The 16th annual African Diaspora Film Festival (Nov. 28 through Dec. 14, 2008), screening in New York at various venues including Anthology Film Archives, the Thalia Theatre and the Teachers College at Columbia University, features 88 films from 14 countries. Actor Giancarlo Esposito makes his directorial debut with the festival’s opening-night film Gospel Hill, which concerns the controversial gentrification of Julia, a southern town still gripped by its violent Jim Crow past. The town remains haunted by the assassination of 60’s civil rights activist Peter Malcolm (Samuel L. Jackson, in black-and-white flashbacks), a crime which was never solved, mostly due to the non-action of the bigoted former sheriff Jack Herrod (Tom Bower), who continues to refer to black people as “niggers” without shame.
Malcolm’s brother John (Danny Glover, good as always), has retreated from activism and involvement with his community, dwelling in despairing cynicism. He refuses to join the protest against the construction of a golf course that will displace the residents of Gospel Hill, a black neighborhood in Julia. This protest is spearheaded by John’s wife Sarah (Angela Bassett), who continually exhorts John to pull himself out of his existential funk. Sarah’s nemesis is Dr. Ron Palmer (Giancarlo Esposito), a rapacious real-estate profiteer who is a fervent supporter of the development. Palmer’s bored wife (Nia Long) is having an affair with Jack Herrod’s son Carl (Adam Baldwin), while Carl’s brother Joel (Taylor Kitsch) strives to distance himself as far as possible from his racist father’s legacy. Joel’s relationship with Rosie (Julia Stiles), a very earnest and liberal schoolteacher, is strained when she realizes who his father is.
The cast here is very good, including Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, who impresses in his brief scenes as one of the townspeople, and Esposito proves to be a perfectly adequate director. The problem is with the flat script by Jeff Stacy, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon and Terrell Tannen, which is oddly lacking in dramatically compelling conflict. Every problem is solved as if by magic: the infidelity in Palmer’s marriage is never discovered or even remarked upon, the unrepentant racist ex-sheriff suddenly sees the error of his ways, and even the confrontation between John Malcolm and his father’s killer feels anticlimactic. Ultimately, Gospel Hill doesn’t go anywhere stylistically or thematically we haven’t already been, and the “struggle still continues” conclusion, instead of being inspiringly uplifting, feels truncated and incomplete.
Sean Baker’s Prince of Broadway is by far the most impressive of the festival films available for preview. Baker’s last film Take Out examined the milieu of Chinese take-out deliverymen, and his latest film is set in another environment populated by immigrants, this time the world of street sales of counterfeit and stolen handbags, sneakers, and other merchandise in Manhattan’s garment district. Many of the hustlers and hawkers of these goods are illegal African immigrants and Prince of Broadway focuses on one with the ironic moniker of Lucky (Prince Adu), who lures customers into a storefront owned by Lebanese Armenian Levon (Karren Karaguilian), where they are taken through a secret door in the back of the store, where much cajoling, hustling, haggling, and negotiation occurs. These two immigrants’ lives are a story of stark contrasts: Levon lives in a plush apartment, where he regularly fights with his flighty wife Nadia (Victoria Tate), while Lucky sleeps on the floor in a bare apartment where he must share the bathroom with other tenants. Despite his spartan existence, in which he must look over his shoulder for police and keep a low profile so as not to alert immigration authorities, Lucky prides himself on his skills as a hustler, and he regularly enjoys the company of his extremely patient and beautiful girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga).
Lucky’s life is thrown into chaos when ex-girlfriend Linda (Kat Sanchez) presents him with an infant son (Aiden Noesi) that she insists is his and that he must look after for a couple of weeks while she takes care of unspecified life business. As the two weeks stretch to a much longer time, Lucky must juggle this unwanted responsibility while he goes about his hustling workday. Baker, who co-wrote the film with producer Darren Dean and also shot and edited, has clearly studied this world carefully and perceptively, and it shows in every frame. The restless camerawork stalks its characters Dardenne Brothers-style, beautifully rendering the desperation and precariousness of all of these characters’ lives, which can easily be shattered in an instant. Prince of Broadway traffics in the New York neorealist style that is a hallmark of the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), another independent filmmaker who creates rough-hewed yet aesthetically dynamic films featuring the sort of characters that exist under most people’s noses yet are usually invisible. Also similarly to Bahrani, Baker allows his actors here to improvise their dialog, which also adds to the freshness and urgency of the piece.
The question mark at the end of the title of Philippe Diaz’s documentary The End of Poverty? perfectly encapsulates the stance of the film towards its subject, and its depiction of this as an elusive, if not impossible goal. A despairing litany of the origins and current state of the massive inequality between rich and poor in the world, this film systematically lays its facts and statistics before us, buttressed with a gallery of talking heads, including Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, and stentorian narration by Martin Sheen. A globe-trotting portrait of despair, from the silver mines of Bolivia and the gold mines of Brazil to the swamps and tea fields of Kenya, the film exhaustively explains the origins of how the labor of the poorest countries subsidizes the richest, and the legal and social structures that have kept these circumstances in an ossified stasis. That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but … any solutions, people? Any insights into how to change things? You will search in vain for any of that in Diaz’s film. While The End of Poverty? is impressively filmed and put together, it ultimately is an unenlightening, earnest “eat your spinach” documentary that you leave in a depressed state about the world’s fate. We go all around the world only to end up exactly where we began. Presumably, any talk of actual remedies will be reserved for post-screening discussions, of which there will be one on Dec. 10 at Cowin Center, Columbia University.
Youssef Chahine’s final film Chaos (co-directed with Khaled Youssef, who took over the reins as Chahine was ailing; Chahine died this past July) exhibits all the hallmarks of this celebrated Egyptian filmmaker’s work: devastating social critique, outsized drama, and distinctly Egyptian soap-opera theatricality. The villain of the piece is Hatem (Khaled Saleh), a corrupt police chief who regularly takes bribes and treats his prisoners with naked brutality and throws his weight around everywhere. He is obsessed with Nour (Mena Shalaby), a kindhearted teacher who in turn is enamored of Sherif (Youssef El Sherif), the local DA. Sherif is in an ill-advised engagement to Sylvia (Dorra Zarrouk), a woman with loose ways who is the polar opposite of Nour. Chahine paints a panorama of a society gripped by rampant corruption and pervasive injustice. The filmmaking is unabashedly over the top, with loud musical stings at dramatic moments, and the villainy depicted with very little nuance. Realism has no place in this scenario: the prison includes a harem of voluptuous dancing women who parade in front of a hole in the wall separating them from the male prisoners, and there are frequent fantasy sequences that skirt and sometimes cross the line of parody. Hatem is an especially cartoonish character, drooling after and stalking Nour and sniffing her stolen undergarments. The film has a flat and crudely rendered look, which matches the simple morality play that unfolds. Despite all this, Chahine makes his points about the pervasive problems of Egyptian society in unmistakable terms, and the film ends with the rousing sight of the long-terrorized populace rising up to vanquish their oppressors.
For more information on these films and others in the festival, and to purchase tickets, visit the African Diaspora Film Festival’s website.