History repeats itself over and over again at the African Diaspora Film Festival | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

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History repeats itself over and over again at the African Diaspora Film Festival

The aftershocks of the slave trade echo from Benin to Hungary to Cuba to Cabrini Green.


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Globalization, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the integration of national economies through trade, investment, capital, flow, labor migration, and technology," is a seismic force reshaping countries and their populations. Many regard this as a contemporary phenomenon stemming from advances in transportation and communications, but if you want to delve into the beginnings of globalization, look to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that from the early 1500s to the late 1800s linked Europe with Africa and the New World. With its entrenched racism, the effects of this forced mass removal and colonial resettlement of an estimated 12.5 million Africans reverberate today and are explored in several entries in the richly textured 16th-anniversary edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival, hosted by Facets Cinematheque from June 8 through14.

The opening-night film, Bigger Than Africa (90 min.), is a documentary of near-epic scale. Los Angeles-based director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye traveled through the U.S., Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to map the widespread influence of the Yoruba, one of the three largest ethnic groups from northwest Africa, a people whose culture has withstood the depredations of slavery and colonialism. A staggering number of talking heads—including playwright, poet, and essayist Wole Soyinka; Afrobeat pop star Femi Kuti; and painter and philosopher LeRoy Clarke—weigh in on the Yoruba's ability to adapt. Yoruba slaves and their Latin American descendants grafted their indigenous religion to the saints of the dominant Roman Catholic Church, giving rise to Santeria. In 1880, when the British governor of Trinidad banned African drum skins used to spur rebellion among poor blacks, Yoruba were among the first to retaliate with the invention of steel pan drums. And the strength of women within Yoruban tradition was key economically, as female entrepreneurs helped sustain a people transitioning from slaves to willing participants in capitalism.

Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba
  • Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba

One extraordinarily strong and talented woman is at the center of the other opening-night film, the exuberant music documentary Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (2011, 90 min.) by Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki. Born under apartheid in Johannesburg, legendary vocalist and composer Makeba often said she didn't sing politics, she sang the truth, but as she aged and her global audience grew she became increasingly activist. Exiled from South Africa after appearing in the 1959 anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, she lobbied the United Nations to boycott her native country. Her career in the U.S. was launched at New York's Village Vanguard in 1960, but mentor Harry Belafonte quickly pushed her in more mainstream direction, teaming her in concert with his other proteges, the Chad Mitchell Trio, white folk singers who were outspoken in their antiestablishment sentiments. Glamorous and sophisticated, she met her soul mate in Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael; her marriage to him in 1968 brought her under attack by conservative political factions, and the couple moved to Guinea, where Makeba lived until 1987. As abundant musical clips illustrate, during her six-decades-long career she fused myriad musical styles—mbube, marabi, jazz, ragtime, and Afropop—to become a torchbearer for world music and the oppressed.

A compelling lead performance by Cake-Baly Marcelo, a black economist who in 1976 emigrated to Hungary from war-torn Guinea-Bissau (which as a Portuguese colony was known as the Slave Coast), anchors the Budapest-set drama The Citizen (2016, 109 min.). He plays a widower who lost his family in an unnamed African war and is looking to upgrade his status from refugee to full-fledged citizen, but he gets into trouble when he shelters an illegal Iranian single mother and falls in love with his married Hungarian tutor. Director Roland Vranik examines the hurdles of becoming a naturalized Magyar when the aspirant is not of European descent.

In Foreign Body (2016, 92 min.), Tunisian writer-director Raja Amari (Satin Rouge) filters through a feminist lens the experiences in France of Arabs from the Mahgreb. Sarra Hannachi plays a young woman who escapes political unrest in the former French protectorate of Tunisia, hoping to make a better, safer life overseas. After a horrific Mediterranean crossing, her port in the storm is Lyon, where her violent brother's friend Imed (Salim Kechiouche) works as a bartender. Soon she moves from his couch to a swank apartment owned by a French Arab widow (Hiam Abbass) to help sort the dead husband's belongings. The heroine is quick to assimilate, better than Imed, who struggles to reconcile his patriarchal African upbringing with his attraction to both Western culture and the two women.

Director Sergio Giral uses informal man-on-the-street interview techniques to kick off his inquiry into Miami's little-known Afro-Cuban community—a diaspora within a diaspora—in his short documentary The Invisible Color: Black Is More Than a Color (2017, 47 min.). Once he settles into a rhythm of talking heads and archival footage, we learn about the divisions between Latino Cubans and black Cubans: how the first wave of migrants fleeing Castro's revolution in 1959 were relatively well-off Hispanics who had more to lose by staying on the island, while the Afro-Cubans who arrived via the Mariel boatlift in 1980 were generally much poorer. The prejudice the Marielitos faced in Miami stemmed in part from their colonial slave ancestry, and was complicated by Castro's antidiscrimination reforms, which initially were only cosmetic. As one interviewee recalls, you can't legislate racism away overnight just by saying it no longer exists—especially in one of the last Latin American countries to abolish slavery.

ADIFF's closing night film, Ronit Bezalel's 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green (2014, 53 min.), charts the rise of the Cabrini-Green public housing project from 1942 through 1962, and the buildings' demolition from 1995 through 2011 during a construction boom. After having screened a number of films in the festival, what strikes me most about this documentary is how history repeats itself, even among reversals. African slaves built the American south; without free labor to work it, the worth of the land of antebellum plantation owners was questionable. Flash-forward 130 years after abolition, and land in a near-north Chicago neighborhood is deemed more profitable if most of its African-American descendants of slaves are displaced. "Every Chicagoan should see this documentary about the history of the Chicago Housing Authority," wrote J.R. Jones when he first reviewed the film for the Reader. His advice remains timely, as gentrification of Chicago's poorer neighborhoods continues apace.   v

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