Pan African Film Festival: ‘Kipkemboi’ and ‘A Double Life’
In ‘Kipkemboi’ a teenage Kenyan math genius creates an equation to play the stock market and brings the world financial markets to their knees.

The 32nd Pan African Film & Arts Festival, America’s largest Black-themed film fest, took place last month during Black History Month, in Los Angeles. PAFF screens movies ranging from Hollywood studio productions to indies, foreign films, documentaries, low budget productions, shorts, etc. Films span the spectrum from Oscar nominees to hard-to-find gems from Africa, the Caribbean, America and beyond that L.A. viewers are unlikely to be able to see at any other venue. Aside from the occasional retrospective, most of them are new films that will now wend their way through the film distribution market and may pop up soon in a theater near you. Here are reviews of just a few of the films audiences will have an opportunity to see.

Kipkemboi’: Kenya’s genius

African director Charles Uwagbai’s charming Kipkemboi is a well-made Kenyan-Canadian co-production that has almost every ingredient for a film to succeed. In no particular order these factors include: A David vs Goliath storyline that has you rooting for the underdog; attractive protagonists; hiss-worthy villains; plot twists; young love; on-location shooting at exotic places; strong female characters; an uplifting POV; and more.

Kipkemboi is set in Metipso, Kenya. The traditional village may be hundreds of kilometers from the urbanized capital of Nairobi, yet the title character (Thamela Mpumlwana plays Kipkemboi) is such a mathematical genius that MIT offers this teenager a scholarship to study abroad. But tragedy strikes before Kipkemboi can move to Massachusetts to study, and he opts to stay in his hamlet to help his mother and family. Nevertheless, with some encouragement from another village adolescent, Chipchirchir (the effervescent Elsie Chidera Abang), Kipkemboi pursues his visions and sets up a computer lair inside of a mud hut.

From there the math whiz kid works on and invents an extremely complicated algorithm that enables Kipkemboi to play global capital markets and make millions. However, for those who think money solves everything, Kipkemboi’s gaming of Wall Street futures trading triggers a series of dilemmas, ranging from jealous villagers to nefarious operatives hired by financial sector interests. The latter track the lad down to his remote hamlet in the Kenyan countryside, where they intend to take over his algorithmor neutralize the pesky teenager who has upended the world’s stock markets.

Kipkemboi and Chipchirchir go on the run, and plan to clandestinely meet with the mysterious underground resistance leader Simba, who in the movie’s subplot is denounced as a “terrorist” by the Kenyan establishment the social justice warrior opposes. Simba’s deep voice is heard throughout Kipkemboi online and in the media criticizing Kenya’s powers-that-be. This opposition leader reminded me of the shadowy Emmanuel Goldstein, the so-called “enemy of the people” in George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian classic 1984. (Without disclosing a plot spoiler, the surprising revelation of who Simba really is is one of Kipkemboi’s best moments, sure to make viewers smile.)

Kipkemboi has a strong socially conscious subtext as the village youth becomes a political prisoner. If redistribution of wealth to the least of these among us is a socialist principle, suffice it to say that Kipkemboi cleverly achieves this—through exploiting the capitalist system. The film also is very positive about the role of women as strong equals. Not only is Kipkemboi’s mother supportive, but Chipchirchir is no mere cheerleader. She does more than inspire Kipkemboi: she drives their getaway vehicle. And this village lass has dreams of her own, aspiring to become an attorney. Watching the romance of the appealing leads blossom is also beguiling.

Stephen Bingham reappears

The engrossing direction by Charles Uwagbai, a veteran Nigerian filmmaker who divides his time between Toronto and Africa, is admirable. Uwagbai elicits warm, realistic performances from his young actors and the rest of the cast. Joel Richardson’s screenplay is engaging, although some may find certain plot points to be implausible. (But you never know—apparently, there really is some sort of high tech program going on at a real Kenyan village called Metipso. Although the interiors of this co-production were shot in Canada, movie lovers will relish the peek Kipkemboi provides of Kenya’s countryside and contemporary urban Nairobi.

The PAFF audience at Kipkemboi’s world premiere enthusiastically reacted to the movie in a post-screening Q&A attended in person by director Uwagbai. African-American theatergoers repeatedly remarked at how happy they were to see positive depictions of Africans, who are often portrayed on Western screens as troubled people in media portrayals. Ticket buyers also said they enjoyed the positive picture Kipkemboi painted of women in this movie that also co-stars the beautiful Vinessa Antoine, who is reportedly the “the first Black Canadian person to lead a dramatic show in Canada.”

The captivating Kipkemboi epitomizes what PAFF is all about—presenting Black-themed productions in the heart of the world capital of cinema, which Angeleno moviegoers might otherwise never get a chance to see. Uwagboi told ticket buyers that he is in talks with streaming services about releasing Kipkemboi and hopefully through streaming or even theatrical distribution, a wide American audience will have an opportunity to see this highly entertaining, enjoyable, thought-provoking film about the teenage genius from Kenya.

‘A Double Life’: Radical lawyer

Catherine Masud’s must-see documentary A Double Life is a gripping account of New Left icon Stephen Bingham. The activist attorney spent years underground in Eastern Europe and Paris when he fled the USA after he was accused of passing a gun to legendary Black Panther George Jackson at San Quentin shortly before a bloody shootout at the prison in 1971. Following about 15 years on the lam, the resulting court case is compellingly rendered as Bingham, son of a prominent Connecticut family, fights for his life and freedom. This excellent, well-crafted nonfiction film brings radical history alive, including interviews with Angela Davis and many others, as well as archival clips featuring Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. A bravura, stand-up-and-cheer documentary that’s not to be missed. The trailer can be viewed here.

For more info see the PAFF website.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.