May 1, 2009

Tribeca 09': Blackness Defined - On Off and Running, Soul Power

Entering its final weekend, one of my chief observations of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, an event that has in the past been more successful at positioning itself for the media than programming a quality film festival, is that the general screenings seem more popular than ever, while the press screenings have been relatively empty this year. Anytime a festival sells out its 4pm Thursday experimental shorts block, its doing something right. Perhaps this comes with a smaller festival, creating more demand for the remaining screenings. Regardless, I think this is a healthy development, but only to a point - a number of worthwhile films at this year's festival have slipped by relatively unnoticed.

Among these is Nicole Opper's Off and Running, a stirring portrait of a black teenager from Brooklyn named Avery who was adopted very young by a pair of white Jewish Lesbians. The couple also have a mixed race adopted son who is older than Avery and a young Asian boy, creating as Avery puts it a "United Nations family". Avery, who is a gifted young runner, approaches the end of high school with trepidation however; fissures start to appear in her relationship with her parents and the ethnic/religious identity she's been given by them. She attends a high school which is largely black, yet knows little to nothing about African-American culture. As the film opens, she's writing a letter to her biological mother, who has never tried to get in touch with her, in hopes of forging some relationship.

An affecting coming of age story that probes deeply into the nature of constructed identity, Opper's film follows this young woman and her extroidinary American family over the course of several years. She maintains an incredible amount of access to the family as they begin to unravel in Avery's senior year - her older brother Rafi, a calming influence on the strong willed women he's caught between, who's lighter skin lessens the burdens of black essentialism that Avery, who is very dark, seems to be grappling with, goes away to Princeton. Avery, who's boyfriend and trackmates slowly initiate her into some of the trappings of African-American life, be it boisterous language or trips to the salon for a weave, couch and bed surfs for five months after quitting high school and, by extension, her family. When her parents drive to Canada to be married, Avery doesn't attend.

Already slated for airing on PBS' POV, Off and Running is strong first feature by Opper, who met the subject while a youth media educator at her Jewish day school. Made with sincerity and more than a dash of melancholy, Opper's film gets at the root of how so many African-American young people, adopted or of mixed race, find themselves culturally adrift, even (or perhaps) especially those moored to non-traditional upbringings who must later confront notions of "blackness" they are simply not equipped to process.

Jeffery Levy-Hinte's Soul Power still has my head bopping about fourteen hours after I saw it. This documentary features, beyond some amazing tunes, a bunch of people who had no problem proclaiming unambiguous "Blackness"/black essentialism as there's: James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Don & BB King, Bill Withers. Using footage of the 1974 Kinshasa concert that was initially supposed to coincide with the legendary Ali/Forman fight that was pushed to a later date because of an injury to Forman, this is a sparkling musical doc and a wonderful companion piece to Leon Gast's Rumble in the Jungle documentary When We Were Kings.