The San Francisco Black Film Festival

Cheryl Eddy June 12, 2006

The eighth annual San Francisco Black Film Festival (June 6-11) packed over 60 shorts, narratives, and docs into its schedule. Offerings were as varied as a tribute to actor Ernie Hudson, recipient of the fest’s 2006 Trailblazer Award; a South African drama putting a contemporary, urban spin on the life of Jesus (“Son of Man”); and a toe-tapping doc about five former chorus girls still dancing up a storm well into their 80s and 90s (“Been Rich All My Life”).

As programmed by founder and director Ave Montague, SFBFF focuses on independent, mostly U.S.-based directors exploring the African American experience from a wide range of perspectives. In keeping with the fest’s eye toward grouping three or four shorts with each feature, the June 8 screening of “Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood and Rap Music” was preceded by other works addressing both hip hop culture and issues of masculinity: “The ‘N’ Word” (about the controversial word’s cultural transition from slur to slang); “The Pretty Boy Project” (a narrative about a fierce double-dutch duel); and “Bling: Consequences and Repercussions” (which questions why jewelry-happy rappers ignore the bloody origins of African conflict diamonds). The insightful “Beyond Beats and Rhymes” was plagued by video projection problems, stopping and skipping on more than one occasion, but filmmaker Byron Hurt’s passionate, personal investigation into hip hop’s deeply-rooted gender issues (the importance of violent masculinity, the objectification of women, and homophobia chief among them) was still plenty absorbing.

This year’s SFBFF was particularly strong on the documentary front; most selections were geared toward themes of social justice (or injustice, as the case may be). Micah Schaffer’s “Death of Two Sons” travels from the Bronx to Guinea to trace the odd parallels between two young, doomed men: Amadou Diallo (mistakenly, and tragically, gunned down by the NYPD) and Jesse Thyne (a white American Peace Corps volunteer killed in a taxicab crash during his tenure in Diallo’s hometown). Diallo’s murder may have become a cultural touchstone, immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen and others, but the cops who shot him were acquitted of all charges. Meanwhile, the Guinean driver who caused Thyne’s accidental demise served jail time. The film uncorks a striking double-standard approach to punishment, especially when racial issues are involved, and even across international borders: “Imagine if an American were shot 41 times by Guinean police,” asks one of Diallo’s relatives. “Would the American government stay silent?”

A similar brand of frustration also factors heavily in “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and “The Untold Story of Emmett Till,” both of which are straightforward docs (lots of talking heads) that follow drawn-out court cases tainted by racism. The murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till — brutally attacked after innocently whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in 1955 Mississippi — is well-known to students of the Civil Rights movement. The film investigates the 21st century re-opening of the case; it also highlights the quiet heroism of Till’s now-deceased mother, who insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son, knowing the sight of his battered body would make a statement more potent than any speech: “I want the world to see this.”

Compared to Emmett Till, Darryl Hunt may be nearly anonymous. But the Winston-Salem, NC man’s 20-year struggle to overturn a wrongful conviction for the 1984 rape and murder of a white woman is perhaps even more infuriating: his battles are fought by expert lawyers, well-organized grassroots and church efforts, and DNA evidence that seemingly proves his innocence — all to no avail. Multiple all-white juries and even the Supreme Court rule to keep Hunt behind bars; it takes the work of an investigative journalist, who manages to get a lead on the real killer, to finally set Hunt free. “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” may end in victory, but the film also conveys the uneasy feeling that Hunt’s trials, legal and otherwise, are hardly isolated occurrences.

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