The Voice in the Church

For the opening night of its 27th edition at the Directors Guild of America, the PanAfrican Art and Film Festival (PAFF), landed quite a coup by organising, a week before its international debut out of competition at the Berlinale, the belated Los Angeles premiere of Amazing Grace – whose unedited footage had languished in Warner Bros vaults for decades. To record what was going to become the best selling album of her career – and the best selling gospel music album ever – Aretha Franklin had decided to return to her roots and record live, on 13 and 14 January 1972, in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in South Los Angeles, at 87th street and Broadway, between Inglewood and Watts. (The church still stands up, and on 1 April a gala screening of the film took place there, before its theatrical release).1 Sydney Pollack had been commissioned to direct the film; this was the year he released Jeremiah Johnson, but the 38 year-old director was an inexperienced documentarist, and he forgot to use clapboards. The film then got embroiled in a series of technical impossibilities and legal issues – that eventually got resolved by synch sound wizards and legal eagles, as well as, sadly to say, the death of the Lady herself on 16 August, 2018.

Alan Elliott produced and edited the film as we know it now, but Spike Lee and Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, are also credited as some of the co-producers; anchored in a specific locus of black culture (the church choir, the gospel music), anchored even more precisely in the pure blackness of Lady Soul’s voice, the film is nevertheless an ultimate testimony of the cross-over power of Gospel. In the back, lost among the spectators who simply don’t care, one recognises Mick Jagger (accompanied by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts). Clearly under the spell, the two Brits are much less important than this young girl who starts dancing as in a trance. And they take last billing after the musical giants performing with their Lady, taking care of her, organising her cues and following her – Reverend James Cleveland, founder and director of the Southern California Community Choir, Reverend Dr. Alexander Hamilton, the Director of the Choir, who supervised the recording, the great gospel singer Clara Ward whose voice alternates with that of Franklin in the “lead-switching style” she favoured, both carried by the powerful tones of the chorus. Franklin was 29 at the time; Ward who had been an inspiration as well as a close friend of Franklin’s father, was 48 and was to die a year later.

A bubble rescued from oblivion – they don’t make records like this anymore – the film is also a precise vignette of the times. The Civil Rights Movement (1954-68) that had marked Franklin’s childhood2 had unfolded, and it was the era of Black is beautiful. The film thus becomes a documentary on black fashion, black hair and free black bodies (as well as the way they move) at the time. The warm, physical and tender way the performers react to each other, the grace with which they share the space3 are a clear instance of the latter. It is also an insight on a complicated, yet fruitful father-daughter relationship. Reverend C. L. Franklin, in a smart powder-blue suit, is in the church. He talks about Aretha’s childhood, how she sang from an early age, how, even when she was famous for her emotional love songs, “she never left the church.” At some point he wipes the sweat from her forehead as she is singing. Yet traces of a more fraught relationship (the Reverend’s domestic life being less than stellar) are also palpable. Love is never simple, but Franklin’s inimitable voice offers a home to those who listens. A home in their grief, a home in her grief. To artist/filmmaker Arthur Jafa, “the two most distinctive African American voices are those of Aretha Franklin and James Brown”4 The voice was where the culture stolen during the Middle Passage was encoded, it was home to those who didn’t have one; with Amazing Grace, this home is open to all of us.

The Fight Never Ends

So was PAFF, that moved to its usual quarters in Crenshaw after the opening night. Another monumental work was presented, the World Premiere of archival documentarist Stanley Nelson’s Boss, The Black Experience in Business. Nelson is returning to his roots, as his first documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker (1987-89), was about the child of former slaves who became America first self-made millionaire – by selling beauty products made for black women. With Boss, his second film released this year (the other being Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool, premiered at Sundance in January 2019.5 Nelson returns with a major yet not significantly explored topic, the economic integration of the African American community, but this time he casts a wider net and digs deeper. Written by Marcia Smith, his wife and partner/co-founder in the Harlem-based in independent production, Firelight Films, Boss goes back to the time of slavery to find evidence of entrepreneurial endeavours: some plantations allowed slaves to run small businesses; depending on the goodwill of their owners, in some cases they could even keep the profit (in others, they had to turn it in to the slaveholder). The money could be used to buy freedom, or, after the abolition of slavery, to purchase some land or open a shop.

Covering a large territory, the film is organised by chapters, depending on the different economic activities, rather than following a historical timeline. This sometimes frustrating decision was probably necessary, as hundreds of names appear in the film. A few strong moments emerged for me. The well-received idea that WWI contributed to the advancement of “the Negro” in the US was dispelled, or at least presented in greater complexity. Returning home with the belief that their war record would ensure them a place at the dinner table, blacks were often met with animosity and violence. Race riots erupted throughout the US, as in Longview, TX (10-12 July, 1919), discussed by Smith and Nelson at length. Yet, the ship sailed on, and whether it was in the North (as the result of the Great Migration) or in the South, black billionaires started appearing. At first, their entrepreneurship was made necessary by segregation: banks and insurance companies wouldn’t lend money to black people, and the path to black-owned business was marked by obstacles, racist oppositions and bankruptcies. More daringly some tried to hide their identity and sell their products to white people; it didn’t always turn out so well. The end of WWII brought another change: in 1945, in Chicago, John H. Johnson founded the monthly magazine Ebony (followed by its sister publication Jet in 1951), featuring African American issues, personalities, politicians, entertainers – and ads designed for the African American market (with the racially appropriate models). Highly influential, Ebony was to reach a circulation of about 1.35 million. In 1970, the monthly Essence was created to reach black women (with a circulation of over one million). Yet, while contributing to the American mainstream, these successful publications were still targeting black consumers. The first black-owned business to perform a crossover was Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown Records, founded in 1959 in Detroit (the power of music to break through racial barriers again…). Without it, we may not have had the Supremes and Diana Ross, the Jackson 5 and little brother Michael, the Miracles and Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder etc… In other words, black, white or Asian, the world would simply not be the same. Branches were opened in New York and Los Angeles, the “hit factory” started producing films (such as Sydney J Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues, 1972).

A fractured path marked by resistance, failures, perseverance, and the accumulation of capital, the travails of black entrepreneurship in the US encapsulates the contradictions of American society. Involving interviews with the first back woman to head a major corporation (Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox), and discussing the contribution of Robert F. Smith (the founder/owner of Vista Equity Partners whose background includes a six-year stretch with Goldman Sachs), the wealthiest African American and one of the richest person in the US, Boss does not open into the question of whether the capitalist success of a few ultimately benefits the entire African American community (if the term is still appropriate, as the black population is made of people of many origins, backgrounds and cultures). In a country sorely lacking in a government-provided safety net, philanthropy is supposed to redress social inequalities, and many of these black billionaires have indeed supported worthy causes such as civil rights or education. Yet, a few bittersweet moments are sobering. A Harvard law graduate, Kenneth Frazier represented a black death row inmate in Alabama, James Willie Cochran, and had his conviction overturned. He taught advocacy in South Africa. Then in 1992, he joined Merck, the second largest pharmaceutical company in the US, where he played a more ambiguous role, defending the corporation against a variety of lawsuits. Now the Chairman and CEO of the company, he was invited to join Trump’s council on manufacturing initiative, but resigned from his post in protest at the president’s declarations that both sides were to blame in the events of Charlottesville (12-13 August, 2017) during which a white nationalist drove his car in a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman. Millionaire or not, being black has never been easy in America.

Boss, The Black Experience in Business (Stanley Nelson)

Frazier’s historical situation is all the more paradoxical, considering the role played by pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment in institutionalised racism. In Power to Heal, a more modest, yet sharp-as-nail project, “LA Rebellion” luminary Charles Burnett (who had started his directing career with Killer of Sheep, 1977) reveals a mostly untold aspect of the Civil Rights Movement: its fight for medical equality. You cannot have lived in the US without having heard dozens of stories of people dying, stillborn babies, patients crippled for life, because the nearest hospital was for whites only. As for black graduates of medical schools, Burnett summarises the situation by quoting a hospital director saying (in 1966) “no black man is going to look at the ass of a white woman under my leadership.” What is little known is that, in the Civil rights Movement, a well-thought strategy was an important as mobilisation and political intent. The leaders of the movement, the medical workers, and then-president Lyndon Johnson achieved the desegregation of hospitals by linking it with a new program that became the closest to what the United States ever achieved in terms of single payer health insurance program: Medicare, a coverage for Americans over 65, as well as patients with some disability and terminal diseases. Medicare was “the carrot”: not only did segregation become illegal, but hospitals trying to still practice it wouldn’t have access to Medicare funds.

This desegregation was achieved, after huge mass efforts from Civil Rights militants, and not without a huge amount of resistance but it was there to stay. Black lives matter, indeed, and while the fight for equality for health treatment still continues, a major milestone was reached – which Burnett and his co-director/editor Daniel Loewenthal document through serious historical research, archival material and contemporary interviews.

The Mute Voices in the Pictures

The past still interrogates the present. Now living in Portugal, another luminary of the “LA Rebellion”, Billy Woodberry (his 1984 film, Bless their Little Hearts, is now in the Library Congress’s National Registry of Films) chanced upon a sepia-coloured photograph showing naked black people, crouching and tethered together by a chain big enough to moor a boat, going through metal hoops fastened around their necks. This brutal image, which seemed at first to emerge from the time of slavery6 was actually shot in 1907 by army photographer Velloso de Castro to produce a visual record of the Pacification Campaign led by the Portuguese in the South of Angola. After isolating a detail, Woodberry performs a slow tracking shot from left to right on the faces of the chained people. A second tracking shot starts above, in the middle of the photograph, showing the military uniforms – buckles, weapons, ammunitions carried across the chest, brass buttons – of the men standing behind them. A third tracking shot glides over the top of the picture, revealing the faces of the soldiers: apart from a white man with a biblical beard and a white colonial helmet (Lieutenant João Texeira Pinto), two rows of black men stand there, the Auxiliary forces. Woodberry reduces the commentary to brief, factual texts written in white on black background that punctuate the 32-odd minutes of the film; no voiceover, but a haunting aural accompaniment provided by António de Sousa Dias’ musical composition and sound design. By dividing the original photograph into three semantic areas, Woodberry highlights one of the paradoxes of colonialism – its mixture of untold violence and forced seduction. In every colonial situation, local populations were drafted as “auxiliary” forces to fight their own people alongside the occupying army. Some eventually adopted the political views of their commanding officers. Colonial administrations also largely relied on what the Marxists define as “compradors” – local structures of power allied with the imperialist forces. They cunningly took advantage of local political fractures, taking the side of one king or one ethnic group against the other.

Selecting from the archive of 2,374 photographs left by Velloso de Castro, Woodberry reconstructs a tragedy of misguided alliance and the effective political rape of a country. As one of their battalions had been massacred in 1904 by warriors of the Cuamato people, the Portuguese wanted revenge – which they called “pacification”.  An unexpected gift falls on their lap: having been shot by some Cuamatos, a charismatic young man, Calipalula, ends up in the Portuguese barracks. Once his wounds are treated, he is asked to function as a guide to help the colonial army find their way not only in the bush but in the intricacies of the Cuamato political rivalries. Two Sobas (kings) each commanding a different empada (fortress) are fighting each other. Calipalula is a nobleman expelled by one of the Sobas upset at his possible claim to power. The two Sobas, defeated, retreat into the bush, as do many of their followers. In exchange for his services, Calipalula is promised to be made Soba. The remaining Cuamatos are commandeered into the Portuguese fort. Yet, they refuse to vote for Calipalula, electing a certain Popiene instead. Calipalula shoots himself.

Ballades for Imperfect Heroes

In the late 19th century, Portugal’s efforts to link its two neighbouring colonies of Angola and Mozambique were blocked by other imperialist powers. After ten years of intermittent war, and with the advent of a democratic government in Portugal when the Carnation Revolution brought an end to the Salazar dictatorship, Mozambique became independent in 1975 – only to fall into the throes of a bitter civil war between the pro-Marxist FRELIMO government and anti-Communist militias (RENAMO), during which one million people were killed, and several millions displaced. Economic chaos caused rampant poverty. In 2013-2014, hostilities resumed between the two camps, particularly in rural areas, where civil rights abuses have been reported.

Born in Mozambique, Sol de Carvalho studied cinema in the 1970s in Portugal, where he became a dedicated anti-Salazar activist. He returned to Portugal to join the FRELIMO independence movement, worked for the magazine Tempo in collaboration with award-winning writer Mia Couto, and, finally, in 1986, made the decision to become a filmmaker. One of the later works of his prolific career, Mabata Bata (2017) bears the marks of a fractured history and hybridity (like Mia Couto, who authored the short story that inspired the film, de Carvalho declares himself “white and African”,7 and the film is a co-production with Portugal) while interweaving several planes of reality. Soldiers are roaming the countryside, stealing the cattle and abusing the peasants; land mines are littering the grazing grounds; young men cross the boarder to find better-paying jobs in South Africa – but then return to the village to find a wife. Young Azarias’ uncle is one of these migrant workers who has set his eyes on the chieftain’s daughter. Her father requests a dowry of fattened oxen. Azarias is prevented from attending school to mind the cattle. One afternoon, the most magnificent beast of the herd, the almost mythical Mabata Bata, explodes on a land mine. The boy is too frightened to return home, but, beyond this, there is the obscure feeling that with Mabata Bata, the identity, the life-style of the village has come to pass. It does not take long before Azarias, in his aimless wanderings, steps on a mine himself and becomes a ghost – the ghost of the old man he would had become had been able to outlive his childhood. “Azarias had dreams,” said the grandmother who had raised him.

So the stubborn old ghost comes back to the village. The only way out is to pacify him, by organising a ceremony during which his uncle has to apologise for having turned him into his herdsman. As the villagers resort to ancient, spiritual rituals to heal their collective grief, army platoons continue to roam, hungry, greedy, angry, nervous, ready to shoot at anything unusual…

Mabata Bata (Sol de Carvalho, 2017)

SouthWest of the border, South African cinema is coming of age. A new generation of black filmmakers have gone to film school or honed their trade on film sets, and throughout the years PAFF has charted this welcome development. Supported by L’Atelier at Cannes, awarded the Berlinale World Cinema Fund 2017 and co-produced by the Cologne-based Rushlake Media company, Jamil X. T. Qubeka’s Sew the Water to My Skin world premiered in Toronto in the fall of 2018 for his third feature8 Qubeka intended a visual epic, eschewing linear narration, and relying on mythological tropes, African storytelling and visual language to render the intimate experience of a brutal socio-political phenomenon of Apartheid on African psyche. Here, magical, surreal and almost oneiric touches felicitously balance Qubeka’s taste for the gruesome and the grotesque. Weaving the film’s strands in a loop, Qubeka triggers the fiction with the hero, John Kepe (the charismatic Ezra Mabengeza), bursting onto the screen while pursued by a posse of Boers; it is only at the end of the film that we learn that he has just jumped, Danny Boyle-style, out of the latrine pit where he was hiding from them. Energetically exploring the rural region of the Great Karoo in the 1940s and 50s (at the onset of Apartheid), Sew the Winter’s non-linear narration is less an “experimental biopic” than a sort of African version of the Mexican corrido (a narrative ballad, usually about an outlaw, embodying memory and oral tradition). Like a set of Russian dolls (to use another metaphor) the film also interlocks the inner recesses of the minds of several protagonists, from the white liberal journalist who reports the story, aware of its gaps and missing parts – what was in the letters he was supposed to deliver Kepe’s woman (Kandyse McClure)? – to the unhappy, alcoholic wife (Antoinette Louw) of the Boer (Peter Kurth), on the verge of bankruptcy who tried to grasp the shreds of his manhood by obsessively hunting the Robin Hood over a period of 12 years. Kepe, who only steals cattle, seduces women and laughs at his “misdeeds”, remains a cypher, (like the trickster in the African tradition), but the discovery of the cave/lair in which he had been hiding all these years provides cues for his internal life – coloured drawings, small sculptures, artefacts of modern life, vinyl records. Apartheid was plunging South Africa into the surreal.

Of Good Report (Jamil X. T. Qubeka)

Years later, Apartheid is officially abolished, but the surreal bonds that connect and estrange black and white communities continue to be a source of wonderment. Rather than the corrido or the western, Zuko Nodada takes the thriller as a narrative mould. In the economic sphere, the transfer of power is often nominal only, as white corporations retain their hold on the capital, putting black government officials on their payrolls. Having already several genre films under his belt, Nodada founded an independent production company with actress Thandeka Nodada Malinga, who plays the main part in Uncovered (2016). At the onset of the film, Phumla is a flawed character. Sporting a neat, elaborate PanAfrican hairdo and the smart clothes of a European-styled businesswoman, she is the right arm of the white owner of a mine. In exchange for supporting her boss’s endeavours and turning a blind eye to his embezzlement of resources, she is promised a brilliant future in the corporate structure.

Yet, no matter how hard Phumla clings to her façade of bright CEO-in-training, other forces are claiming her. The murder of her activist parents, when she was a child, was never explained. Her sister, a powerhouse of an investigative journalist, becomes interested in the mine’s financial records, while a female politician runs a campaign financed by the mine’s owner, promising better days to the impoverished community. Phumla’s former boyfriend is doing time for illegal hacking activities. To preserve her immaculate corporate persona, she visits him in jail to announce him that she intends to severe all ties with him. He is still in love with her. Maybe she is too.

Then she falters, but bounces back. Once in possession of the compromising documents, her sister is murdered. Phumla enlists the help of the released hacker to decipher the extent of the financial scandal in which her boss and the politician are involved. A humble cast of characters starts to emerge: the miners, aware they are being swindled; the local peasant families, embodying the wisdom that comes with having been exploited and brutalised for decades. Her people. She sheds the corporate clothes, the black beauty salon hairdo, rediscovers her physical strength, runs in the countryside, fights with the men sent to kill her, and turns gradually into another narrative figure, the woman warrior. His plot to control South Africa’s energy supply defeated, the mine own remains sarcastic: “I could have made you powerful”, he barks at Phumla.  “I am powerful”, she says.

PanAfrican Art and Film Festival
7-18 February 2019
Festival website: https://www.paff.org/


  1. The World Premiere of the film had taken place at Doc NYC on 12 November, 2018. See http://www.docnyc.net/featured/doc-nyc-world-premiere-of-amazing-grace/, retrieved May 29 2019
  2. Born 1942, and the daughter of a prominent African American preacher, Franklin had been a civil rights activist all her life.
  3. One can regret that, as the film is shot and edited by men who are outsiders to the black community, its mise  en scène and decoupage somewhat belie this relationship to space. We had to wait for the films of Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, or Julie Dash to see the movement of black bodies in space accurately represented.
  4. Arthur Jaffa, public presentation, California Institute of the Arts, 19 April, 2019.
  5. See my report, “Questions of Agency: Sundance 2019”. Senses of Cinema, no 90, March 2019, retrieved 1 June, 2019.
  6. Portugal had colonised Angola since the 15th century, but, until the 19th century, settlements were concentrated on the coast, as a hub for the slave trade with Brazil. The colonial government abolished the slave trade in 1836 and freed the remaining slaves in 1854. Expansion toward the hinterland started shortly afterwards, often met with armed resistance by the Angolan population.
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/15/mia-couto-interview-i-am-white-and-african-i-like-to-unite-contradictory-worlds, retrieved June 7, 2019.
  8. Starting with the short Shogun Khumalo Is Dying!, Qubeka has worked in the South African film and television industry since the early 2000s. In 2005, he directed a Peabody-award winning AIDS documentary for Sesame Street. PAFF showed his first and second feature: A Small Town Called Descent (2010), which I personally found to be ambitious, but not entirely successful; and Of Good Report (2013) was initially banned in South Africa, and withdrawn from the Dubai International film Festival for “child pornography” (both decisions were eventually overturned). The film went on to be shown in several international film festivals, from Toronto to London to Hong Kong, where it won accolades from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, etc… Shown at PAFF in 2014 where it became a cause célèbre against censorship, it won the Best Feature Prize. It also received the Best Picture Award at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria. While sympathetic with the intentions of the filmmaker and its experimental film language, I confessed in my report that the gruesome and dismemberment of a teenage girl prevented me from fully supporting the film. “How Not to Drown at Sea: The 33rd Sundance Film Festival and the 22nd Pan African Film and Arts Festival”, Senses of Cinema, March 2014, Issue 70, retrieved 2 June, 2019.