Gregory Payton in 'We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest.'
(Photograph by Josh Egel/OUSD/Courtesy of HBO)
The vast majority of film festivals, especially in the Bay Area, aren’t simply cultural events or entertainment options. They are community gatherings. Online iterations necessitated by the pandemic try to replicate that feeling. (The new tradition of the opening night drive-in screening is a way of creating a live experience by placing some people in safe proximity.)
But online fests are better than nothing, no doubt. They do require, however, a little more effort—focusing our full attention during streamed home screenings, attending post-film Zoom Q&As with the filmmakers—than passively sitting in a packed theater. Test the waters, join the fray, catch a flick at the Oakland International Film Festival and Frameline (a.k.a. the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival), both launching their respective 10-day bashes Sept. 17.
David Roach searches far and wide to populate the OIFF with a chorus of voices that speak to Oakland’s challenges, history, multiculturalism and vitality. The lineup of 65-plus shorts and features corresponds to the metropolis’s wide-ranging and ever-evolving character.
The opening night film, We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest, gives us a front-row introduction to the best and brightest speechmakers, poets and public speakers among Oaktown’s children. (The competition is open to pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.) The participants include a Sri Lankan boy who lectures us on Dr. King’s contributions, a tiny Black girl practicing her poem on a picnic table for her dad, and a 9-year-old preacher’s grandson who delivers a powerhouse rendition of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. You won’t be able to limit yourself to just one favorite.
Oakland writer-director-actor Pharoah Charles Powell’s latest made-on-a-shoestring feature, All the Love, centers on a young woman forced to confront the truth about her father, and her own identity. Powell will discuss his film at 10:25pm on Sept. 24 following its screening.
Another local filmmaker, Spencer Wilkinson (One Voice: The Story of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir), returns with his second quintessential hometown documentary Alice Street. Wilkinson originally set out to document the conception and execution of a mural near his house. But nothing is simple, or static, in America’s cities, and the public art becomes the catalyst for a saga of gentrification and empowerment.
Check back later this week for an overview of the 44th San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, rescheduled and reshaped from its usual omnibus in June. But drop everything right this instant and reserve a ticket to Shit & Champagne, the world premiere of S.F. writer-director-star D’Arcy Drollinger’s delicious drag parody of 1970s sexploitation movies at the West Wind Solano Drive-in in Concord on opening night.
Ace editor and occasional director Veronica Selver has been a crucial component of the Bay Area’s world-class independent documentary community since the mid-’70s, when she partnered with Peter Adair, Lucy Massie Phenix, Rob Epstein and a couple other gutsy visionaries on the breakthrough gay and lesbian oral history Word Is Out. If anyone can avoid the pitfalls (with panache) of the family documentary, that most perilous of nonfiction films, it’s Selver.
Fifteen years after her mother’s death at 97, Selver and co-director Susan Fanshel recount Irmi Selver’s roller-coaster ride through the 20th century with affection, wit and an appreciation for the unknowable mystery that is at the heart of every person. Using her late-in-life memoir (read by Hanna Schygulla) as a guide, Irmi traces its protagonist’s affluent childhood in pre- and post-World War I Germany to—and far beyond—the tragedy that struck her young family in 1939 on a refugee ship in the North Sea.
Resolutely life-affirming and unexpectedly universal, Irmi is streaming through BAMPFA, along with a recorded conversation among the filmmakers and esteemed film composer Todd Boekelheide, following its July debut in the Jewish Film Festival’s Cinegogue Summer Days.
Janelle Monáe can do it all, and co-writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz invite her to handle just about everything but singing in Antebellum. In a double role that spans then and now, slavery and independence, Monáe exudes dignity and inner strength throughout, and fashion-mag style and action-heroine grit in the film’s middle and later sections.
Her performance, by turns glowering and glamorous, is undercut by a screenplay whose pieces don’t completely click into lucid, satisfying place. Set on a plantation in Civil War-era Louisiana, Antebellum is a walking nightmare dreamed at golden hour, when the sun gleams languidly through the trees as if to mock the horrors that we know await in just a few hours.
The filmmakers display great care in avoiding the torture-porn clichés of slavery without eliding the cavalier cruelty or soul-crushing hopelessness. Then, late one night, the anachronistic ring of a cellphone jolts us and the movie into the present-day life of Dr. Veronica Henley (also played by Monáe), an in-demand intellectual and the author of Shedding the Coping Persona. While she revels with friends at a conference in New Orleans, Bush and Renz disturbingly portray how casual and overt racism are precisely meant to dent and demean successful Black people.
Our journey with Monae’s dual characters from literal to paranoid to fantastical pays off with a reasonably satisfying cascade of payback. Antebellum’s clever structure works to demonstrate in a visceral way how whites have smuggled, in broad daylight, 19th-century racism all the way into today. It’s not, shall we say, a pretty picture.
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