The 2023 Atlanta Film Festival ran April 20-30th with a virtual component accessible through the first week of May. I wasn’t able to join the exclusive in-person events this year, but there were plenty of films by Black creators to gush over from here in Bloomington, Indiana. I quite literally laughed & cried & gasped, & I took advantage of the 48-hour rewatch window to spend more time with scenes that got all these visceral reactions out of me. Keep reading for a take on my personal top 5, then a special section I’m calling “Unexpected Connections” that’s really just me wanting to write about more films that made me feel things.
This is the very first film I hit play on & I was in the company of a dear friend when I did. We both appreciated the humor of an intervention being staged for a “40-something single mother” with an uneventful sex life. We also enjoyed how the structure of the narrative left no uncertain terms, for the most part. The only lingering question is a major decision Lanae’s teenaged daughter needs to make about her education, a detail used as a bartering chip to convince her mother to go ahead & buy time with an escort. I’m charmed by how coy the broken oven motif is. On one level, it represents the practical maintenance that’s unavoidable after a certain age. Just under that is the knowledge that a lil outside help is all she needs to get things heated up again. We never see the oven fixed, but we know it is when Lanae looks back at us in the closing scene.
The protagonist in this film, Destiny, is quiet & obsessive. She hangs outside the window of a dance studio, yearning to join the class to get closer to someone she quotes in the mirror when she’s home & to move her own body. Destiny has “seizures,” though, when she dances so she avoids it out of fear. A regular to the class who often needs his asthma pump goads her inside & we witness what truly happens when she blacks out. Her body is inhabited. The sound & visual effects push this film from supernatural horror alone–as viewers may expect–into body horror. Admittedly, her finale may have been more unsettling as a subtler cloud of smoke, but the crown is a clear braggadocious statement from the spirit who rides Destiny to her onlookers, You are not our equal.
The only documentary included in my top 5 is a portrait of a man who makes his living repairing bicycles. Bobo mentions that his sons work on motor vehicles alongside him but is steady in his own preference for “two wheels.” A less careful editor could’ve shaped his voice into a “back in my day” type of monologue. Instead, the film unfolds with artful b-roll of the shop, all the tools, parts, & organized chaos within, which emphasize the beauty & craft in his labor. We’re also briefly introduced to a number of his clients as they gaze right into the camera lens from their bicycles. Bobo is not alone in choosing the simpler machine. He’s not alone in equating the bicycle with agility in both a physical & a political sense. He’s respected by his family & community, & his work is a way he shows love in return.
The cinematography on this project is immaculate, as is Barrington Darius’ performance as Booker. The audience gets acquainted with the protagonist via views of the city he grew up in, all from the car’s interior. Booker is very selective about what he reveals & to whom, so we also learn a lot based on who he invites to ride with him. The scenes seem to be leading up to him sharing why he left home. Ultimately, he sits longer with why he’s returned even though he still doesn’t want to be there. & it was an old flame of some sort who was able to reach that depth of conversation with him. Civic is a tender film, about how we do & how we can conceptualize home—whether we leave or not.
I grew up hearing the term “hangtime” in reference to sports & to hair, so it was interesting to be met with fine art installers in the opening scene—Arnold, jaded with years of experience, & Joe, a wide-eyed artist doing manual labor only until he stumbles across his big break. These two build suspense around the sculpture in the back of the truck, which bears the name of the company, another curiosity: Middle Passage. That’s the point I understood I should be looking at the word “hangtime” from a totally different angle. With the client served being a stunning, demanding Black woman living in a regal home complete with a pool, this film takes a controversial stance in critiquing a certain class of Black folks who get off on our deaths. I won’t spoil EVERYTHING. I like the idea of y’all having to watch too in order to experience the mysterious sculpture.
Jasmine Is a Star (Jo Rochelle 2023) & Fenom (Kayla Johnson 2022) set off lights in the same place within me. The protagonists in each are teenaged girls with immense talent & parents who love them dearly & support their ambitions. The difference between the fictional Jasmine & the very real Flau’Jae Johnson is confidence. Jasmine has albinism & often shrinks when it is the topic of conversation, likely because her parents are such vocal advocates that she hasn’t had much practice advocating for herself. Then there’s Flau’Jae who will run through every room in the building to tell every ear available that she’s a McDonald’s All American.
Flau’Jae’s successes come from both inherited skill & training. Of course, I have zero evidence of her family’s financial assets, but truth is the money for a trainer comes from somewhere. On the other hand, Jasmine is put on punishment for using $14 on her mother’s card for Uber rides. Jasmine’s confidence, & ultimately her career, would thrive with funds to fully deck out her photoshoot sets or funds to hire a modeling coach; the concepts we see her preparing for social media are proof of that. No matter what they have or don’t have, what they do or don’t do, I love Black children. All of them are stars if you ask me.
Ourika (Xenia Matthews 2022) & Black Butterfly (Kevin Summerhill 2023) are narrative shorts that reckon with images of self created by others. Ourika, “dead for over 200 years,” critiques the portrait of her that white people clamor over. It’s too flat, the smile ain’t right, & it has a voice that echoes constantly in the void Ourika cannot escape. In Black Butterfly, the mask Clay was forced to wear in childhood by his father—”Fix your face & get ready”—manifests as a huge, brown smiling emoji. The only hint at the rage or grief or abjection he’s truly feeling is in the face cracks, but the smile persists. If it isn’t staring back at him in the mirror, it is attached to some other body & following one step behind him. Clay nearly jumps off the roof at his job to escape this figure. His Christian faith restores his will to live & his will to make his haint crumble at the knees.
Ourika is pulled out of purgatory back into the realm of organic matter by two eccentric scientists who only bring into their lab those “like” them. Perhaps misremembered? Obscured by liberties taken with their bodies or their stories or their art? The history of the scientists isn’t explained out right, but when Ourika awakens in her own form again she may very well immediately sense kinship with them too. Now. . . as innovative as the idea is to animate Nellie Mae Rowe for the reenactment portions of the documentary, This World Is Not My Own (Petter Ringbom, Marquise Stillwell 2023), I wonder if Rowe is critiquing this portrait of her made by others. I’d genuinely love to hear your thoughts.