THE executive director of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival knew from its inaugural year in 1992 that the 12-day event would be a success. "Nobody was bringing together the diverse voices of the black world," Ayuko Babu says. "We knew our perspective as a result of colonization and slavery. . . . We knew we tapped into an enormous experience."
Experience expressed in "Ray," "Lackawana Blues," "Redemption," "Days of Glory" and the Oscar-winning "Tsotsi" -- all of which played the festival. For its 16th year, which begins tonight, more than 175 films from the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, the South Pacific and Canada are featured, as well as fine art shows, panels and workshops, a festival for students and children, a spoken-word fest and a comedy night.
Annual attendance hovers around an impressive 200,000 people. Not as impressive, and surprising to Babu, is the low turnout from the white community. "We haven't been able to get the middle class white filmgoers . . . they're not coming in the numbers I would have anticipated. You have a lot of people who are interested in Barack Obama . . . but trying to get them to know about the festival or come and participate. . . ."
Babu suspects white viewers don't want to leave their neighborhoods. But the trip to the Magic Johnson Theatres -- one of the main venues -- couldn't be easier, as he says: "Get on the  Freeway and get off at Crenshaw."
The 16th annual festival opens with "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation," Charles Burnett's ("The Killer of Sheep") latest film about the long struggle waged by the African country for independence. Danny Glover and Carl Lumbly star. "It's an epic film," says Burnett, who hopes festival exposure will lead to a distribution deal.
Closing the festival is the premiere of the Depression-era drama "Kings of the Evening," starring Lynn Whitfield, Tyson Beckford and Reginald T. Dorsey, who also produced the drama.
"We're working on getting a distributor" says Dorsey, who's proud that the film presents African American culture in "very dignified terms. . . . I made a promise to myself that I would only do positive projects that had these types of sentiments."
PAN AFRICAN FILM & ARTS FESTIVAL
WHERE: Main venues are the AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 Theatres, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza
WHEN: Tonight through Feb. 18