard for Justin who was raised in foster care to believe as an adult as his friend and doctor, who has been drawing his blood for years, reveals when Justin reports an Asian man following him, a man who beat up his colleague at the cemetary where he works, that his weekly blood drawas were a hoist to keep an eye on him and keep him safe, that he was never sick, rather the healthiest person in the world today.

The algenists who worked with his dad were using the weekly blood samples to develop a syrum to fight viral infections, especially those killing children. It's a great film, I could certainly believe is true. Not that there is a Joe, but that there are medicines available to save lives which are not available becasue the pharmacutical corporations make more money when there is disease and illness.

Micheal Moore's film Sicko addresses much of this. The syrum Justin's father develops is from Kenyan prostitutes who have an immunitiy to HIV. He wants to find out why and does. All the Kenyan women are killed except Justin's mom, who eventually falls in love and marries his dad. But the pharmacutical corporations never forget they are out there and though the parents are killed, Justin life is still a economic liablity they can't allow any longer.

There was another after party, this one at Sheba's Piano Lounge down the street. I needed to get home, so I didn't go. It would have been nice to have a discussion with the filmmakers present at the screenings last night. The director of "I Want You," was present, but she wasn't invited up, nor did the house lights come up when Tamika was speaking. Hopefully, the theatre will work on house light cues.

I'll be at the Healdsburg Friday night, so I'll miss the "Tru Loved," directed by Stewart Wade, with Jasmin Guy, Cynda Williams, Nichelle Nichols, and Bruce Vlanch.
But I'll be back Saturday. I'm trying to figure out if I want to go to the Ethnic Dance Festival for the 2 p.m. matinee. Hard choices, then there is Sunday, June 8,my goodness: Omar Sosa's Afreecanos and John Santos, the closing weekend for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Healdsburg Jazz Festival, SFJAZZ, Ahmad Jamal at Yoshi's San Francisco, Patricia McKissick at 4:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Main Library's Koret Auditorium, and of course week one at the SFBFF.


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