Cannes’ African Heritage History

By Dwight Brown

As the prestigious, international Cannes Film Festival approaches, May 17th – 28th, the question arises: Who will follow in the footsteps of actor Samuels L. Jackson of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith and S. Pierre Yameogo, the legendary Burkina Faso director of Delwende? Which black actors, directors and producers will walk the star-laden red carpet this year? Cannes dates back to the ‘40s and part of its rich tradition includes a long history of films and people of African heritage. Who and what will be next?

In the Beginning

The 12-day festival, set in the south of France along the swank banks of the Mediterranean’s famed Côte D’Azur, was inaugurated in 1946, with a highly contested competition that included such now-classic entries as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. In that first year, films competed for the Grand Prix (Grand Prize), Prix du Jury International (International Jury Prize), Grand Prix International de la Meilleure Interprétation Feminine (Best Actress), Grand Prix International de la Meilleure Interprétation Masculine (Best Actor) and other awards.

The festival’s first nod to black films came nine years later when Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, premiered in 1955. In 1956 the top Best Film Prize was renamed the Palme d’Or. Riding a new wave of black cinema, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) became the first film starring black actors to win the coveted 1959 Palme D’Or for best picture. French filmmaker Marcel Camus directed this classic 1959 Brazilian film which stars Ademar da Silva and Lourdes de Oliveira in a tragic love story which takes place during the pre-Lenten festival of Carnival in the favelas of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Orfeu Negro left high-quality films like the Diary of Anne Frank in the dust.

In 1961 a special Gary Cooper prize, which is awarded in recognition of the human valor of the film’s content and treatment, went to the timeless American drama, A Raisin In the Sun, featuring Ruby Dee, Sydney Poitier and Diana Sands. To Kill A Mockingbird, costarring Brock Peters and Estelle Evans, received the Gary Cooper prize in 1963.

Powerful and influential, the Cannes jury, which selects the winners for an array of awards (more than 20 prizes in four sections), welcomed its first black jurist, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene in 1967. Sembene’s own works have been presented at Cannes in 1966 (La Noire de…), 1972 (Emitai), 1977 (Ceddo) and most recently in 2004 for Moolaadé, the very poignant feminist allegory that won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

The 1970s

Cannes’ new Out-of-Competition section, which began in 1955, initially only included three or four films. By 1973, the list had grown to 14, including Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross and Richard Pryor; directed by Sidney Lumet.

In 1977 top technical and music honors (the Grand Prix de la Commission Supérieure Technique du Cinéma Français and the Prix de la Meilleure Partition Musicale) were awarded to Michael Schultz’s funny film Car Wash; the first black film directed by an African American to screen at Cannes. This comedy’s cast includes Richard Pryor, Ivan Dixon, Antonio Fargas, Franklyn Ajaye and the Pointer Sisters.

Momentum for black-themed movies, actors and filmmakers builds slowly. One by one. One accolade at a time. Then in droves.

The 1980s

In the decade’s first year, Brazilian director Carlos Diegues’ sexy and provocative film Bye Bye Brazil came into the competition. The following year, Diegues became the second prominent jurist of African descent.

1983 would be a banner year for African American actors: The In-Competition roster included Cross Creek,which featured Alfre Woodard in her first distinguished role. Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy with Robert DeNiro was also graced by the sultry presence of Diahnne Abbott. Out-Of-Competition the controversial film adaptation of David Rabe’s scorching play Streamers, directed by Robert Altman, showcased actors Michael Wright and David Allan Grier.

Diegues returned to Cannes in 1984 with the groundbreaking Qilombo, which chronicles a community of freed slaves in northeastern Brazil; Stan Lathan’s musical Beat Street, with Rae Dawn Chong and Mary Alice, also screened. A year later Danny Glover began his perennial trips to Cannes with the Peter Weir directed Harrison Ford vehicle Witness. The controversial 1986 entry The Color Purple launched the film careers of Whoopie Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Akosua Busia; it also gave Cannes another glimpse at Danny Glover.

In 1987 the esteemed Prix Jury (Jury Prize) went to Yeelen, by Malian director Souleymane Cissé. While the jazzy biopic Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood, won top technical honors (the Grand Prix Technique de la Commission Supérieure) in ’88; even more auspiciously, Forest Whitaker took home the Best Actor award (Prix d’Interpretation Masculine) for his impressive portrayal of the late saxophone giant Charlie Parker. Spike Lee’s disquieting hot summer day movie, Do The Right Thing, with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson followed in 1989.

A pattern had been established: Films from Africa, South American and the U.S. with African Heritage themes, actors and filmmakers were being screened, acknowledged and rewarded at this most important international venue. Black Americans, Brazilians and Africans were being honored for their astute direction, indelible performances, and for their intelligent judgment, evidenced by their growing presence on Cannes juries.

The ‘90s

Tilai, by director Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, garnered the 1990 Grand Prix. In this fable, a young man returns to his village after an absence to discover that his girlfriend has married his father. What follows challenges village laws and humankind’s moral code. The 1991 supporting actor award (Prix du Meilleur Second Rôle) went to Samuel L. Jackson for his edgy portrayal of a crack addict in Jungle Fever. Feature films that were up for prizes included: A Rage In Harlem directed by Bill Duke, with Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Danny Glover and, Zakes Mokae. The sidebar Un Certain Regard hosted Boyz ‘n the Hood by John Singleton (with Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Larry Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr.). And the queen of comedy, Whoopie Goldberg, joins the prestigious jury.

African heritage milestones continued to mount in the 1990s. 1993’s In-Competition L’Homme sur les Quais establishes Haitian director Raoul Peck’s career (Lumumba, 2000). 1994’s I Like It Like That by African American director Darnell Martin appeared in Un Certain Regard. British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, now a mainstay on the U.S. television series Without A Trace, made her Cannes debut in the austere 1995 Secrets and Lies directed by Mike Leigh (for which she also received an Oscar nomination). Harry Belafonte’s work in the In-Competition film Kansas City astounded audiences a year later while Girl 6, by Spike Lee, was featured in the Out-Of-Competition. And in 1997 the decade drew to an end with Kini & Adams by Burkina Faso director Idrissa Ouedraogo.

As the clocked turned on the 20th century, a new crop of black films ushered in the new millennium. More black actors appeared in black films and mainstream box office blockbusters. The films featured at Cannes mirrored the growth in the international film industry. Black voices were being heard. Black actors headlining big movies strode across Cannes’ glitzy red carpet with certain assuredness. And the black intelligensia was now a staple on Cannes juries.

The 21st Century.

In 2003 Laurence Fishburne was a double-threat with his turn in the Clint Eastwood crime thriller Mystic River and his shaman-like role in The Matrix Reloaded. In 2004 Don Cheadle steals scenes in the tepidly received Sean Penn film The Assassination of Richard Nixon, while Moolaadé, by Ousmane Sembene, Cannes’ first black jurist back in 1967, wins the Un Certain Regard category. Also the Agora Concept, a consortium of African Heritage filmmakers who have initiated their own sidebar, honor Sembene in a special ceremony in 2005.

Last year Danny Glover and Senegalese actor Isaach de Bankolé appeared in Lars von Trier’s creaky, poorly reviewed dissertation on race relations, Manderlay. Actor’s actor Jeffrey Wright graced the screen with another strong, memorable portrayal in Jim Jarmusch’s quirky indie Broken Flowers, which won the Grand Prix (second Best Picture prize). And author Toni Morrison was arguably the most prestigious member of the 2005 jury.

Once the final film had screened, the last camera had flashed and the streets of Cannes had cleared two black artists left their everlasting glow: Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith – the year’s #N0. 1 blockbuster. And legendary Burkina Faso director S. Pierre Yameogo, whose poignant film Delwende dared to chronicle how women are wrongly accused and persecuted for witchcraft under archaic laws. Jackson and Yameogo represent the wide spectrum of black talent that has evolved in the past 60 years at Cannes.

Who will follow in their footsteps this year? We do know that Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Dan Brown’ s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code will inaugurate the festival this year, but the names of people of African Heritage who will fill the screens and leave their imprint on the red carpet will not be announced until April 20th.

For information on the 2006 Cannes Film festival or to watch history in the making as black talent and films at Cannes are named, go to HYPERLINK “http://www.festival-cannes.org” www.festival-cannes.org.