The films in the 17th Annual African Diaspora International Film Festival do what much media and even the public school system fail to do: educate. Through robust programming that gives meaning to the word “diverse,” the selections in this year’s festival illuminate the experiences of those living in the African diaspora around the world. The New York-based husband-and-wife programmers, Reinaldo Barroso-Spech and Diarah N’Daw-Spech, have chosen more than a dozen films that, through a variety of modes and genres, further dimensionalize already complex issues specific to those living in these communities. Naturally, documentary lends itself to this mission, though several narrative features and a short fiction add to the plenitude of information.
Some of the documentaries tackle more famous subjects. In the opening-night film, Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story, Art Jones explores the series of events in 1970 that led up to Muhammad Ali’s first match after he was stripped of his heavyweight championship, then blacklisted due to his having famously refused to serve in the Vietnam war. In The Robeson Effect, director Juney Smith, who appeared alongside one of his subjects, Danny Glover, in Lethal Weapon 2, details the longtime friendship between Glover and actor Ben Guillory, who together started the Robey Theatre Company in Los Angeles, named after the great Black performer Paul Robeson.
Other selections tackle historical events. The centerpiece film, Cash Michaels’s Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten, provides a comprehensive overview of the events surrounding the firebombing of a grocery store in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1971. Nine Black men and one white woman were convicted of arson; the bombing, never conclusively proven to have been carried out by the ten, followed mounting tensions in the community that culminated in a boycott of the local high schools.
Grouped together as a sidebar entitled “Caribbean Leaders,” the docudramas Catch a Fire (directed by Menelik Shabazz) and Barrow: Freedom Fighter (directed by Marcia Weekes) portray the lives and activist efforts of two Caribbean heroes. The first, made in 1995 (making it one of only two films in the festival that could be considered a revival screening), recalls the struggles of Paul Bogle, who led the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion, a protest against continued injustice following the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, which resulted in debate back in England over the governance of colonized people. The latter, narrated by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, tells the story of Errol Walton Barrow, who led Barbados to independence from Great Britain in 1966 and became the country’s first prime minister.
Dieudo Hamadi’s Kinshasa Makambo, one of my favorite films in the festival, documents a contemporary struggle in a decidedly forceful and necessarily straightforward manner. It follows three young men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they protest against then-president Joseph Kabila, who at one point intended to circumvent the country’s constitution, which was only adopted in 2006, and run for a third term. The young men—Ben, Jean Marie, and Christian—face their own obstacles, from exile to imprisonment, and have their own ideologies regarding contemporary politics in their country. The most impactful parts of the film are scenes that document gunfire between the police and the protesters. They’re jarring, to be sure, but necessary in terms of accurately reflecting the struggles faced by this particular resistance.
Burning an Illusion, directed by Menelik Shabazz (who also directed Catch a Fire), is the other of the two noncontemporary films in the festival, from 1981, and another of my favorites. Part of the program “Windrush: The Black Experience in the UK,” the film follows Pat (Cassie McFarlane), a young Black woman in London, over the course of her relationship with Del (Victor Romero) and her introduction to radical politics. Told from Pat’s perspective, what initially seems to be a film about a contentious relationship between two young people evolves in tandem with its characters, symbolizing a shift from preoccupations associated with white life to those of Black life. Shabazz’s direction is smart and subtle, and the entire cast, especially McFarlane and Romero, give thoughtful performances.
Other films in the festival include Lorna Holder and Yvonne Deutschman’s documentary Hanging Out: Youth Culture Then and Now, about youth culture in London over the decades; Out of Chaos, An Artist’s Journey in Haiti, featuring the artist Pascal Giacomini as he documents his process making sculptures for the Ghetto Biennale of Port au Prince, as well as the stunning work of other Haitian artists; Clare Anyiam-Osigwe’s romantic comedy No Shade; Jorge Pérez Solano’s Black Mexicans, a drama set in the Afro-Mexican community in Oaxaca; Jean Phillipe Gaud’s crowd-pleasing feature Tazzeka, about an undocumented Moroccan chef in Paris; the thriller Rattlesnakes (directed by Julius Amedume), based on Graham Farrow’s eponymous play; and the closing-night film, the Chicago- made family drama Thicker Than Blood (directed by Anthony L. Williams), which is accompanied by the short film Made in His Image (directed by 12-year-old Anah Ambuchi), about a Black girl who is bullied by her classmates. There’s much to learn from these films, and the programmers have organized the festival in such a way that the lessons build upon one another. v