From Minneapolis to Mali

The operative word for this year's Twin Cities International Black Film Festival is diversity. Features new and old, foreign and domestic mix with an array of short films and panel discussions, all of it spread over 11 days at five different venues. The community spirit of this series is evident not only in the wealth of titles but in curator dejunius hughes's bid to bring them to a variety of neighborhoods, from Macalester College and the Galtier 4 Theaters in St. Paul to Sabathani Community Center, Oak Street Cinema, and the Parkway Theatre in Minneapolis.

The festival begins Friday at 7:30 p.m. with a screening of Kasi Lemmons's widely acclaimed drama Eve's Bayou at the Parkway, introduced by one of its stars, Roger Guenveur Smith. Other films in the fest's first week include the 10 features (and two shorts) reviewed below--among them movies from Mali (Guimba) and New Zealand (Utu), as well as the classic Black Orpheus, the visionary Daughters of the Dust, and Spike Lee's prototypical Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, his brilliant student film from 1983.

--Rob Nelson

Daughters of the Dust
What Dances With Wolves thought it was doing, this 1992 debut feature by Julie Dash really does: That is, it re-creates a lost time and vanished society in a manner as close as possible to that culture's own forms of expression. Depicting the turn-of-the-century Gullah culture of Georgia's Sea Islands (an independent African-American society made up of freed slaves and consequently closer to African roots), the film's plot has a large Gullah clan, the Peazant family, gathering for a reunion before most of its members leave the island to live on the mainland. Why they're moving is never explained, but basically what happens is that the women of this family share, contrast, and argue their various opinions about what they want to keep of their birthright. Middle-class ambition? Ibo tribal fetishes? Islam? Or evangelistic Christianity? As Dash has written that her model is the discursive oral tradition of the African griot rather than First World literature, the film is told in poetic phrases, strong dialects, and little bits of barely related scenes. To be honest, I had trouble keeping track of who was whom, and where each woman was coming from in the first place. But at the same time, I couldn't stop watching--because of the compelling acting and the intense visual and musical richness of the tapestry Dash has woven. (Phil Anderson) Parkway Theatre, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Galtier 4 Theaters, Sunday, September 27 at 2 p.m.

Alma's Rainbow
Clichés are the main ingredient in this languorous female character study. Rainbow (Victoria Gabriella Platt) is a teenage dancer with hopes of becoming a "real star" like her aunt Ruby (cliché #1). The 40-ish Ruby (Mizan Nunes) has wandered back into town after 10 years, trailed like some wannabe Josephine Baker by a collection of boxes, gowns, jewels, and gloves, and a compulsion for butchering the French language (#2). She claims she's rehearsing a show but we're not so sure there is any show (#3). Still, she fills Rainbow's head with a lot of dreamy showbiz BS, which angers Rainbow's mother, Alma (#4). You see, Alma (Kim Weston-Moran) was once part of a sexy sister act with Ruby, "the Flamingo Sisters," but gave up her dreams for the sake of her child and the security of a beauty parlor, which she runs in her house (#5). But beneath that long-suffering façade, Alma is a woman smoldering at her sexual peak and ready to start sinking dowels with the neighborhood handyman (#6). In spite of some nice comic bits and a good heart, this film suffers from poor acting, worse singing, and unforgivable costume design that makes the performers appear even more uncomfortable on-screen than they already are. (Kate Sullivan) Parkway Theatre, Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

Black Orpheus
"There was an Orpheus before me. Perhaps there'll be another." Thus the hero of this black Orpheus announces his tale as both mythic and ordinary. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival (where it managed to beat Truffaut's The 400 Blows) and credited with having singlehandedly brought bossa nova music onto the world stage, director Marcel Camus's vibrantly colored, Rio de Janeiro-set update of the ancient Greek legend is a truly pioneering work of pomo cinema: For one thing, the guitar-playing streetcar conductor of the title (Breno Mello) woos his Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) by telling her the story of "their" doomed love from thousands of years ago. And although Orpheus's fiancée (Lourdes de Oliveira) seems a mere jealous mortal, Death probably isn't just a guy in a carnival costume but a harbinger of the real thing--or both. As Camus stacks layers of realism and allusion atop an aesthetic that owes equally to ethnography and melodrama, the question becomes: How great is the film's power of magic and metaphor? Is it strong enough to raise the dead? Maybe not--and yet, as life (and cinema) goes on, another Orpheus is no doubt on the way. (Nelson) Parkway Theatre, Sunday at 6 p.m.

The Keeper
In this aptly claustrophobic indie set in and around a Brooklyn prison, the title character is a brooding corrections officer named Paul (Giancarlo Esposito), who meets Jean Baptiste (Isaach de Bankole), a Haitian immigrant in jail on the charge of rape. Paul believes in the innocence of this humble and charming man, and, after saving him from attempted suicide, he pays Jean Baptiste's bail and offers to put him up, despite the fierce objections of his schoolteacher wife (Regina Taylor). Then, as in film noir, three becomes a crowd--although it isn't clear who's the odd man out, or whether it's merely Paul's paranoia that's to blame. (This queasy love triangle gives The Keeper shades of Caught.) Meanwhile, as flashbacks reveal Paul's ambivalent feelings about his Haitian father, the immigrant's arrival forces the prison guard to deal with the part of himself that he has kept locked away. Making his directorial debut, former prison psychiatrist Joe Brewster conveys his firsthand knowledge with authority even when his plot twists feel contrived. And if Brewster's budgetary constraints consign The Keeper to a small-screen visual style, his script contains the sort of complicated ideas about race, nationality, and class that would never fit the confines of a TV cop show. (Nelson) Parkway Theatre, Sunday at 8 p.m.; and Galtier 4 Theaters, Monday, September 28 at 7 p.m.

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