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By Dwight Brown
NNPA Syndication Film Critic
The 2022 American Black Film Festival featured in-theater screenings and a virtual component too. Issa Rae (Insecure) reigned as the festival ambassador and introduced her new HBOMax series “Rap Sh!t.” Crowds watched feature films, docs and shorts and participated in talk events, networking and of course partied hard. To stay tuned to Black film 24/7/365 go to ABFFPLAY.COM. Meanwhile, these distinguished films were part of the programming.
Often, when there’s a crisis regarding police malfeasance and concerning an African American victim, attorney Benjamin Crump is near. Not as a prosecuting or defense attorney, but as the counsel to aggrieved families who seek justice through lawsuits—the kind that hit negligent police forces and municipalities where it hurts. In the wallet. Crump has established himself as a player, much like Johnny Cochrane. His client list is impressive beyond words: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor… He’s a hero to many but does have his detractors. Some are rankled that his work is not pro-bono, at least not on the well-known cases. His law firm “Ben Crump Trial Lawyer for Justice” has amassed millions for their clients—and themselves. They receive 500 calls a day seeking advice and service.
Director Nadia Hallgren takes a balanced approach to establishing all Crump’s personae: media-savvy attorney, savior, counselor, extended family member, spokesman, activist. Even as a young man he was on a mission: “Lead me. Or follow me. Or get the hell outta my way.” And these days he knows his value: “People seek me out because they want somebody they can trust.” As the footage rolls news clips and videos of Crump, his ego is front and center along with his noteworthy achievements. He has time-tested strategies (make the press an ally), big enemies (Fox News hates him) and repped less visible cases (Black farmers dealing with pesticide illnesses).
Hallgren’s doc style is pretty routine. From a tech standpoint, nothing is extraordinary: editing, cinematography, music… In fact, considering Crump’s accomplishments as a lawyer and civil rights advocate, his deeds seem far more impressive than this non-fiction film. After all, he’s the trial lawyer who answered one of the most significant calls in American history: “My cousin was just murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. His name is George Floyd.” A suitably factual doc that needed to be insightful and instructive too.
Our Father, The Devil (***)
This isn’t a pleasant story. It’s a revenge saga that traps you and makes you feel queasy. With venom writer/director Ellie Foumbi tells a tale about a victim and perpetrator of violent war crimes. Her muse is an African refugee named Marie Cissé (Babetida Sadjo). She’s the head chef at a retirement home in Luchon, a small-town in southwest France. On the outside she’s cheery with her co-worker Nadia, and a café waiter named Arnaud (Franck Saurel) who flirts with her. Her demeanor changes drastically the day a charismatic Catholic Priest, Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané), comes to the home. Others are impressed by him. Marie is repulsed. This man was a murderous warlord.
Foumbi’s script masterfully encompasses human rights violations, social issues and feminist leanings. Her unusual storyline mimics elements of Stephen King’s Misery. It’s enough to keep the narrative fairly engaging, but possibly not in ways film fans would favor. Credit Sadjoand Savané for making more out of the 1h47m thriller than is on the page. The lead actress in particular skillfully wears her emotions on her face, is quite earnest and surprisingly diabolical: “You took everything that was good from me and shredded it. You’re not leaving here alive!”
As a director, Foumbi has assembled an outstanding tech crew. The film’s look (cinematographer Tinx Chan; production designer Phillippe Lacomblez) is art house. Its sounds (composer Gavin Brivik) are alluring. And the pacing (editor Roy Clovis) rhythmic. Though the increasingly unbelievable plot builds to an improbable scene with Nadia, Marie and Patrick, the drama does intensify up to a fulfilling ending. A perfectly acted and crafted modern-day thriller with imperfect plotting.
Lovely Jackson (**1/2)
It’s a record no one wants. Ex-inmate Rickey Jackson was incarcerated for 39 years for a murder he didn’t commit. That’s purportedly the longest prison time anyone who has been wrongfully accused and convicted has ever served. Director/cowriter Matt Waldeck and co-writer and film’s subject Jackson retell this injustice using Jackson’s personal experiences and anecdotes. A cast of younger actors reenact important moments filling in the cracks. They portray participants in a Cleveland, OH convenience store robbery that resulted in the murder of a white money-order collector. Jackson was young when he was arrested, the police department railroad him, a weak star witness accused him, and eyewitness didn’t have the courage to clear his name.
Curiously, the filmmakers use of dramatizations neither helps nor hinders. The most riveting part of this doc is Jackson himself. His metamorphosis from innocent kid to, young adult convict, to sage older man is a wonder. He’s in an amazing state of grace. Not embittered and philosophical about his life. The black and white footage works as an artistic choice (cinematographer John Turk). Jacques Brautbar’s entrancing musical score keeps you focused. The questionable reenactments are helped by Dred Geib’s production design, Annin Geib’s art direction and the costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib and Sydney Dematteis-Geib.
At 1h 44m many viewers will get restless, not with Jackson but with the pacing and overabundance of facts (editor Mark Andrew Hamer) that aren’t always vital. For those who stick with this long-winded but worthy doc, there are missives about the resilience of life, forgiveness and suing those who’ve done you wrong that are worthy of examination.
For more information about ABFF go to ABFF.com.
To screen ABFF films all year, try ABFFPLAY.com.