Even those who never stepped on a plane to Paris may have noticed that French film has been having a moment lately. This year, French-Senegalese actor Omar Sy became the first Black to win a Best Actor César award (the French Oscar) for his arguably buffonish role in Intouchables. That feel-good blockbuster dropped in the same season as Case Départ, another popular comedy about Black French guys trying to escape their displacement to slavery times. Oui, a slave comedy. From June 1-3 at Columbia University’s Teachers College in Manhattan, the African Diaspora International Film Festival thankfully presents The French Connection, a more nuanced look at Black French cinema.
Founded in 1993 by Diarah N’Daw-Spech and Reinaldo Barroso-Spech (they’re husband and wife), the ADIFF spotlights diasporic films that mainstream cinema festivals often ignore. If you’re not a full-blown Francophile, wade in with Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World. Directed in 2006 by the German documentarist Annette von Wangenheim, Josephine Baker tells the tale of the iconic expatriate dancer-actress born Freda McDonald, who famously reinvented herself in Paris during the 1920s. Wangenheim’s documentary follows Baker from her upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri, to her burlesque triumphs abroad, from her civil rights activism to her “rainbow children” adoption of 12 kids of different ethnicities.
The French Connection retrospective opens Friday night with another doc, French-Algerian director Cheikh Djemaï’s Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggle, His Work. Known among Black cultural nationalists in America for masterpiece essay collections like The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon left a celebrated legacy as writer, philosopher and revolutionary. Considered a major figure of Négritude (France’s answer to the Harlem Renaissance movement), Fanon also figured prominently in the Algerian liberation struggle. Frantz Fanon documents it all.
The ADIFF presents more than just real-life stories, although Sotigui Kouyaté: A Modern Griot is also on tap. (This doc testifies about the late Burkinabé actor Sotigui Kouyaté, who died two years ago in Paris.) The festival’s feature films highlight stories that illuminate the Blacker side of France’s City of Light. 35 Shots of Rhum tells of a father-daughter relationship thrown into disorder by a handsome young suitor come courting. Return Back Home (Retour au Pays) illustrates the reverse-migration struggles of Laurent, a twentysomething from Guadeloupe who leaves Paris to be with his family in the French islands.
Other dramas rounding out the French Connection lineup include Bloody Roots (Fichues Racines), The Glass Ceiling (Le Plafond de Verre), Living in Paradise (Tueurs de Petits Poissons) and Night of Destiny (La Nuit du Destin). The 10th annual ADIFF also invades Chicago from June 14-21 with cinema from Cameroon, Cuba, South Africa, Brazil, Morocco and more. (A full schedule for New York and Chicago can be found at the African Diaspora International Film Festival Facebook page.)