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Black films matter at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival

Black films matter at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in"Miles Ahead." (Pan African Film Festival)

When Hollywood studio executives say there aren't a lot of black-led films for them to produce and distribute, Ayuko Babu laughs. He then picks up the event booklet for the upcoming Pan African Film & Arts Festival at which over 100 largely made by black filmmakers will be shown.

Babu, who co-founded the festival 24 years ago, notes that he and his staff have been able to find thousands of black-led and -themed productions, while Hollywood seems only able to come up with a few a year.

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"It's a question of focus and making a commitment," said Babu in an interview before the festival kicks off on Thursday in Los Angeles — it runs through Feb. 15. "The way we find them is that we go — we go to Africa, Burkina Faso, the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea, Australia. We make the effort. We seek them out."

The Pan African Film & Arts Festival was founded in an effort to showcase the broad spectrum of creative works, mainly by black filmmakers.

"We put black filmmakers, black actors, black directors at the center of our discourse, at the center of our menu," Babu said. "A lot of times some festivals in the world make them the peripheral. This is a place where they are the center. It's their cultural home where they can feel comfortable."

A scene from "America Is Still The Place," which will screen at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival.
A scene from "America Is Still The Place," which will screen at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival. (Pan African Film Festival)

Among this year's scheduled premieres are those connected to social and political issues affecting black and other minority communities in America. The festival's highlighted films include the feature narrative "America Is Still the Place," the documentary "Agents of Change" and the biopic "Miles Ahead."

"America Is Still the Place" opens the festival Thursday at 8 p.m. From director Patrick Gilles, the feature film adaptation of Charlie Walker's autobiography of the same name recounts the injustice he faced in post-civil-rights-era San Francisco. A Korean War vet, Walker, played by Mike Colter ("Jessica Jones"), wants to help clean up Stinson Beach in Marin County after 1971's San Francisco Bay oil spill but faces obstacles because of his race.

"It strikes people that this happened almost 45 years ago, and in 2016 there are examples of this same situation everywhere in our country," Gilles said. "It's startling and heartbreaking, but it's also a great lesson that we have a lot more work to do."

Babu said the film was selected as the festival's opener because of the film's timeliness and relevance to broader conversations about economic inequality.

A scene from the documentary"Agents of Change."
A scene from the documentary"Agents of Change." (Pan African Film Festival)

Continuing that theme, "Agents of Change" is the festival's centerpiece with its world premiere on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. The documentary, from Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson, tells the story of student protesters in the late '60s across the country, with a focus on San Francisco State and Cornell University.

At both institutions, students banded together in the struggle for more diversity in courses, a precursor to recent protests based on similar issues by students at such schools as the University of Missouri. Unfortunately, said Dawson, there has been little significant change in the intervening decades.

"A lot of the change has been more cosmetic and really addressing the symptoms as opposed to really dealing with the underlying issues," said Dawson, who, along with Ginzberg, participated in protests at Cornell in the '60s. "The major underlying issue is that, in large part, the institutions themselves have not changed. People come in and change, but because the institutions haven't changed, the issues continue to prevail."

Ginzberg says the film has a resounding message that both student protesters and broader Black Lives Matter proponents can learn.

"No victory is ever secure," she said. "If you're not totally vigilant about making sure those changes are enforced and continued and that there's a commitment, in 30 years, it'll go away again."

The festival's closing-night film will be a special screening of "Miles Ahead," the biopic about jazz musician Miles Davis starring Don Cheadle. It will be accompanied by a panel called "Remembering Miles," in which some of his friends and family will speak on the late musician's indelible impact.

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Additionally, the festival will feature conversations with Nate Parker, whose "The Birth of a Nation" won the top prizes at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival; "Creed" director Ryan Coogler and veteran actor Wesley Snipes.

Babu hopes a wide spectrum of audiences checks out the festival — particularly studio executives.

"There is tremendous talent and stories that are here," he said. "You've got to find it, and it can be found because there it is right there at King and Crenshaw."

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Pan African Film and Arts Festival

Where: Rave Cinemas 15, 3650 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

When: Thursday through Feb. 15

Price: Ticketing starts at $13.

Info: paff.org

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