“I Scrubbed to Make the Black Go Away” and Other Tales from the 27th New York African Film Festival
Try googling “best African films”? What will show up first is a top ten list featuring Out of Africa with Streep and Redford, Blood Diamond with DiCaprio, and Black Panther with Boseman. Not exactly what you were searching for.
So where do you go to find homeborn African films with directors and actors and crew who don’t have U.S. passports and who aren’t signed up with CAA, William Morris, or Gersh?
This week, the 27th New York African Film Festival will satisfy your cinematic thirst for such product (at least until Dec. 9th), and thanks to the folks at Film at Lincoln Center and AFF, Inc., this year’s offerings have gone virtual.
Six full-length features and eight shorts, both new and old, were chosen to spotlight Sudan and Nigeria, two countries whose film industries were once upended by economic decline and a 30-year-reign of a dictator, respectively. Both have seeming recovered, even to the point where The New York Times is said to have coined the term Nollywood to write about Nigeria’s successful comeback.
One of the must-sees here is Ngozi Onwurah’s semi-autobiographical short, “Coffee Colored Children” (1988). Onwurah, born in Nigeria in 1966 to a white mother and a black father, was forced to escape to England with her brother and Mum because of the Civil War then occurring.
With handheld camera footage creating the rawness of home movies, the film commences at a street fair where a batch of celebrants representing every race are partying.
On the soundtrack, appropriately, is Blue Mink’s catchy 1966 hit, “Melting Pot”:
“Take a pinch of white man
Wrap him up in black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty-bit of red Indian boy
Curly Latin kinkies
Mixed with yellow Chinkees*
You know you lump it all together
And you get a recipe for a get-along scene.
Oh, what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true.”
(*Note that by the time Boyzone rerecorded the tune in the 1990s, the lyrics were more politically correct (e.g. “Curly black and kinky, Oriental and sexy.”)
Next shot: a young white man scoops up dog waste, which he carries to an apartment building. Wearing rubber gloves, he smushes some of the feces all over a door and pushes the rest through the mail slot before quickly sauntering off. This is Onwurah’s family’s door.
Jump to the visual of Mum sponging away the mess without complaint. Onwurah, in a voiceover, recalls how she felt after this act of hate: “It was our fault because mothers with nice white children never had to wash dog poo off their doors.”
She and her sibling were in fact the only dark-skinned children in the neighborhood at that time. Her classmates “thought they could catch it. Blackness. If you touched us, you’d go black.”
Her classmates “thought they could catch it. Blackness. If you touched us, you’d go black.”
The camera then hurdles to scenes of her brother and herself at various ages trying to scrub their blackness away, even abusing scouring powders to try to reach their goal. “Sometimes I scrubbed until I bled.”
Her brother adds: “Teacher wanted me to color my face with a brown crayon. I couldn’t. I was nearly 14 when I could, and then it was without any pride.”
“Teacher wanted me to color my face with a brown crayon. I couldn’t. I was nearly 14 when I could, and then it was without any pride.”
The pair do eventually achieve a sense of self-respect, but in doing so they are compelled to ask, “So is Great Britain a great Melting Pot or just an incinerator?” In an unforgettable 16 minutes, Onwurah answers that question.
Next try the visually impressive restoration of Sudanese director/playwright Ibrahim Shaddad’s Hunting Party (1964). In startlingly crisp black-and-white, Shaddad shot this 41-minute short at a German film school as his treatise on racism.
Opening shot: Joe, a parched young black man emerges seemingly from inside a tree. He is being chased through a forest by a posse of armed white men in an unnamed country. His transgression: falling in love with a white woman and she with him.
Desperate, barely able to move on, after hours on the run, Joe comes across a lone house inhabited by a very blond white couple, who supply him with both food and water. Joe, apparently forgetting he’s being pursued, decides to hang around and do some chores for the affable couple. But how affable are they? When the hunting party closes in, will Joe discover he was being fed by his saviors or by his executioners?
Over a half century ago, the film’s simplicity no doubt didn’t mar the power of its message (“Sometimes a white man feels he just has to play racist, even against his better instincts.”), especially for German audiences that could still remember firsthand their relatives chasing down Jews.
Feminist Sudanese filmmaker/writer Marwa Zein’s prize-wining short film “A Game” (2009) is based on the Alberto Moravia short story “Let’s Play a Game.” Here, Rana, a young girl, is distraught after her beloved “uncle” walks out of her life after a fight with her mum, Hala.
“Where is Uncle Ibrahim?” Rana asks.
“I don’t want to hear the name of this bastard anymore. Do you understand?” Hala screams back. She then goes into the bathroom to take her pills.
A little time passes, and Rana suggests the two play a game
Rana: “Look, Mom. I will be you and you will be me. . . . We are going to talk and tell each other everything.”
Hala agrees and soon starts imitating her precocious daughter while Rana (as Hala) begins nagging, smoking, and screaming. Suddenly, she, still impersonating her Mum, runs into the bathroom and takes her mother’s pill container and threatens to kill herself.
Hala (as herself) shouts: “What are you doing? Did you lose your mind?”
Rana: “What’s wrong, Mum? Aren’t we playing?”
Within the six-minute running time, a mother learns a whole lot about her mothering skills and herself.
The other films strike home, too, dealing with a failed gay romance, adultery in a Muslim household, a troublesome teen who accidentally stirs up his grandfather’s horrific war memories. and even a group of women bravely fighting against the authorities to become Sudan’s National Women’s Team.
But what these and the other NYAFF offerings here have in common was expressed in an interview the late Senegalese film director Djibril Diop Mambéty gave for his film Hyenas (1992): “I . . . wanted to pay homage to the beauty of Africa when I made the film. . . . Africa is rich in cinema, in images. Hollywood could not have made this film, no matter how much money they spent. The future belongs to images. Making a film is a matter of love, not money.”