Jul 12, 2008

Afro-Punk Festival invades BAM Part 2

By Evan Louison

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has a strange feeling when you step inside, mostly because of what resides just outside its doors. At first walk one might feel an alien energy flow through them were they to be swayed by the height of the ceilings or the way the sound changes from Lafayette & St. Felix Avenues outside. Out there, on adjacent Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, you encounter not just the Atlantic Center and Long Island Rail Road, not just the hustling of Crown Fried Chickens, but the gentle mysteries of street-side bubble blowers, religious text and bootleg DVD vendors crowding the Fulton St Mall. You cross that threshold into BAM and enter a vacuum, one where you may not recognize yourself or your neighbor, and indeed may find yourself petitioning the ceilings for where exactly such beautiful young people as those who fill these halls came from. The answer is usually Brooklyn.

Afro-Punk is like the neighborhood it resides in, unique and uncompromising. It is a festival that now in name carries more weight than the film that germinated it, James Spooner’s 2003 Afro-Punk which received another screening at this year’s edition. While Afro-Punk the film was the seed, the branches that have sprung forth from the fertile earth of an untouched group of young people who, be they black, may ascribe to the identity that Spooner's festival and work at large speaks or who, be they white, may have spent some large part of their adolescent involvement in such scenes as punk rock or hardcore wondering exactly where all the colored folks were. As Spooner's first film begins, there is a title card that reads: "This film is dedicated to every black kid who has been called nigger..." The following card concludes the statement, with every ounce of confrontation intended: "...And every white kid who thinks they know what that means."

What cannot be disputed is how readily apparent both the idea of resistant culture and the racial lines that still abound in modern, cosmopolitan New York become when experiencing the films included in this year's festival.

A stand out of these is Soul to Soul, Denis Sanders' 1971 document of an Ike and Tina Revue led musical celebration for Ghana's national independence, then in its fourteenth year. The fact that the musicians are mostly Western (and famous) should surprise the viewer little, but what one can't predict is the outcome. Sure you have the wonderful Wilson Pickett, creator of the coolest na-na-nonsense I've ever heard, and the "shamanistic" Carlos Santana, along with the interminable Eddie Harris, whose segment is one of the most captivating sequences (in it a northern witch doctor performer who hitchhiked 700 miles to step onstage demonstrates a ritual ballet with a homemade medicine ball size rattle instrument which played is visually akin to lighting fast b-court skills). However, the most intriguing part comes in the late Phi-point oriented second half of the picture, when Roberta Flack steps onstage accompanied by a band of three. Her subdued performance seems so dope it's hard not to fall in love with everything about how she and her band plays. Of course it was Ike and Tina's show (he goes to every length to upstage her), but the film really shines when documenting the exquisite Voices of Harlem and the intense traditional Ghanian music included throughout.

Cedar Stables is a 26-acre ranch on the border of East New York, Brooklyn and Howard Beach, Queens. Considering the violence that still exists in East New York (Jimmy Breslin once called neighboring hood Brownsville "Berlin after the War") and the racial violence that's occurred across even recent history in Howard Beach, we can understand from the beginning why the pride of the lions roaring down the streets of these little villages on horseback in Eric Martz's documentary The Federation of Black Cowboys is so self-evident. Based on the same principles of public service as the Panthers of Pete O'Neal's time (the subject of Aaron Matthews’ A Panther in Africa, which also screened at the fest) and original American culture interpretations (the epithet cowboy was in origin a derogatory term for Black ranch hands), the Federation have been teaching inner-city kids the ropes and the way of the spur for a long time. A real long time - one elder Federation member was a pre-WWII National Rodeo Champion! The highlight of the film, aside from beautiful moments between the Junior members of the Cowboys and the local youth,) is when, on their way back to the stables, one of the younger Juniors asks a cowboy slightly older than him to race. What appears before us as the elder cowboy whips away like lightning through a public park is true, unadulterated beauty, as seen through very modest video. The elegance and prestige of these animals is only succeeded by the admirable precision with which their riders handle them, regardless of age and setting.

Jonestown was never meant to appear as a joke or a passing novelty for history to allow us to sidle against innocently and then ignore. Jim Jones had an intention with his People's Temple Agricultural Project, and it was to provide a shock more than it was to soothe the huddled masses he found crawling to his door. Their removal from society as a whole, financially and spiritually committed at first, only to be emotionally bound and gagged by an outcast leader who bred the mentality of the eternally outcast within them during a painful progression from normality to seclusion to death was shocking, extreme, and violent, in all its hand-clapping, hymn-singing fellowship. The hardest part of sitting still for the duration of Stanley Nelson's documentary portrait of the Temple's self-destruction, the dream's demise, and the survivors' testimony (how there could be any is still a mystery to me) is knowing that the notion of community and empathy is not confined to a church setting - it is in the theatre with you, sitting next to you, hissing at you through your popcorn’s clenched teeth. With Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, you have no choice but to admit it. Thanks to Nelson's eye and his choice to put these survivors onscreen before us as free of judgment as they might ever have existed in their original, zealous dreams, to accept the undeniable, that they are our neighbors still, and always were, is nothing short of an act of love. When a man says his wife died in his arms, clutching their only child, it matters not the jeopardy he put his family in, the questionable nature of that man's judgment --- it is the weight of another's impenetrable sadness welling up behind your eyes that you feel, and that hopefully is what will remain as a lesson. That is what matters most.

I was not prepared for what lay before me when the recently departed Jules Dassin’ Up Tight! began. This magnificent film freely retells the story an Irish revolution era story "Betrayed," previously adapted by an early John Ford for the screen as the Oscar winning The Informer. The setting now is Cleveland is in an uproar after the April 68’ assassination of MLK, and The Committee is poised to start some serious summertime shit in the Huff district. Only problem is when a white guard awakens at the munitions factory as committee ace Johnny Wells (Max Julien!) and his team make of with guns and ammunition do the complications start. He kills the guard and leaves his facket, name inscribed in the collar, making him Cleveland’s public enemy number one. Now on the lam, Johnny is the only one who trusts his completely wasted friend Tank (Julian Mayfield, also co-screenwriter with Ms. Dee and Dassin), who is the classic rejected conspirator trying desperately to find his way back into the fold, at first by helping The Committee reconnect with the fugitive Johnny ("He's gone to see his mother!"), and then upon being ostracized, his efforts refused, ratting his friend out in a drunken, manic rage. Dassin's use of POV techniques in several of the more intense sequences, including the jailhouse betrayal, fit with Chief of Police swabbing shaving cream across his cheeks and staring directly into camera, have a very clear effect. Dassin puts us right in the pain at the root of the scene by allowing us to see it first person. We understand Tank's betrayal and his guilt from then on, because we experienced the transgression itself with him, as he looks into his enemies face as sees his only, sad hope for, well, something.

It is the weight he carries as he comes closer and closer to being exposed as the informant for the remainder of the story that is the most troubling aspect of his journey. How can a man atone for such a mistake? Surely there is no more visceral a scene to demonstrate such conflict than when Tank drunkenly stumbles into an arcade funhouse and is approached by a gang of upper middle class whites practically licking their pink lips with curiosity into the inner-workings of a big, black revolutionary. The entire scene plays out in the hall of mirrors, each white face becoming distorted and stretched to demonic levels, Tank's face going through similar contortions along with his audience, as he entertains them with a roaring, fantastic version of what things will be like for them, first day of the revolution in swing. You almost forget what he's done there's so much joy in it Dessin and the great DP Boris Kaufman’s lensing of the material. No scene spells it out better. ("Where you goin'? Where you goin'? You ain't goin' nowhere, some little nigger's blew the fuse!")

It is truly a outrage to learn, in the still very elegant Ms. Dee's Q&A that followed the screening, that Paramount never distributed the film faithfully, spilling it into a handful of theaters in the winter of 68’/69’, and that it has no place in the world of home viewing to this day. When hearing how the majority of the story was already shot when King went down in Memphis and that Dassin quite literally wrapped the entire production into one caravan and made way for the funeral procession in Atlanta (the beautiful documentary hold of the opening sequence in Up Tight! only makes for more immediacy and foundation in truth for the story, with Jesse Jackson as pallbearer our first recognizable character), is altogether moving and adds a poignancy to the proceedings. A late masterpiece from one of the great’s of 40’s film noir, this is a film that must be seen more.

We should be thankful the film has finally found a champion and what better champion than Afro-Punk. If a revival is in question, let us hope that this is only the beginning of the film's life. As rebirth, reinvention of identity and revision of history's oppression of Blackness run parallel as currents throughout Afro-Punk, make no mistake: There is nothing to revive if what we see before us ain't dead yet, and never was and in the case of Up Tight!, than seems like a pretty accurate description.