Friday, August 23, 2013

top four films from Black Harvest Film Festival

For the last few weeks I have been attending the Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Destination: Planet Negro

Tonight I saw Destination: Planet Negro written/directed/starring Kevin Willmott. All of the independent feature-length films I've attended at BHFF have been good; Destination: Planet Negro was the best. D:PN was funny, thoughtful and endearing.

The premise is that in the 1930s, Black intellectual leadership bands together to devise a way to escape the BS in America. The inner circle takes the resources for the project and builds a rocket designed to take Blacks to Mars. George Washington Carver synthesizes a particularly potent fuel from peanuts and sweat potatoes.

The rocket ship becomes a time travel device and delivers the crew to modern Kansas. And much of the humor is based on African-Americans from the 1930s trying to make sense of the modern United States.
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The main reason D:PN worked for me is that the script is written by someone who is smart and wrestling with issues about American society and how Blacks are part of American society. Willmott is not just a film maker, he's an academic at University of Kansas.

In the discussion Willmott made the point that African-American intellectuals generally see America as progressing to something better based on improving conditions for upper-middle-class Blacks. The villain in the movie is a Black character who is a snitch in the 1930s and his great-grandson is akin to Allen West, a Congressman telling the Tea Party what they want to hear.

Willmott astutely observes, the Tea Party appeals to people who want to go back in time. It's at its core a regressive movement that contrasts with the more optimistic and progressive view of African-Americans.

One of the questions asked after the film was what audience D:PN is supposed to appeal to. I suspect it will most appeal to educated politically conscious liberals from all demographics. It will probably resonate will most African-American audiences. I'm curious how viewers who are neither Black nor political take the movie.

The Retrieval

The Retrieval haunts the audience with the bad choices created by the business of recovering slaves in the waning months of the Civil War. A teenage boy (Will) is used by his uncle and a bounty hunter to recover runaway slaves.

The protagonist and his uncle (Marcus) are tasked with recovering a former slave (Nate). Nate is free and living in the North. But Will and Marcus deceive him into thinking he needs to return to see his dying brother.

Marcus is killed as a battle passes by. And Will can't figure how to tell Nate of the deception.
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The Retrieval is exceedingly well executed. I'm sure some would argue it's better than D:PN. For me there were just a couple scenes walking across landscape that dragged just a little bit. Minus that one little issue, this is a damn good movie. It's truly impressive that an independent film maker made a period piece that feels so authentic on a low budget.

BTW, Chris Eska, the writer/director, asked people to like the Facebook page. So, be a sport and like it. Eska said that when theaters are considering independent films, the number of "likes" on FB is one metric considered. And The Retrieval is definitely good enough to get booked at many theaters.

Things Never Said

Things Never Said was made in LA and it's technically really good. For me, the cinematography and technical work was indistinguishable from the studio pictures.

I felt a little guilty about not connecting with the story and protagonist more. I had to ask myself, is it me? Do I have trouble because the protagonist (Kalindra Stepney) is female struggling with her husband, her parents and her lover from a female perspective.

As I write about it, the thing that seemed outa sync for me was that there was more emotional payoff for resolving the conflict with Kalindra's parents than for dealing with either her husband (Ronnie) or her lover (Curtis). Yet there's far more time with Kalindra on the screen with them than with her parents.

Omari Hardwick gives a strong performance as Curtis. I get the impression he's a very versatile actor. Hopefully, he can get the roles that make use of his talent.
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In Search of the Black Knight

In Search of the Black Knight is a documentary that feels more like a video essay than most documentaries. Tamarat Makonnen skillfully fuses interviews with experts, regular folk and comedians to deliver a discussion of dating in the Black community.

And he includes skits and images to make his points with humor. This is done particularly well. If I wanted to make a documentary to make the case for something directly and humorously, I'd contact Makonnen.

Where this documentary fell short for me was that it mostly said stuff I already knew or considered self-evident. That's fine to include, but I wanted a more thoughtful discussion.

The film says people have to deal with racism and sexism in relationship. OK. How? I wanted someone to give a first person account where s/he engaged in self-revelation and made him/herself vulnerable on camera. Or even a more in-depth discussion from one of the therapists/counselors.
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