San Diego Black Film Festival: 31 January 2013 – San Diego, CA

Although not as renowned as the sprawling Pan-African Film Festival, San Diego’s own Black Film Festival has been running for over a decade now. I first visited a year ago, in hopes of seeing the Detroit documentary, Deforce, which I missed due to unforeseen transportation snafus. This February, I attended their 2013 fest with much better results, taking in multiple films.

The San Diego Black Film Festival was founded by the Black Historical Society of San Diego, and its home base is the sublime Reading Gaslamp 15, a downtown multiplex devised to resemble the storied picture palaces of Old Hollywood, with its melange of Art Deco and Victoriana. It’s located in San Diego’s so-quaint-you-want-to-cry Gaslamp Quarter, a shrewd re-casting of that neighborhood’s seedy heritage as a district of scarlet illumination. Led by Karen Huff-Willis, the festival’s very existence seems to challenge the invisibility factor African-American culture so often faces in ‘America’s Favorite City.’ I’ve lived in both San Diego and Los Angeles counties, and the City of Angels, despite its much-publicized travails, retains a distinct repository of Black artifacts, including two major film festivals which examine the international Black diaspora.

Although I missed the Opening Night galas and premieres, I nevertheless enjoyed three fruitful days at the venue, and the following – based on my own idiosyncratic viewing roster – are some highlights:

Bad Blood(short) – a provocative, grainy, micro-budget drama from director Bryce Marrero about covert medical procedures which poses discomfiting questions about racial identity and the desire to evade the limitations prejudice creates.

Why Do You Have Black Dolls?(short) – It’s no secret that numerous studies have demonstrated that African-American children, not to mention those of other races, generally prefer Caucasian dolls to Black ones. This sweet documentary spotlights a group of grammar school-age girls who own many Black dolls and apparently love them. Director Samantha Knowle reiterates the importance of having positive Black images on hand, and we visit the Philadelphia Doll Museum.

The Memphis 13(short) – You surely know the epochal struggle of the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, but how many of us are aware of the 13 first-graders who entered four elementary campuses in Tennessee on October 3, 1961? Daniel Kiel’s documentary illustrates that the official historical canon isn’t necessarily always the complete one. In black-and-white footage occasionally accompanied by drawings, we also learn about the debut of black students at Tennessee’s Clinton High School, which predates Little Rock, an event I learned of just a few years ago from an acquaintance at Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center. The reminiscences by now-adult former pupils makes it clear that the students were often treated poorly by both classmates and teachers, and not surprisingly, some threw in the towel, despite the joy of having textbooks that “was crisply new”.

Against The Grain – an earnest, youth-succeeds-against-all-odds drama by 22-year old UCLA grad Elias Mael is buoyed by lead actor Vaughn Wilkinson’s engaging, puppy-dog demeanor. There’s an odd familiarity and warmth in his face that leads you to believe you’ve seen him before, although you probably haven’t.

This year’s SDBFF also featured a special series titled “GLBT Meet-Up”, a selection of short films chronicling African-American lives within the GLBT demimonde. Perhaps the most charged of these was Art Jones’ Thirteen Percent, a poignant documentary about the devastation wrought by AIDS in America’s black community. Comprising only 13% of the U.S. population, African-Americans nevertheless represent 50% of all national HIV infections, and the numbers seem stubbornly constant. There’s a timeline presented which charts the inexorable rise of new cases since the 1980s, and the controversial psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing suggests possible conspiracy theories, which one can swallow whole or with a grain of salt. One interviewee doesn’t mince words, however, proclaiming, “We’re spreading death among ourselves.”

I was impressed by the lush, heartfelt Children of the Wind, a jubilant documentary about three windsurfing champions, all related, who hail from the tiny, otherwise unremarkable island of Bonaire, a popular diving site – just ask my brother – in the ABC archipelago. Director Daphne Schon displays a keen eye for outdoor movement, color, and a propulsive usage of music, especially in a kinetic two-minute montage of the sport’s history. Set against the backdrop of the World Cup competitions, Children of the Wind has already nabbed several awards around the globe, and it’s a film Stacey Peralta would probably have loved to make; fans of his Dogtown and Z-Boys would surely dig this one.

Narrated by Gbenga Akinnagbe(The Wire, Nurse Jackie)the film also reveals the crushing poverty of Bonairean society, sliding into Hoop Dreams territory as the viewer realizes that athletic renown will grant these surfer boys tickets to paradise, i.e., escape from a hardscrabble existence all too common in the cruise ship-choked Caribbean.

Among the other short subjects presented was Todd Reed’s The “N”-Word, a proponent for the term “nigga” which also features the prolific Khandi Alexander(The Corner, Treme, NewsRadio, CSI:Miami, ER) and appealing newcomer Joshua McCoy, adept at switching from indignant rage to a pouty “why me?” face. Also, One Decision Away, a familiar but compellingly performed drama from writer/director/star Allen Maldonado about the consequences of making bad choices in life. Acting is a strong point in “Decision”, with persuasive supporting work from Stephanie Gibson as the Mother from Hell and the smoldering Leeotis Burgess as a prototypical ‘bad company’ hoodlum who leads Maldonado’s desperate Gerald astray.

Finally, there’s Noah, from the Deveney brothers(writer/director Anthony and producer James), a quiet, austere piece set in a contemporary America in which slavery still exists. Andy Jasmin plays the titular role in this button-pushing film, and if Noah seems a tad long, I commend Anthony Deveney for keeping non-diegetic music at a minimum and allowing silences to percolate, which Hollywood seems so often afraid to do.

The brutal economics of the motion picture biz dictate that most of these films will be difficult to find outside the festival circuit, or even, apart from this particular fest. I recall watching a butchered cut of the otherwise challenging Lift on BET back in ’04; it was edited for language, violence, and interrupted every eight minutes for advertisements! Such is the reality of basic cable TV at this point in the new millennium. And only a fool would pretend that race doesn’t influence the reception black indie films will face in the wider market, if distribution patterns even allow access to this market. To that end, I’ll surely be at SDBFF 2014, and you’ll see me in the lobby, near the grand staircase, with my fingers crossed.