Pan African Film Festival: Screening the global Black experience and spirit
Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso |

LOS ANGELES—Thanks to the Pan African Film Festival, now I know who Errol Walton Barrow was: The independence leader who became Barbados’ first prime minister. I had never heard of him until I was lucky enough to catch Marcia Weekes’ docudrama Barrow—Freedom Fighter at a PAFF screening, narrated on and off camera by America’s first Black Attorney General, Eric Holder, who has Barbadian heritage (trailer here).

Through historical reenactments, original interviews, news clips and archival footage, the 84-minute film tells the story of Barrow, a former WWII fighter pilot identified as a “democratic socialist” who brought reforms such as universal free schooling to his Caribbean nation once it threw off the yoke of British colonialism. Robin Hood-like, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, in terms of social programs. The film, which was made to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Barbados’ independence, is both informative and entertaining and includes a good fun sequence about the Supremes performing at Barbados’ independence celebration. Adrian Holmes (Twilight, Elysium) depicts Barrow as a feisty, singular, self-assured individual, and did a Q&A with the audience after a PAFF screening. The Festival will screen the film again on Sun., Feb. 18 at 1:15 pm.

This is what the 26th annual Pan African Film Festival, currently underway through Feb. 19, is all about: Screening the global Black experience and spirit. PAFF is America’s top Black-themed gateway for fiction, short, animated and documentary films by and from Africa, the Caribbean, Australian Aborigines, African Americans. The movies range from a Feb. 14 big budget gala screening of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther to the nonfiction biopics Malcolm X: An Overwhelming Influence on the Black Power Movement, directed by Thomas Muhammad, and Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor. (In recent years PAFF screened Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution starring those real superheroes: Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Erica Huggins, etc.)

As the Trump regime reels from domestic abuse-related scandals, the compelling documentary Captain Thomas Sankara depicts an African revolutionary leader who boldly launched pro-woman campaigns in Burkina Faso denouncing bad husbands who commit domestic abuse; banning female circumcision; prohibiting women from going to the marketplace so men will have to do the food shopping; and many other feminist measures designed to advance the role of females in education, politics (several women serve as high-level government ministers) and more. The young, charismatic, radical Sankara suggests what it would have been like if Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown had overthrown the government and taken over state power. It’s the stuff that revolutionary dreams are made of!

This Burkina Faso leader of the 1980s had been overlooked until now; hopefully Christophe Cupelin’s excellent biopic restores Sankara to his rightful place among revolutionaries of the underdeveloped world. The biopic is largely composed of archival and news footage, including Sankara’s tête-à-têtes with France’s then-President François Mitterand, the so-called “Socialist” who bombed Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship at harbor in New Zealand and led the country that had formerly colonized what had been called Upper Volta until Sankara’s revolution renamed it “the land of upright, honest men.” My favorite film I’ve seen so far at this year’s PAFF, Captain Thomas Sankara screens again Feb. 18 at 5:00 pm and Feb. 19 at 1:20 pm. All power to the people—especially the ladies!

Zola Maseka’s The Whale Caller is a cross between the 2002 Maori movie Whale Rider and a Fellini-type, magical realist romance shot on location in South Africa. The title character played by Sello Maake KaNcube tries to use a sort of shofar-like horn to summon the behemoths of the deep, as the outrageous, sexy Amrain Ismail Essop woos the obsessed whaler caller. The wild movie includes stunning cinematography and scenery, including of Hermanus Cove.

PAFF’s closing night movie is the U.S. premiere of The Forgiven, starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as South Africa’s Bishop Tutu and Eric Bana (The Hulk), directed by Roland Jaffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission). The red carpet event for The Forgiven is 5:45 pm, Feb. 18, and the screening starts at 6:45 pm, followed by an after-party.

Sam Pollard’s 100-minute biopic Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (part of PBS’ American Masters series) provides a historical chronicle of and personal look at the iconic singer/dancer/actor/activist. Davis’ politics are highlighted: On the one hand, he embraced Nixon and kissed Archie Bunker on the TV sitcom All in the Family, but he also raised money and marched for civil rights with Dr. King. It’s unfair and unfortunate that Pollard leads off with Sammy’s Nixonian hug—shouldn’t we evaluate someone’s life in its entirety and not focus on the most odious objectionable moments?

As the doc shows, JFK snubbed Sammy by refusing to invite him to the White House during Democrat Kennedy’s Frank Sinatra-organized inaugural party there because Davis had—shudders—married a white woman. This doesn’t justify Sammy’s stance vis-à-vis Republican tricky Dick, but considering the performer’s risking of his neck and big donations to the “we shall overcome” movement, it doesn’t seem right that Pollard focuses on Davis’ lowest political point in his otherwise excellent documentary.

Of course, this biopic about a legendary entertainer contains plenty of clips, including his star turn as an eight-year-old way pre-Obama in 1933’s delightful Rufus Jones for President opposite an adult Ethel Waters. There are plenty of Rat Pack vignettes, where Davis’ cavorting with Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc., was viewed by some as reflecting the era’s integration movement, although others may find the racial jokes and skits portrayed at Vegas showrooms, on TV, etc., to be cringeworthy. Surprisingly, Sammy’s expert impressions of celebs such as Bogie raised eyebrows because a Black man was imitating Caucasians, despite the fact that his mimicry was right on the mark. Unfortunately, what was likely Davis’ dramatic debut, opposite Eartha Kitt in the earthy black and white film Anna Lucasta, is missing in action from this doc. The entertaining biopic screens 6:15 pm, Feb. 19.

Sweet Country is a sort of Down Under-set To Kill a Mockingbird as an Aborigine (Hamilton Morris) stands trial in 1929 in Australia’s Northern Territory for shooting a white man in what’s obviously self defense. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and Bryan Brown (1980’s Breaker Morant, The Thorn Birds) co-star in this searing indictment of Aussie racism directed by Alice Springs-born Warwick Thornton. It beggars the imagination to watch the overt racism Australia’s indigenous people were subjected to and how they internalized this institutionalized bigotry and contempt that viewed Aborigines as being subordinate to whites and less than human. Sweet Country screens 5:50 pm, Feb. 18.

PAFF provides Angelenos and aficionados the opportunity to see on the big screen movies that most film fans may otherwise not get a chance to take in. As such, this annual filmfest remains one of L.A.’s beloved cultural gems and an ideal way to celebrate and observe Black History Month. The Festival also includes a Black-themed art exhibition, panels, workshops, etc. Screenings are at Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza 15, 4020 Marlton Ave, Los Angeles 90008. For more info see:


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.