Monthly Archives: April 2012

Into the Archive: Black Action Figures

Last Fall, our former archivist Mary Hueslbeck put together a display at the IU Cinema featuring a collection of toys and action figures of black movie stars.

It’s a pretty interesting collection, and reminds me how action figures and toys have the Janus-like quality of being both fun (I had a great time popping Jim West off of his saddle), and how they are also objects of serious sociological consideration (why is Samuel Jackson noticeably lighter as Mace Windu for preschoolers, and noticeably darker for adults as Shaft?).

Below, some of our selections (click Continue Reading below for more photos and figures).

Will Smith as Captain James West in Wild Wild West (1999). This toy is from the Burger King Kids Club.

In Saddle Vault, one of six toys released by Burger King, James West flies from the horse when you push the saddle down.

Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu in the Star Wars series, in a release by Playskool for preschoolers.

Released for the non-preschool set, this Samuel L. Jackson from Shaft (2000) comes with a gun, a Movie Maniacs stand, and a small poster.

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Afro-Vietnamese Orphans Tell Their Stories in ‘Indochina: Traces of a Mother’

A new(er) documentary film by Idrissou Mora-Kpai follows the stories of Afro-Vietnamese orphans born of Vietnamese mothers and West African fathers – tirailleurs sénégalais – brought by the French to fight la sale guerre, mostly in today’s Viet Nam.  The synopsis:

Through the story of Christophe, a 58-year-old Afro-Vietnamese man, the film reveals the little known history of African colonial soldiers enlisted to fight for the French in Indochina. Christophe was one of seven Afro-Vietnamese orphans adopted by one of those soldiers when he returned to Benin after the war. The film explores the long lasting impact of bringing together two populations who previously had no ties and sheds light on a frequent practice within colonial history, that of using one colonized people to repress the independence claims of another colonized people.

Told in Vietnam and Benin, the film gives space for the grown Afro-Vietnamese orphans to tell their stories, but also to explore the contradictions of the colonial order.

“The French sent us to fight their war for no good reason,” remarks one veteran in the trailer.  “It was their enemy, not ours.”

You can see the full trailer here.

The French use of colonized peoples as soldiers has been the subject of feature length historical fiction before – notably in Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) – about a group of soldiers massacred by the French after fighting for France – and Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (2006) – about Algerian men who fought the Nazis in France.  Now, a documentary lens has been brought to the phenomenon.

George Orwell, too, wrote about the tirailleurs sénégalais in his essay MarrakechWith a tone that betrays Orwell’s own prejudices, he describes a column of Senegalese soldiers on the march, and reflects:

But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?”

Isn’t it great to see cameras turned in the other direction?

The Pulse: What about Language in Nigerian Cinema?

In The Pulse, our new feature section, we’ll connect different voices on topics in Black Film.  We’ll ask a question, frame it, and then connect with some of the many modes of answering that question.  In this first installation, we’ll look at the conversation about language in Nigerian Cinema. 

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Language does many things in cinema.  It produces, packages, and reflects culture. It validates and sanctions particular tongues. It denotes an audience and creates revenue streams.  And among many other things, it plays.

In Nigeria, whose 158 million citizens speak some 500 languages, the film industry puts out 1,000 to 2,000 films a year.  A global audience estimated in the hundreds of millions (if not more) watches these films, which are dubbed, subtitled, or already in an accessible language (mostly, but not always, English).

What matters, then, about language in Nigerian cinema?

The national dialogue on films in indigenous languages –from online messageboards to newspaper editorials to facebook – is particularly robust these days, due in no small part to the visibility of 2011’s 5th Festival of Indigenous African Language Films.  This, too, against a trend of de-Anglicization of Nigerian films in recent years.

“While Nigeria has been busy discussing how to decolonize television screens for the past 60 years, the Nollywood industry has done so in less than 30 years, yet the success of the industry still has its own problems that need to be carefully articulated, since it bears on our very being as people,” said Dr. Onookome Okome in a presentation at the festival, according to The Sun.

L-R: Segun Adefila, Bukola Awoyemi and Tunde Kelani on the set of Arugba (2010), a Yoruba film. . © 2011 Mainframe Film and Television Productions

Not that the process has been homogenous and weighted evenly, as languages in Nigerian films do not mirror Nigeria’s linguistic composition[i].

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Into the Archive: Exploring the Jessie Maple Collection

Not enough people, it seems, are aware of Jessie Maple, given her contributions to black cinema.  So for those who aren’t familiar, and introduction from Diane Tucker:

Jessie Maple is included in nearly every who’s who of film except the Registry. Will is the first post civil rights feature-length film produced by an African-American woman. (Hollywood guilds are more than 80% white.) Maple’s film received the Special Merit Award at the Athens International Film Festival.

And there’s much more.

In 1974, she became the first black woman to join the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television Union (except that ‘became’ is a tame verb to use, given the trials and obstacles to joining the union, including lawsuits against major New York TV stations, pushback from the industry, and the weightiness of ‘being the first’).  She recorded the experience in her book How to Become a Union Camerawoman (more on that below).

In 1982, she founded 20 West, Home of Black Cinema in Harlem as a venue to show films by independent and black filmmakers to the public.

All the while, she was producing content, often with her husband Leroy Patton, with whom she founded LJ Productions in 1974.  She produced two feature length films (Twice as Nice was her second in 1988), and several documentaries (Methadone: Wonder Drug or Evil Spirit and Black Economic Power: Reality or Fantasy among her selections).

New York Women in Film and Television called Maple’s work “a forerunner of the independent, minority filmmaking that would cultivate directors like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Leslie Harris and Lee Daniels.”

In 2005, Maple donated her personal collection to the BFC/A, and we maintain an extensive collection of her films and logbooks, photos and news clippings, correspondences and more. We’ve gathered a sampling below to try and share some of Jessie Maple and her story.

[click ‘Continue Reading’ after the first item to see the rest; click on each photo for a larger image).

The February 1976 Ebony magazine (newstand price:$1) includes a feature on Jessie Maple.  It tells the story of Maple’s struggles to break into the Cinematrogphers Union and of her courtship with her husband, Leroy Patton.  The article is written 5 years before the release of Will, though it mentions the project. Between the timbre of a 1970s Ebony issue (“What Happened to the Black Revolutionaries?” asks one title piece, among ads for a range of products), the piece details Maple’s work and determination in a particular type of biographical voice:

Like other grown-ups among her four brothers and seven sisters, Jessie has spent all of her adult years in the north, but she retains a deceptively Southern manner.  And when though the quiet drawl, infectious giggle and unassuming air there appears a hard-nosed, ambitious professional, it can come as a surprise.

This issue, as well as other issues of Ebony and many other magazines, can be accessed here.

Continue reading

Focus on Afro & Indigenous Film with Showcase in Lima

The 6th annual International Indigenous and Afro-descendant Film Showcase and Awards took place last week in Lima, Peru. The Anaconda Prize – the event’s top award – went to the Guatemalan film El oro o la vida (Gold for Life).

Hosted by Susana Baca (Afro-Peruvian singer and Minister of Culture), the event expanded this year to 12 films highlighting the experiences of Indigenous and African peoples from the Chaco to the Caribbean.

On the theme ‘The Image of All Peoples,’ two documentaries focused specifically on afrodescendientes. Soy Afro (I Am Afro) offers a view of life and how identity and diversity is constructed in Bolivia.

Soy Afro

The other documentary, Los caminos del grupo Elegguá (Becoming Elegguá), told the story of the folk music group Femenino Elegguá and the different journeys the group members have travelled to become the face of Afro-Venezuelan music.  No trailer is available online, but you can see the group performing here and here.

The festival puts strong emphasis on indigenous and afro-descendant authorship of film.

“Indigenous people are behind the camera as well; they are creators and producers of images, and that marks an important conceptual difference,” said Roger Rumrill, a member of the Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru, in an interview with CCE Lima.

“It is to not be curious or exotic objects, but to be creators of images in line their identities and cultures.”

There’s no word yet on whether Soy Afro or Los caminos del grupo Elegguá will be available in English, but we will keep our eyes open.

Images of Black Women Festival Highlights ‘Diversity in the Diaspora’

Participants of the 8th Anniversary Images of Black Women Film Festival, in London from April 13th to 15th, will be taken from Canada to Zimbabwe (via Gaudeloupe) on screen, as the film festival focuses this year illustrating diversity of films about/by black women across the diaspora.

In addition to film screenings, other events consider the positioning of figure of the black woman (In a year of performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, where does the Black Actress go next?), sustaining the festival’s charter to “celebrate and promote women of African Descent in cinema.”

An American double bill kicks off the festival – Jessie Owens by Laurens Grant and Yelling at the Sky by Victoria Mahoney – followed by Saturday’s Caribbean Mix and Sunday’s Double Bill by African Women Filmmakers. The program is available here.

Playing Warriors by Rumbi Kadetza, a comedy set in Harare