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

The Keeper
The Keeper

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.

A Soldier's Story
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play, this taut 1984 whodunit takes place during World War II on and around a Louisiana army base, where an investigation into a black sergeant's murder reveals a deep streak of internalized racism in the ranks. The film brims with breakthrough performances (by David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, and Denzel Washington, all of whom acted in the stage version), but it never becomes a showcase for tear-streaked sermonizing. Instead, as a black officer (a stiff but magnetic Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) is sent to solve the mystery, his interviews with the sergeant's men give the film a flashback structure that allows the issues to be carefully turned this way and that. Director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) and screenwriter Charles Fuller (adapting his play) rarely stray from the topic, and yet they pack the film with humorous insights and plenty of atmosphere, helped along by Herbie Hancock's bubbling blues soundtrack. If the movie falls short of classic status, it may be because the dead man, played as a pathetic monster by Adolph Caesar, is a bit too easy to hate. His self-loathing lacks a sense of tragedy--and, therefore, so does the film. (Peter S. Scholtes) Parkway Theatre, Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Friends
Writer-director Elaine Proctor's 1993 film, which depicts the complicated relationship between three young women sharing a Johannesburg house during the late '80s, emphasizes not the good times nor the satisfaction associated with close friendships, but what godawful messes they can be. The film is a bit of a muddle itself--some scenes employ images so indistinct and dialogue so muffled that it's difficult to tell what's going on. With a little viewer patience, however, the essentials do emerge: Sophie (Kerry Fox), an upper-middle-class white librarian who has joined an underground anti-apartheid group, kills two people by planting a bomb in an airport. The resulting fallout tests her bonds with Thoko (Dambisa Kente), a black schoolteacher; and Annika (Michele Burgers), an Afrikaner archaeologist. There's impressive acting throughout, and Proctor does a fine job of conveying the chaotic atmosphere of South Africa in the late stages of apartheid. Still, Friends retains enough narrative rough edges that it ultimately comes off as more of a work in progress than a fully realized endeavor. In that respect, it's like a lot of friendships. (John Pribek) Parkway Theatre, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Guimba: The Tyrant
Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko has firsthand experience with the whims of modern-day despots. The filmmaker opposed the brutal regime of Moussa Traore at his own peril, and in 1995 the government of Alpha Oumar Konare refused to support this, his award-winning political satire. The title character (Issa Traore) is a cold-blooded chief who rules his village with random violence and black magic. Guimba's son Janguine (Lamine Diallo) is a reprehensible lout who makes up for his small stature by lusting after big-bottomed women and half-heartedly mimicking his father's evil ways. It's when Janguine rejects his arranged marriage to the slender Kani (Mouneissa Maiga) in favor of her zaftig mother Meya (Helene Diarra) that Guimba's façade begins to crumble. Watching Guimba, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the whirlwind storyline and barrage of characters, so it's best simply to surrender to the film's exhilarating sense of disorientation. In particular, Sambou the Griot (Habib Dembele) fuels the slapstick hilarity with a lively narrative patter in Bambara and Peul dialects while the virtual explosion of colorful costumes provides an ongoing visual spectacle. (Caroline Palmer) Parkway Theatre, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; and Galtier 4 Theaters, Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m.

Utu
"We all find our sympathies confused," explains an earnest white lieutenant (Kelly Johnson) in the midst of New Zealand's late-19th-century race war. Perhaps he speaks on behalf of director Geoff Murphy as much as for Utu's subjects: Maori rebels and British colonizers engaged in a bitter struggle to defend land and family. Whether you find Murphy's and the combatants' divided loyalties frustrating or refreshingly complex (a conundrum akin to the one in John Sayles's recent Men With Guns) depends on your political bent, of course. Also open to debate in this longer "director's cut" of the 1983 film: Does Murphy traffic in frontier-epic stereotypes (e.g., cunning, sexy rebel woman beds earnest white soldier) or subvert them (e.g., the homoerotic moment between a vigilante settler and a prissy British colonel)? Are his portrayals of Maori revolutionaries--who read Macbeth, speak French, and play chess in addition to waging war--sensitive or offensive? And what on earth compelled the New Zealand director to make Young Guns II and Under Siege 2 after Utu? Et tu, Murphy? (Leslie Dunlap) Parkway Theatre, Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Detention
Although its goal isn't to entertain so much as educate, this hour-long portrait of five detention-bound high school students could be described as an inner-city Breakfast Club. Here you've got the jock, the "ho," the African nationalist, the poet, and the rebel, all of whom enter detention feeling cynical, emotionally wounded, and generally lost. But with the help of a no-nonsense teacher (who can shoot hoops better than the jock and dispense more street knowledge than the rebel), the students emerge with a new respect for themselves and each other. Totally lacking in subtlety, levity, or humor, the film nevertheless reveals the degree of writer-director LaMont Wharton's passion. In fact, Detention expresses such palpable concern for its subjects that its sentiment may be better suited to the classroom than the art house. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m.

"To Be a Black Man"
"Checkmate"

This pair of short films by critic and author Nelson George (Blackface) renders his laid-back prose in cinematic terms, along with his ongoing passion for exploring the black body politic. "To Be a Black Man" is a five-minute music video/documentary collage of African-American New Yorkers going about their business or posing for the camera, while the jazzy soundtrack lends a beat to Samuel L. Jackson's Gil Scott Heron-style rap, culled from George's Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos (e.g., "To be a black man is to enter an elevator and have a white woman shift her bags away from you. It's to see the white man next to her pushing out his chest and trying to stare you down."). Comparatively feeble, the 15-minute "Checkmate" uses chess as a contrived metaphor for the competition between two black men who sit discussing the woman they both "did"--suggesting that the fledgling filmmaker may be more adept at visual poetry than narrative storytelling. Still, after producing such studio-scale features as Strictly Business and CB4, George continues to prove the critic's capacity for artmaking, as, taken together, these two indie shorts represent another impressive display of range. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, September 23 at 8:30 p.m.

Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
Like Mo' Better Blues and He Got Game, Spike Lee's fully realized, hour-long thesis project at NYU (1983) is principally about the pressures of black male entrepreneurship at odds with personal relationships, representing larger political realities. It's also, like the bulk of Lee's joints, a film that's extremely funny, intensely serious, and pointedly ambiguous all at once, as it plays three sets of surrogate father-son relations for a complicated mix of laughs and pathos. In the first of these, a murderous street boss and self-described "brother who loves his people" (Tommie Hicks) coerces Brooklyn barber Zach (Monty Ross) to run numbers out of his shop; in the second, Zach mentors a delinquent teen nicknamed Teapot (Stuart Smith), hiring him to sweep the sidewalk and, later, to sell numbers; and in the third, this teenager instructs a younger boy how to say "I'll fuck you up!" with authority. As the crime boss likens the numbers racket to a poor man's stock market, Lee measures its benefits with ample irony: The numbers have financed a degree in social services for Zach's disapproving wife (Donna Bailey), but they've also landed his former partner in the Hudson River. In less life-threatening terms, it's no stretch to locate the young filmmaker in his protagonist: a man weighing his options to continue as a modest independent or to set up shop with the bossman's blood money, toward a higher purpose. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Thursday, September 24 at 7 p.m.

The Twin Cities International Black Film Festival starts Friday at the Parkway Theatre and continues at various locations through September 28. For more information, including ticket prices at each venue, call 825-1486.

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