Earning this year’s Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave broke new ground in mainstream cinema. While this feat undoubtedly marks a step forward for having these types of stories told, the overall image of African-Americans on the silver screen unfortunately remains cluttered with too many stereotypes and one-dimensional characters.
This year’s lineup of the Tribeca Film Festival, from April 16-27 in New York City, looks like the ripple effect of that historic Oscar win. With a diverse range of genre and subject matter, eight films in particular offer a platform that allows for our authentic selves to finally become a part of the public discourse.—Shannon J. Effinger
Written and directed by Mariana Rondón
Junior (Samuel Lange) is a precocious 9-year-old with his head stuck in the clouds. His mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) can only deal with the reality of raising two children on her own in the projects. The loss of her husband and her struggle to find work as a security guard consume her. And the resentment she harbors towards her son’s carefree spirit is palpable.
Junior’s strongest desire right now is to straighten his curly hair for his school’s yearbook photo. Marta staunchly forbids it. Thankfully, he finds an ally in his grandmother (Nelly Ramos), who understands him as she blow dries his curls straight during their visits. Set in the bustling capital city of Caracas, Venezuela, Mariana Rondón’s touching new film lends intimacy and humanity to the much broader issues of identity and homophobia.
Written and directed by Garrett Bradley
Shot in cinéma vérité style, Garrett Bradley’s debut feature film has both the texture and feel of a documentary, from the uninhibited approach in its storytelling to the tight close-ups of every subject. Nothing and no one gets ignored. Set in New Orleans, a city known for being a world onto itself, Bradley finds three twentysomethings to focus on: Jamaine, a young brother who spends his days searching for work; Leanne, a single mother of four with dreams of becoming an actress; and Elliott, an Ivy Leaguer who has questions about life that the classroom cannot answer.
“The funny thing is that the characters don’t really engage with one another in the film,” says Bradley. “Through their personal stories, I think each of their experiences are humanized simply by being seen and heard.”
Written and directed by Bert Marcus
While Muhammad Ali has become a universal symbol for courage both inside and out of the ring, few boxers have achieved that pinnacle apart from the sport itself. Bert Marcus’s latest film examines the lives of three known boxing champions: former heavyweight fighters Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, and current middleweight boxer Bernard Hopkins. As they set the bar high with each win (notably Tyson and Hopkins, who at 48 broke his own record a second time for becoming the oldest fighter to win a title match), it is their respective life journeys leading up to the ring (drugs, poverty, prison) that not only challenge the myth of the American dream, but also force us to question the society that produces such enigmas.
Written and directed by Keith Miller
Drawing from the familiar ground of his 2012 debut film Welcome to Pine Hill, Miller’s second feature is once again set in the urban backdrop of New York City. John (John Diaz) loses his father to gun violence and Primo (James “Primo” Grant) becomes an unlikely surrogate father for John. Reared by the streets as a member of the Bloods since the age of 12 (both in the film and in real-life), Primo teaches John the ways of life as only he knows how. While the streets of Brooklyn are definitely a third character, as the story builds, Miller’s vérité approach allows for Primo and John to take center focus as they’re forced to tackle real-life questions about their purpose as young men.
Keep On Keepin’ On
Directed by Alan Hicks
Pianist Justin Kauflin is a 23-year-old blind prodigy. Kauflin also suffers from a severe case of performance anxiety, but he somehow finds his way to study with the legendary Clark Terry, then 89. The great jazz trumpeter has the distinction of playing with both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestras. He’s also been a mentor to countless jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, who produced this telling documentary from director Hicks. During the making of this film, as Kauflin prepares to compete in a prestigious music competition, Terry’s own health deteriorates and he begins to lose his sight just as their unlikely bond deepens.
Time Is Illmatic
Directed by One9
“The World Is Yours” serves as a benchmark for when hip-hop could still paint vividly sans excess commercialism. With Pete Rock’s skillful handling of the chordal riff sampled from jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, it’s arguably the best song off of 1994’s Illmatic, for it captures the unique hybrid that is rapper Nas. A product of the renowned Queensbridge Housing Projects, Nas is also famously the son of jazz cornetist Olu Dara. Director One9’s documentary not only captures the spirit of the environment that created one of hip-hop’s most potent storytellers, but how, 20 years later, this album has left an indelible footprint on Black music.
Untitled James Brown Documentary
Directed by Alex Gibney
“Soul Brother Number One”—a.k.a. the late, great James Brown—singlehandedly changed the look and sound of American music. With every passing decade, from traditional rhythm and blues right up through hip-hop, James Brown was always at the helm of it (either directly or indirectly). With special permission from Brown’s estate, director Alex Gibney’s as-yet-untitled documentary focuses on his life from the beginning up through 1974.
When the Garden Was Eden
Directed by Michael Rapaport
At 2011’s Tribeca Film Festival, Rapaport gave us Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, an impressive film narrative documenting the rise of one of hip-hop’s most beloved, influential acts. This time, the NYC-bred actor/director focuses on his other love: basketball. Based on author Harvey Araton’s 2012 bestseller, When the Garden Was Eden is a touching tribute to the glory heydays of the NY Knicks in the late 1960s, which featured the likes of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and legendary coach (and recently named Knicks president) Phil Jackson.