The 2021 American Black Film Festival Celebrated Its 25th Anniversary

Twenty-five years and counting. The American Black Film Festival has grown from a small fest in Acapulco, Mexico to the world’s premier black showcase for African American/heritage films. Now residing in sunny Miami, Florida but living in the age of COVID, this year ABFF movies shined virtually on ABFFPLAY.COM. Films to remember…

Doutor Gama (**1/2) – Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to free slaves. Undoubtedly that emancipation was aided by abolitionists like Luís Gonzaga Pinto da Gama. He was born June 21, 1830, as a free person, the child of a black mother and white father. Nonetheless he was sold into slavery at age 10 by his dad to cover debts. Eventually as a teen working for a master in São Paulo, he was befriended by a young attorney, Antônio Rodrigues do Prado Júnior, and learned how to read. Denied entry to law school because of his race, he became a rábula, an unlicensed attorney. Gama heroically took on hundreds of legal cases representing Afro-Brazilians. 

Luiz Antonio has written a bio/film that lauds a man who freed 500 slaves. Director Jeferson De (Bróder) assembles an astute production team, which recreates the 1800s and reimagines Gama’s journey from slavery to orator to savior. Thales Junqueira’s (Bacurau) enchanting production design is aided by the 19thcentury architecture that archives history. Cinematographer Cristiano Conceição, an assistant cameraman on the classic Brazilian film City of God, makes scenes look like paintings. 

De sets a tone that makes you feel like you’re watching people way back in a time. His simple styling and the fight for dignity on view are the film’s strengths. César Mello’s stoic interpretation of Gama is a major asset too. Equally up to the task are Mariana Nunes (Pele: The Birth of a Legend) as his wife Claudina and Higor Campagnaro as the adult Antonio. History was shaped by brave souls like Gama and all the talent attached to this film should be proud that they’ve recorded his story. 

I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) (**1/2) – At times, in this low-budget ode to aimless life in sunny California, the narrative and lead character Danny (Kelley Kali) wander. Midway into this 90-minute slacker film, you learn that’s the point. Writers/directors Kali and Angelique Molina along with co-writer Roma Kong are chronicling life on the fringe where houselessness is so normal it’s barely detectable. It’s a socio/economic phenomenon that’s common these days and near epidemic in Southern California.

Danny has a young daughter (Wesley Moss) and her lack of ambition and penchant for getting high lead to her offspring and her living in a tent at the side of a road. She tries to gather enough money to rent an apartment, but her potential landlord will give the place away if she doesn’t’ give him rent money by sundown. It’s a tough task—for a pothead. 

In its own weird way, this modern com/dra allegory depicts a barely-making-it existence millions experience in real time. Humorous characters (her gullible friend Brooklynn has found a rich man), transportation issues (Danny gets around on roller skates) and business deals gone awry (a client whose hair she’s braided doesn’t pay her) season the storyline. The footage would be more interesting if the characters were more outrageous—like those in a John Waters’ film. 

Directors Kali and Molina assisted by their cast and crew, make a far more colorful and sturdier attempt at commenting on the underclass than the typical Sean Baker (Red Rocket, The Florida Project) movie. Why? In their tale, at least the plotline builds to a satisfying conclusion. 

Midnight movie fans will appreciate Danny’s dilemma—especially if they’re as high as her. 

Maya and Her Lover (**1/2) – The Forty-Year-Old Version covered the older black women young black man angle. Director/screenwriter Nicole Sylvester goes down that same path with a com/dra/rom that is almost as entertaining, but not as artsy. Her muse is Maya (Ashanti J’Aria). She’s a 40ish, self-sufficient Brooklyn brownstone owner. Single and looking. She and her buddy Tracey (Faiven Feshazion, Blacklist) talk about the opposite sex incessantly, but their deepest conversations bear no fruit. Until she haphazardly meets a 22-year-old food delivery man Kaseem (Shomari Love). He’s a Muslim with dogmatic beliefs. She’s a free-spirited woman. They debate and argue out of bed. But between the sheets there’s bliss. 

The banter between Maya and Tracey is so real it’s like overhearing frank, playful girl talk at a Starbucks. Credit Sylvester for creating the congenial, feminist atmosphere, ingratiating characters and life challenges that seem universal. Mild drama, from infidelity, lies and an unplanned pregnancy to discussions about lesbian life and the challenges of young black men in a white world, stays topical and relevant. Al Thompson as a coffee shop owner, Madeline Grey DeFreece as a coed niece and Roland Sands as the old lecherous man next door add spice. 

If there’s a major error, it’s Maya’s backstory about her pushy father (Hisham Tawfiq) and how it’s affected her life. Completely unnecessary. The film should have just lived in the moment. Otherwise, Sylvester exhibits a nice flair for telling a very personal woman’s story. She’s on to something.

A Message from Brianna (**) – It’s not all that scary. Not for a while. When Kathy (Asia’h Epperson) and Leonard (Vernon Davis) move into an old family home, everything seems OK initially. Then creepy things occur. There’s an unsettled spirit in the house. It uses their developmentally challenged two-year old as an entry point. Demons. Exorcisms. Marital strife. Fear. 

It takes a while for writer/director DeShon Hardy’s nod to horror to raise your blood pressure, but it does. The very standard premise of a person wronged seeking revenge in the afterlife is a formulaic device that flails in the first two-thirds of the film but gets better towards the ending. A cast of energetic actors makes it’s hard to hit the remote until the finale. Cinematography, editing and other tech credits are OK for a low budget film but not exemplary. There’s just enough horror to make you spill your popcorn. 

Voodoo Macbeth (***) – It’s Shakespeare’s year. The Tragedy of Macbeth is easily this year’s masterpiece. Now this recreation of a historic staging of Macbeth, with an all-black cast in 1936 Harlem, takes center stage. Ten people are listed as the film’s directors and nine as its writers. The group effort is rewarded nicely by a winsome, spirited and disarming “let’s put on a show” experience. 

In the Great Depression, FDR set up the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project (FTP). It funds productions in 23 cities providing jobs for actors, directors, playwrights and tech crews. Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) a trained stage actress and head of the New York Negro Unit, along with producer John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) want to stage “Macbeth.” They hire the rebellious 21-year-old Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges), now an actor-turned director. Taking cues from his wife Virginia (June Schreiner), Welles decides to set the play in Haiti, not Scotland, which causes a furor. Government watchdog Martin Dies (Hunter Bodine) is incensed and threatens to pull funding: “I can assure you that that monstrosity will never see opening night.”  But the show must go on. 

The play’s actors are so eager to produce the first all-black adaptation of this Shakespearean work you’re hooked on their quest. Welles, as the production’s impish and unpredictable creator has so many foibles (alcoholism, bad judgement) he keeps you guessing. His oddball casting is another unconventional variable. There’s a singer (Ashli Haynes), a boxer (Wrekless Watson) and an elevator operator (Jeremy Tardy). The very wise script mounts problem after problem—from racial tension to health concerns—obstacles the characters must conquer to get to opening night. The steady dose of tension makes their journey compelling. 

The entire cast shines and the tech team too. Maren H. Jensen’s production design, Alexah Acuña’s set decoration and Emma Bradford’s art direction recreate the time and place in the most beguiling ways. Bash Achkar’s exquisite lighting and cinematography capture every poignant moment. Time drifts by quickly and winsomely aided by Takashi Uchida’s editing and Jongnic Bontemps caressing score. This retelling of a very innovative part of theater and African America history is precious. 

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