Now Playing! Soul and Scottish Hijinks on the Home Screen

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Viraj Juneja in 'Get Duked!' (Amazon Studios)

If there’s such a thing as summer noir, we’re caught in one. One hazy day follows another, frustration edging toward desperation, ennui curdling into recklessness. The lone saving grace is that with the saloons mostly closed—their murky interiors, at least—our chances of being lured into a doomed scheme by a slickly smooth guy or gal at the end of the bar are greatly reduced.

The cure for the summertime blues, if I may challenge the teenage wisdom of rock ’n’ roll immortal Eddie Cochran, is cinema. Even if we can’t avail ourselves of the air-conditioned, freshly popped respite of the theater, we can lift our spirits with trips to distant climes or times.

San Francisco Black Film Festival
Through Aug. 30

But not just yet. Amplifying the tenor of the times, this year’s extended S.F. Black Film Festival spotlights realities that far too many people beyond the Black community have avoided. The pain is pervasive, and intensified by the Aug. 7 passing of SFBFF co-director Kali O Ray following a stroke. Escapism is not on the program, not this year.

The lineup is expansive and eclectic, a mix of shorts and features, either free or affordably priced. New titles go up on the site a couple times a day. On the nonfiction side, Daryl B. Jones’ Tender casts an empathetic eye on the housing struggles of Black trans women in the Tenderloin. Halfway around the globe, Iké Udé’s Nollywood in Focus takes us behind the scenes of the Nigerian film industry.

The fiction offerings include Shabazza Hameed’s short Unordinary Occurrence, in which the protagonist is put in an awkward but potentially rewarding spot by a co-worker. In local filmmaker Sephora Woldu’s semi-autobiographical feature debut, Life is Fare, a young Eritrean-American filmmaker imagines an Eritrean immigrant grappling with his culture and identity in San Francisco. The S.F. Black Film Festival continues online through Aug. 30.

Host/producer/creator of the television show 'Soul!' Ellis Haizlip, surrounded by members of the J.C. White Choir. (Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions)

Mr. Soul!
Opens Aug. 28
Streaming via local theaters

From 1968 to 1973, New York City’s public TV station produced, aired and syndicated a weekly Black variety show to PBS stations around the country. Ellis Haizlip, a fearless producer of theatrical, dramatic and musical works that encompassed James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was the producer and host of the perfectly named Soul! Seizing the medium and the moment, Haizlip was a soft-spoken man on a mission.

Haizlip gave a platform to Black artists whom every other TV show ignored or didn’t know, and he inspired Black viewers with a constellation of talent and ideas. But his mandate went far beyond showcasing organist Billy Preston and the God Squad or introducing balladeers like Ashford & Simpson. Haizlip routinely booked radical poets like Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka (with the Pharoah Sanders Ensemble), and presented dance performances choreographed by George Faison.


To Haizlip, culture wasn’t just entertainment but an avenue of self-expression. He used Soul! to demonstrate, week after week, the glittering boulevard of Black culture that mainstream (white) culture didn’t recognize or value. The vestiges of that disrespect still linger, given how long it took Melissa Haizlip, Ellis’s niece, to fund and produce Mr. Soul!

The major frustration of Mr. Soul!, putting aside the two-plus years it’s taken to reach theaters since its festival premiere, is that the sheer number of vintage clips and contemporary interviews preclude lengthy chunks of joyful individual performances. Mr. Soul! will air later this year on PBS’ Independent Lens, but don’t wait: Half a century on, we still need to be reminded of the breadth and richness of the Black experience in America.

Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen in 'Get Duked!' (Amazon Studios)

Get Duked!
Premieres Aug. 28
Amazon Prime Video

The aforementioned escapism comes all the way from Scotland, where the gulf between the moneyed class and the underclass is as apparent as everywhere else. And where the myth of the natural, bucolic countryside holds sway, as it does here, in contrast to the despoiled cities and suburbs.

For his feature debut, music video veteran Ninian Doff has written and directed a diverting fish-out-of-water comedy that takes to heart Warren Buffett’s quote: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Get Duked! sets four Glasgow youths loose on the Highlands in reluctant overland pursuit of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for navigation and survival, but the joke’s on them: They are this week’s long-range rifle fodder for a crusty but well-preserved Duke (Eddie Izzard).

A couple of earnest-but-dim back-country coppers (Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie, enjoying every humiliating moment of their stereotypical roles) contribute to the open-air commotion, but we’re a long way from Fargo. (And The Most Dangerous Game.) The grit and the gore are minimal, and the moral of the story (teamwork, lads!) will come as no surprise. The warm heart of this enjoyable movie is the dynamic among the four teenage goofballs, with Viraj Juneja standing out as DJ Beatroot, a middle-class South Asian who imagines he’s a swaggering rapper.

Get Duked! won an audience award at South by Southwest a year ago, and it’s worth a late-night ramble after a long day-hike, a good meal, a few drinks and a hit of legal produce from your local dispensary. The real world will seem far, far away.