Last month, during a meeting in the Oval Office, the president asked why the United States should accept immigrants from Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.
“What do we want Haitians here for?” Donald Trump asked. “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from shithole countries?”
For Ayuko Babu, executive director of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, now in its 26th year, the statement was more than disappointing.
“He was talking about us,” he said. “About me, my family, our people around the world. We didn’t get through 500 years [of slavery] without bringing a lot of wisdom and insight. So just to say that is a silly comment.”
“It shows the kind of ignorance that’s pervasive with respect to Africa and the Third World,” added Asantewa Olatunji, director of programming for the festival. “One of the things these kinds of statements do is play on the self-esteem of the people that come from there, even though we may know better. So one of the things that we try to do with the Pan African Film Festival is make sure that we show those positive and realistic images. And that when we look at it we can identify ourselves.”
This year, the festival will be held from Feb. 8-19 at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza’s Rave Cinemas. Even before Trump’s statement, the festival has existed in part to correct misconceptions about people of the African diaspora.
Launched in 1992 by a group of activists (including Babu, Danny Glover and “Good Times” actress Ja’Net DuBois) concerned about the portrayal of black people in the media, the festival seeks to promote inclusivity, diversity of storytelling and accurate representation of the black experience.
“So we decided to put together a festival of films that come from all over the world and show a more realistic image of the people that we are,” said Olatunji. “That’s one of the things that we want to do with the films that we screen — change that perspective, show a different story, give a different image of what these countries are, a more realistic image. And maybe change some hearts and minds.”
Since 1992, PAFF has grown from a seven-day festival screening almost 40 films to a 12-day festival that screens more than 170. “We’re now the largest black film festival in the United States and probably in this hemisphere,” said Olatunji. “It’s a whole different size than many other film festivals in the United States.”
Approximately 35,000 people, including more than 100 filmmakers, attend the festival just for the films (roughly 90,000 people show up for the festival’s fine arts show). This year’s lineup includes films from more than 40 countries spanning five continents and 26 languages.
“We have films from all over the world,” said Olatunji. “From the South Pacific, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the U.S., Canada… wherever there is a community of black people that are making films about themselves.”
In addition to expanding the length and scope of the festival, the content of the films has evolved over time too.
“When we first started, most of the stories were very negative stories,” said Olatunji. “They were stories about gangbangers or about the pimps and prostitute idiom. Now we are seeing far more diverse stories.”
She attributes the increase in diverse stories in part to the digital revolution.
“When we first started, films were on 35mm,” she said. “There was no such thing as streaming. So now we have so many different places to see film, which has really encouraged the creation of so much more product. And with that product comes that diversity of story.”
An emergence of diversity in roles for black actors in Hollywood has also done a lot to move the culture forward.
“In terms of the black experience and the black footprint, we have so many new actors in Hollywood that come from someplace else,” she said.
She points to the festival’s closing night film “The Forgiven,” where Forest Whitaker, who is African American, portrays South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as one example. “We have [Brit] Idris Elba playing an African American, and [‘Star Wars’ actor] John Boyega playing a person from outer space! So we do see that black people are now in these more diverse roles than we saw in 1992.”
The festival will open with the world premiere of Alfons Adetuyi’s “Love Jacked” (featuring Mike Epps) and will close with the U.S. premiere of Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé’s “The Forgiven,” starring Whitaker and Eric Bana. It will also host the L.A. premiere of Kareem Mortimer’s “Cargo,” about a white American expatriate who smuggles Haitians to Florida, on Sunday at 6:35 p.m.
Other highlights include director Samuel D. Pollard’s documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” (Saturday at 4:35 p.m., Sunday at 6:25 p.m. and Feb. 19 at 6:15 p.m.) and “Jimmy Jean-Louis Visits Tijuana,” a documentary about the city’s Haitian community that features comedian Rainn Wilson (Sunday at 6 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 4:10 p.m.).
With the success of films like “Girls Trip,” the Oscar-nominated “Get Out” and rabid anticipation for “Black Panther” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” it’s undeniable that black cinema is having a moment.
“Absolutely,” agreed Olatunji. “I’m not going to say a renaissance because I’m not sure that we ever [left], but this is absolutely a period of time that black film, black stories, black art is being valued. It’s a time when Hollywood can’t turn its back to the popularity and importance [of black film]. There has to be a more diverse projection of who we are in terms of our humanity.
“It’s been too long that everybody has gone to the movies and just accepted the European reflection,” she said. “Everybody wants to see what is going on in the world and everybody wants to see that reflection of ourselves.”
“I predict that the African American stories are just the beginning,” she continued. “We’re going to see that diversity reflected not only in black but in brown, in yellow, because we are a small world and we have to know each other. People want to see images on the screen that reflect themselves.”
The Pan African Film & Arts Festival will be held at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza’s Rave Cinemas, 4020 Marlton Ave., Los Angeles, from Thursday through Feb. 19. General admission tickets are $14. For more information, visit paff.org