Since 2009 BAMcinématek’s: New Voices in Black Cinema has remained a premiere showcase for emerging voices in just that. A mix of documentaries, shorts, and narrative features, the program examines unique aspects of the black experience across the African diaspora. The black experience which is often treated a monolith is in truth multifaceted, dynamic, spans the globe, and various walks of life. BAMcinématek shines a light into these unseen corners of the black identity through up and coming dynamic storytellers. The series started April 26 and continues through 29 in NYC. Here are a few highlights from this year’s slate.
Arriving at BAM on the heels of a Special Jury Award for writing at SXSW, writer-director Nijla Mu’min’s “Jinn” is a slice-of-life story dealing with faith, sexuality, and the black experience. The film features a dynamic black female protagonist rarely seen on screen. Summer’s (Zoe Renee) struggle with identity as opposed to external forces further distinguishes the film from its contemporaries. The poetry of film stems from the tile itself — a Jinn is an invisible entity of Islamic theology, created out of smokeless fire. The semi-autobiographical tale is tailor-made for “afro-punk” kids underserved by today’s market standard for young adult films.
“Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me”
That faraway prize, a world of success/Is waiting for me if I heed the call/I won’t settle down, won’t settle for less/As long as there’s a chance that I can have it all.
The lyrics from the singer’s signature tune, and the eponymous documentary itself, perfectly embody Davis’ life, legacy, and inimitable talent. Primary comprised of antidotes and stories from friends and admirers throughout the performer’s life, “I Gotta Be Me” strikes a careful balance between historical account and poignant tribute. Jewish, black, Puerto Rican — and in mixed-raced marriage — Davis was a progressive and polarizing performer light years ahead of his time. Though clearly a dedication to the singer, this is not solely a vanity piece. Davis was a polarizing figure in both white and black communities — and the film speaks to both. Some praised him for the doors he opened, other condemned him for his perceived need for white approval, but neither champion nor critic could deny his talent.
Part satire, part fable, the 2017 BAFTA winner “I Am Not a Witch” is a hilarious tale of mysticism, superstition and the subjection of young women. One of several comedies in the series this year, “I Am Not A Witch” stars Maggie Mulubwa as Shula, an eight-year-old girl falsely accused of witchcraft. The dubious accusation forces her to join a traveling witch show. While in the show, tourists ogle and exploit her, she also commands a bizarre admiration from local villagers. The absurdist satiric tone suggests a Zambian “The Lobster,” as the fable-like quality of the narrative, coupled with the comedic malevolence embodied by the cast of characters, takes a page right out of Yorgos’ playbook. The tragedy of this tale, however, is that writer-director Rungano Nyoni based much of the film on first-hand accounts and the reality of witchcraft hysteria on the African continent. Thus the comedy comes equipped with terrifying undertones more disturbing than anything in Yorgos Lanthimos’s work.
One of the four documentaries featured in the series this year, “Maynard” shines a light on a forgotten political figure who deserves better. Maynard Jackson was the first black mayor in Atlanta, as well as the first black mayor for a Southern city. Elected in 1973 at 35, Jackson was an Obama-like agent of change who navigated three terms of office littered with historical triumphs and unfortunate scandals. Using more archival footage than other docs in the series, “Maynard” is a distinctly information-driven doc. Interviews with Bill Clinton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton provide personal narratives on the man behind the office. With such bombastic orators, the movie inevitably gets a bit preachy. But director Aminah Bakeer tempers personal accounts with enough archival footage to make the history of Jackson’s career compelling nonetheless.
“Muslimah’s Guide to Marriage”
At the Pan African Film Festival, “Muslimah’s Guide to Marriage” took home the audience award. Ebony Perry and Glenn Plummer star in this romantic comedy. “Muslimah” (and the aforementioned “Jinn”) both take an intimate look at black Muslim life. Muslimah (Perry)—an orthodox Muslim who’s always righteous but not always right—she has seven days and 14 hours before her divorce is finalized. She worries that the separation would negatively affect her family dynamic, particularly her relationship with her father. Muslimah embarks on a frantic quest to fix her broken marriage. Perry is hilarious in this fresh take on the religious pressures many black women face to be perfect wives and mothers. An abundance of plausibility is hard to muster through Muslimah’s last-ditch attempt to save her love, but Perry’s performance more than makes up for the film’s other shortcomings.