NEW YORK- The ActNow Foundation and BAMcinématek will be hosting the New Voices in Black Cinema festival from February 17 through February 20 to provide area film lovers the opportunity to see a host of powerful films that boast a wide array of perspectives and experiences of the African Diaspora.
“Giving the filmmakers the opportunity to present their stories in BAM’s beautiful cinemas and in our home borough of Brooklyn allows us to engage movie lovers of al walks of life in the diversity, beauty, and complexity of films of the African diaspora,” says Aaron Ingram, the executive director of ActNow.
Ignorance is bliss. Audiences may walk away with that exact sentiment after watching two of the festival’s films: “The American Dream”(2011) and “The Tested”(2010.) Both films center on very normal characters who seek a greater understanding about the world, unaware of the drastic cost at which it may come. Actor-turned-filmmaker Jamil Walker Smith wrote and stars in “The American Dream,” as Luis, an aspiring “like Spike” filmmaker who documents the last 36 hours before he and his best friend Ron, played by Malcolm Goodwin, ship off to Afghanistan. Smith juxtaposes reality-style shooting and around-the-way dialogue against fine-spun flashbacks and heartwrenching flash forwards, a multilayered recipe that results in one of the most true-to-life accounts of American soldiers and families coping with war. Each character becomes your brother, your son, your grandmother, your father, your cousin, your best friend; not by force, but by the delicate pathos that Smith infuses into each character.
Unlike most films centered on the American soldier’s experiences abroad and at home, “Dream” provides an extremely nuanced look at this common story by breathing complex life into Luis and Ron, two Black young men who are all at once youthfully rambunctious and loving, yet simultaneously weighed down by burdens from their past and their wonderfully ambitious dreams. Sporadically jumping from their brief vacation to Mexico to their last hours with their family and friends to irreversible trauma endured in Afghanistan, this film will undoubtedly strike a chord with both those who have been directly impacted by a loved one at war and those who have never had to cope with that difficult experience. Luis has clearly demonstrated his directing chops in an innovative fashion not often attempted by established filmmakers, and in doing so, brings to life a crucial story that has become an integral chapter in American history.
While “Dream” gives the sense of reality through casual dialogue and shooting style, Russell Costanzo’s first feature “The Tested” delivers a dose of realness through the storyline. A Black household helmed by a single mother must cope with a life-shattering event, while the man responsible must also deal with his irreversible actions. As three lives ultimately come to a brutal collision, each character shares the same burning desire for redemption. Aunjanue Ellis (“The Help”, “Ray”) plays Darraylynn, a grieving mother raising two children alone in an unforgiving concrete jungle, struggling to maintain peace of mind whether at the bottom of a wine bottle or at her local church. Her son Dre, played by newcomer Michael Morris, Jr., attempts to find retribution for his family, while engaging in politics as usual on the street, a feat made all the more complicated as he grapples with coming of age in a fatherless home. Outside of the family lies Juliane, a self-proclaimed reformed NYPD cop, battles his inner demons and past regrets, both of which connect him indefinitely to mother and son.
What “Dream” lacked in melodrama, “The Tested” certainly made up for; however, that is not necessarily a good thing. Smith’s “Dream” guided viewers in a very natural progression, albeit non-chronological, of two multidimensional Black men journeying to manhood, for better or for worse. The storyline and dialogue are unique enough to keep one’s interest, yet still grounded in a familiar place that is sure to resonate with Black audiences. In “The Tested,” on the other hand, Costanzo brings the drama with a story set around police shooting, gang violence, and an emotionally-charged single mother, inner-city house hold. No matter how much nuance each actor brought to the film, the clichéd nature of the storyline leaves a stale taste in the mouth. As accurate in portraying the emotions and actions typical to the tragedies endured by Darraylynn, Dre and Juliane may have been, the melodrama of the film coupled with the sheer number of other films told in the same vein causes “The Tested” to fail at connecting with the audience. Although, for what it is worth, Costanzo does equip his characters with a clear sense of agency, whereas most similar films simply pathologize them.
For more information about the New Voices in Black Cinema Festivak, check out BAM.org.
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Patrice Peck is a writer and journalist whose work explores the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Her work lives at www.patricepeck.com.