Independent African-American Filmmakers Shape the Future


Two upcoming film festivals, one new and one established, highlight independent black filmmakers who amplify black narratives that are often untold, forgotten, or simply ignored.

While Afrofuturism is widely associated with George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective, its connection to music can be traced back to Sun Ra, an American jazz visionary, and found in today’s hip-hop and pop. The ancestral relationship of Afrofuturism and multiple genres of music is examined in Aural Futures, a new film festival at Duke University.

Aural Futures started with Ingrid LaFleur, a recent Afrofuturist mayoral candidate in Detroit. Beginning September 12, the festival consists of six weeks of programming around Duke, including a panel discussion, screenings of films and music videos, a night of musical performances, and a talk examining futuristic solutions regarding Detroit’s water problem. And on October 26 at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Pierce Freelon, Durham’s own Afrofuturist mayoral candidate, will join LaFleur in a conversation.

The festival was collectively curated by LaFleur, Duke associate professor Negar Mottahedeh, and Hank Okazaki, who runs the Screen/Society program of public film screenings at Duke. In addition to igniting audiences’ imaginations, the curators hope attendees will “envision a future where we can become other than what we are today,” moving a step closer to decolonizing their minds.

An aesthetic birthed directly from black culture, Afrofuturism mixes science fiction and social justice through surrealism and space travel, spanning dystopian stories and love fantasies, magical realism and alt-history. The term was coined in the nineties by Mark Dery and popularized through the literary works of Octavia Butler. Scholars began to explore Afrofuturistic sensibilities outside of literature and survey its multimedia nature via music and art.

“In the context of this programming, we define Afrofuturism as a rising out of the technologies that connect the past with the future,” Mottahedeh says. “Afrofuturism as a movement is really about confronting darkness with light.”

In other words, it has been an avenue for descendants of the African diaspora to re-envision life through a scientific and technological lens, like the way “technologies connect funk with jazz and blues through electronic music, bridging the past sound and the future sound,” as Mottahedeh says.

Janelle Monae’s visual album Dirty Computer, screening October 25 at Full Frame Theater, sonically embodies Afrofuturism with its eclectic sensibility. It continues themes from Monae’s previous projects, but as opposed to the former dystopian society where she was represented as an android, now she builds an Afrofuturist utopia—a place where otherness is accepted.

And Afro-Punk, an hour-long documentary by James Spooner screening at The Ruby on October 11, examines the otherness that can develop when black youth fall in love with punk music—the double conscious they have to carry when they express interest in a music genre that is not generally associated with a black aesthetic.

LaFleur says these films present an intimate perspective on Afrofuturism that is, at times, surreal, and thus accurately expresses the nonlinear nature of Afrofuturism.

It must be understood that within Afrofuturism, time is multi-dimensional, where future coexists in the present along with the past,” LaFleur says. In a way, this idea of mingling past, present, and future also relates to a fascinating film screening in the Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film, starting September 23 courtesy of the Stone Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Starring Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in the mid-seventies, Countdown at Kusini aimed to offer nuanced depictions of black people to counter the lackluster stereotypical representation of them during the height of Hollywood’s blaxploitation era. It was an early film exploring and connecting black Americans to the struggle of African natives, developed from an amalgam of true stories, including that of Amilcar Cabral, a revered African revolutionary.

Blaxploitation films catered to black audiences and consisted of black casts, but it wasn’t long before they attracted mainstream viewership, promoting imagery of black people as pimps, hoes, and pushers. Countdown at Kusini was produced by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a historically black Greek-letter organization, which predominantly serves black women. The organization’s goal was to apply a controlled marketing distribution campaign, an idea that was considered by many a guaranteed success. However, after limited theatrical screenings, the film, shelved by Columbia in 1976, has hardly been seen since.

Countdown at Kusini has long been an obsession of Joseph Jordan, the director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this fall. Jordan is particularly interested in films that were groundbreaking but discounted. He remembers the national excitement throughout the black community surrounding the release of the film.

“It came out at a time when it was difficult for black directors and actors to get their work to screen,” Jordan says.

n Durham, the original film is screening alongside a documentary by S. Torriano Berry. In his documentary, Berry suggests that the Deltas were undermined and sabotaged by Columbia and considers a multitude of “what ifs?” including, “Were the Deltas the Mother of Nollywood?”

Citing Countdown at Kusini as a pioneering production filmed entirely in Africa, Berry considers the possibility that it planted a seed in Lagos, Nigeria, by giving the country a taste of what film production was like. The film “could have changed the way that Hollywood did business, if they had done business in an honest manner and correctly,” Berry says.

Though he interviewed director Ossie Davis and other participants in the making of the film, Berry says he had yet to garner a response from the national headquarters of Delta after years of inquiries. He felt he had exhausted all resources, and he walked away from the project. It wasn’t until he received a call from Jordan that he began working on the film again. Both the original film and the documentary offer a wide range of themes and issues to unpack, and Berry will join a panel discussion on them after the Varsity screening.

Not surprisingly, some of the other films in this year’s Diaspora Festival present an Afrofuturist aesthetic, using creativity, magical realism, and alt-history to envision a new world. Supermom, directed by Jason Honeycutt, is about “a daughter who thinks her mother is a real-life super hero—she might be right.” Rolling in the Deep, directed by Marcellus Cox, connects past and present through the protagonist’s journey to “achieve a goal for his late father by having a meal at a locally famous Whites Only Diner.”

And Savannah Treena’s The Colored Girls Restroom has black-girl magic written all over it, centering on black girlhood and creativity in the setting of a racist boutique owner’s colored-only restroom, showing the resilience and activism that exists within Afrofuturism.

By  for Indy Week


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