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PAFF 2015 Review: ‘Bound: Africans vs. African Americans’ and ‘Black Panther Woman’ Examine Cultural Identity Across the Diaspora

PAFF 2015 Review: 'Bound: Africans vs. African Americans' and 'Black Panther Woman' Examine Cultural Identity Across the Diaspora

If there’s one
theme running through the films at this year’s Pan African Film Festival, it’s identity
and blackness – its limitations, divisions, and cultural significance for
people of the African Diaspora. On Monday, I sat in a packed theater for the
encore screening of the documentary, “Bound: Africans Vs. African Americans,” a
film that with its title alone, evokes warring ideas about the tensions it
seeks to capture.

Directed by
Peres Owino, the documentary is strongest when it captures these tensions, and
allows for parallels and connections to be drawn without overtly pointing them
out, which happens a lot through an artistic b-roll sequence of “masked” people, which does more to distract than to unify the narrative. In candid,
piercing interviews, Africans describe being called African Booty-scratcher by
Black Americans, being asked if they wear underwear, and blamed for their
ancestors “selling” Black American’s ancestors into slavery, while African
American interviewees describe being stereotyped as lazy and ignorant by
Africans, and ignored and disrespected by Africans when visiting African
countries.

What lies
beneath these growing resentments is something the film deftly documents- how
systems of enslavement, Jim Crow, racism, colonialism, neo-colonialism,
Eurocentricity, and mainstream media have led both groups to a kind of shared
self-hatred, and in understanding the systemic causes of this resentment, comes
a moment of growth. That growth, according to the film and its producer Isaiah
Washington, is DNA testing for many African Americans to connect
back to the African countries their families originated from, a process that is
carefully documented in the narrative. This is a film meant to inspire action,
debate, and dialogue, and its strength lies there. Though I wished there were
more African Americans interviewed who grew up with a love of their African
roots, as I did, I understood the slant was to explore division and promote
connection. Where visual quality sometimes lacks, subject matter and content
succeeds.

While “black” is too broad a term of
cultural identification in “Bound,” it’s a rallying cry in “Black Panther
Woman,” which follows an Australian Aboriginal woman, Marlene Cummins, as she
reconnects with the memories and ideals of the Brisbane Chapter of the Australian
Black Panther Party and her love affair with its leader, Dennis Walker, as she
prepares to take part in an international forum of Black Panthers in New York
City.

Crisp, vivid archival footage reveals a
struggle that is often left out of discussions about black resistance. In this
footage, black Aboriginal women and men defy the white power structure of their
country. Dennis, the party leader, dons a short afro and black coat just at
Huey Newton did, and makes a fiery statement of protest. One Aboriginal man
defends himself and punches a white police officer.

Marlene serves as our entry into this
time period- a woman born in the destitute Bush who sought and gained education
and awareness through the party and her relationship with its leader. Though
the organization was small in number, they helped carry out breakfast programs,
police- watch “pig patrols,” and community theater.

What makes the documentary distinct is
its women-centered focus, which helps to reveal the contradictions of the party,
while also linking to the discussion of gender-based violence and sexism within
the larger Black Panther Party. Marlene bravely recounts Dennis’ infidelity,
his abuse towards women, and the shared struggle of Aboriginal women mistreated
and sexually abused at the hands of the very men they fought alongside and
defended. These women felt an obligation to defend the black struggle over
their own, staying silent to promote a unified cause of resistance. This is the
same story we hear in other resistance movements, both in the United States and
abroad, when the ideals of political organizations turn inward and patriarchy
and human vice takes over. While we do not hear from Dennis in the film,
there’s something special about honoring the truth of this woman at a time when
justifications for domestic abuse and sexual violence are common, especially
when related to the men we consider heroes.

Director Rachel Perkins goes beyond pure
praise of the time period by exploring the pain and flaws behind people that
would otherwise be seen as heroes or freedom fighters, adding nuance to their
struggle. Can a man be a hero if he abused women, but advanced the call of
resistance? Can a person be a freedom fighter if they’re a drug addict? Marlene
is a woman with a gambling addiction who is invited to New York City to speak
on an esteemed panel at NYU, meanwhile battling inner demons. We are forced to
consider the idea that “black liberation” could also encompass black abuse or
pain for some people, and the acceptance of that needs to made in order for
discussions of black resistance to be complete.

Though the film lingers on longer than
it should and makes some odd editing choices, it is a welcome and rare
portrait of a history that should be seen alongside other works documenting the
black resistance movement and time period. Though different in form and
execution, both “Bound: Africans vs. African Americans” and “Black Panther Woman” seem intent on one thing- that the
idea and meaning of blackness, or identity, though disputed, is a vehicle for connection and dialogue for
people all over the world. Whether we embrace those connections, is up to us.

“Bound: Africans vs. African Americans” will screen again at PAFF on 2/15. “Black Panther Woman” will screen on 2/16. 

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