San Francisco Black Film Festival

Dennis Harvey June 7, 2007

Just nine years’ vintage makes the San Francisco Black Film Festival a relative newcomer by Bay Area standards. But in terms of programmatic diversity and premiering new work, it’s got old-soul depth.

It’s also got a heightened audience-friendliness signaled by edition 2007’s shift to two consecutive weekends. As opposed to prior schedules running through the workweek — making many screenings (as at myriad other local film festivals) difficult to access for regular dayjobbers.

This year, the festival primarily occupies center-stage/screen at Theatre Artaud, the south-of-Mission venue that’s long harbored avant-garde performance…and has plenty of street parking nearby. Additional screenings will be at the south-of-Market Museum of the African Diaspora and the Western Addition’s African American Art and Culture Complex.

Bracketing the festival are two already acclaimed feature films. Opening nighter (Thursday June 7) “The Front Line” centers on a Congolese musician (Eriq Ebouaney) in Ireland whose quest for asylum is complicated by the past he’s hiding — involvement in his homeland’s genocidal horrors. Sunday June 17 closer “Premium” is a reportedly very funny showbiz satire-cum-romantic comedy about a struggling actor (Dorian Missick) wasting away in stereotypical bit parts and a dead-end dayjob. His fate takes an abrupt left turn once he learns his ex-fiancee is about to marry Mr. Do-Right — prompting a desperate lunge at winning her back.

“Premium’s” wannabe thespian protagonist may not be having much professional luck. Still, these days some of the world’s biggest movie stars are African American men — Eddie Murphy and Will Smith, for starters. Opportunity hasn’t been so equal for black women. The wonderful Queen Latifah has yet to have a real breakthrough film. Even an Oscar couldn’t get Halle Berry the pick of quality projects. (Then again, you could say the same for Hilary Swank.) You gotta go where the work is — and for someone like the beautiful and personable Vanessa Williams, that means movies like “And Then Came Love,” which is surely headed straight to cable.

Nothing wrong with that, really, or with “Love,” which offers a solid, old-fashioned romantic comedy framework in which to shine her star quality. Williams plays Julie Davidson, successful senior reporter for a New York City magazine. Having long given up on finding Mr. Right — she’s currently involved with a photojournalist who’s just Mr. Pretty Okay — Julie decided to raise a child on her own. Now little Jake is an enfant terrible with anger issues and learning problems at school. Both her mother (the inimitable Eartha Kitt) and a child psychologist suggest what Jake needs is a strong male influence. In other words, a Dad.

Scoffing Julie decides the problems must be hereditary. So she uses a private investigator to track down the anonymous sperm donor who was Jake’s “father.” Thus she meets Paul (Kevin Daniels), who really was what the paperwork claimed — an Ivy League law school student. Only since then he’s dropped out to become an out-of-work wannabe actor mired in self-pity. Like the “loser” impregnator of a “winner” heroine in current comedy “Knocked Up,” however, Paul proves redeemable.

Formulaic yet charming, pro-family values (it’s not exactly affirming of single-parenthood) but not obnoxious about it, director Richard Shenkman’s “Love” earns affection mostly because Williams puts it across with such style and confidence.

A very different female-centered narrative is provided by Sacha Parisot’s “La Rebelle.” Shot in creamy pastels highlighting a Haitian lifestyle rarely glimpsed in movies — that of the black economic upper-class — it’s a well crafted “Parents mind your children!”-style cautionary tale. Workaholic executive Carl (Reginald Lubin) has given daughter Lorraine (Nathalie Ambroise) everything in the material sense, save a mother and his full attention. Yet on the cusp of 18 she’s bratty and irresponsible.

Her behavior only worsens when dad becomes involved with white businesswoman Elizabeth (Nadine Stephenson). Jealous petulance leads Lorraine to toy with drugs and drink, toss away her virginity, dress like a streetwalker, etcetera. Needless to say, this road is leading to ruin — or at least a wake-up call. “La Rebelle” is restrained enough to avoid becoming a 21st-century “Reefer Madness,” however.

There’s contrasting testosterone aplenty in “Slave Warrior: The Beginning,” writer-director-producer-star Oliver Mbamara’s U.S./Nigerian co-production. Awkward in its initial NYC sequences, the movie gets better once it thrusts its contemporary student protagonist (Mbamara) into a prolonged “dream” flashback where he’s a young African captured by slave-traders a “long time ago in the past.” Escaping, he must flee through the jungle trying to save himself and his village from brutal extinction and deportation.

Though rougher around the edges, “Slave Warrior” is similar to Mel Gibson’s recent “Apocalypto” in its vivid outdoor locations and violent kill-or-be-killed adventure focusing on a tribesman on the run from slavers. Here, too, many oppressors are part of the oppressed: Africans aid the colonialist invaders through either sheer opportunism or because they’ve been blackmailed into cooperation in exchange for the promised safety of their own tribes.

“Slave Warrior” is evidently serious about being “The Beginning,” a cliffhanger finish suggesting Ike’s travails are far from over. If it goes the distance, it will be fascinating to see the series work its way forward a la “Roots.”

For an up-to-date take on African American masculinity in a context of institutionalized political repression, there’s E. Raymond Brown’s “Will the Real Pimps and Hos Please Stand Up!” This “docudrama satire” mixing staged, archival-footage, and interview sequences (the latter with commentators from Dr. Cornel West to Ice T and Fillmore Slim) re-interprets classic academic power-dynamic theories in “Ghetto Physics” terms. Which means Brown simply spins traditional exploiter/exploited, capitalist/worker analyses of society into a blunt pimp/ho analogy. It’s one that grows tiresome fast (and notably gets very little input from female interviewees), but is sure to spur useful discussion.

When Brown says “I felt like I was being talked to like some dumb little ho who didn’t know what was going on” re: Prez Bush shoving his Iraq gameplan down our throats, one can sympathize with the basic sentiment. But still, did it need to be put in such sexist terms? Race and class remain huge inequities in American life — ones Brown duly scrutinizes, while at the same time flippantly using booty-call imagery. As if gender didn’t really matter in the bigger picture. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Glancing elsewhere through SFBFF’s schedule, likely highlights include the femme-focused Jamaican reggae/dance hall documentary “Queens of Sound.” “The Clinton 12” chronicles those dozen black teenagers who bravely integrated a Tennessee high school in 1956. Oscar-nominated “Tupac: Resurrection” director Lauren Lazin’s new “Last Days of Left Eye” profiles tragically plane-crash-killed former TLC rapper Lisa Lopes, who left behind a great deal of video diary footage she shot herself.

Youth, music, inspirational, family, political and multinational themes resound throughout SFBFF’s 9th annual schedule.

Go to for full schedule and program info.

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