The Black Film Center & Archive tuned in to this year’s American Black Film Festival utilizing ABFF Play. It’s always a letdown to figure out that the entire festival lineup won’t be mirrored in the online component. I personally was anticipating Black Barbie: The Documentary, to witness a deepening of discourse in a media climate hot for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, but I’ll just have to find this particular deepening elsewhere. Nonetheless, the documentarians featured on ABFF Play for this year’s festival really shined.
It’s one thing to create a character & watch them struggle & transform & for that character to shift how we’re navigating our own life’s trajectory. It’s a whole ‘nother equally beautiful thing to notice a story right in our communities & to synthesize the experiences of real people with passion & conviction, people who may have never considered their story would be a topic of interest in the film industry. This is memory work. The documentarians selected to screen at ABFF 2023 are highlighting issues that have been obscured from mainstream news, bolstering living legends & the networks that nurtured them, encouraging us to reclaim power in areas we may have forgotten we have it, & so so much more.
The BFCA already showed love to Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia with a profile on Kyra Knox, published before the festival launched. Check it out: “We Started Out With Trust.”
Of the remaining ABFF 2023 documentary features, here are my top three!
This film is the first installment of a series that offers both historical & contemporary behind-the-scenes context to the phenomenon that is the HBCU marching band. The installment that is brand-new, & I do mean brand-new, this summer The Road to Houston: Preparing to Battle aired on various local television networks during June, Black Music Month. For the festival, ABFF took it back a couple years to feature the origin of it all. Though I would’ve preferred to not be subtly targeted by a Fortune 500 company throughout, I won’t criticize the ubiquitous Pepsi logo too harshly because interviewees state plainly how underfunded the bands are. These music programs still don’t have the support they deserve, despite how influential their sound & choreography are to pop culture today (it’s beyond just Black culture), despite how many people are entertained at battles & games each year, despite how heavy a draw the band is for student recruitment. A Salute to HBCU Marching Bands made me regret even more choosing a PWI when I was seventeen & researching colleges. It made me dance in my seat too, but that’s a given.
Gaining Ground is a densely populated film. Interviewees & B-roll consist of entire families of landowners & activists, lawyers & educators, live footage from info sessions & city hall meetings & conferences, the list goes on. It’s difficult to remember who does what exactly, but I see this as a benefit & perhaps a directorial decision from the start. Not only does this film demand further independent research of its viewers, but the sheer number of folks represented emphasizes the fact that Black people do own land & there aren’t just a few. Black people work the land & they love this work. Gaining Ground is a call of action for those of us who haven’t yet acquired a piece of what “the good Lord ain’t making no more of.” It encourages us to go get ours & equip ourselves to hold onto it.
This film is somewhat a foil to my last pick, Gaining Ground. It brings to the forefront housing and home ownership. However, the work of this documentary isn’t to highlight people who have successfully purchased or inherited homes to steward with pride. The activists & families interviewed here are fighting to stay in homes they made after signing predatory rent-to-own contracts or even renting from owners who struggle to ward off foreclosure. & it is Black women who bear the worst of the statistics. “Black men are locked up & Black women are locked out of their housing,” an advocate aptly stated. This one hit me hard, & honestly writing about it sobers me up again. Black ownership of land & homes is possible. There are folks who have managed to build lives for themselves complete with their name on the deed, but for those of us who haven’t even been able to maintain rent. . . security anywhere in this country can feel impossible.
The documentary features didn’t hog all of my good favor at ABFF. There were also some really exciting films listed in other categories as well. I recommend you look into the three below & continue to support independent filmmakers, both on the festival circuit & hustling in your local communities—because there are most definitely filmmakers hustling in your community. These creators are working hard & pushing boundaries, & they deserve an audience.
Jelly is our protagonist’s nickname. She’s about ten years old & full of energy that recharges in the sun & when her slightly younger cousins let her boss them around in imaginary play. She’s also obsessed with death. We find out why as the film progresses, but initially it is the story of a missing neighbor & the orchid that mysteriously wilts & blooms on the windowsill in her absence that captures Jelly’s fascination with impermanence. When her mother, the landlady, sends her off from the beauty shop to wrangle her mischievous cousins home, Jelly (master key in hand) convinces them to take a detour that leads to the real question she’s been holding onto.
Burning Rubber pulls together influences from graphic novels, anime, & hip-hop culture seamlessly. Duane Ruiz, our eager, charming protagonist (perfect anime protagonist, yes?) sacrifices everything he has (& some of what others have as well) to compete in the Burning Rubber Wallball Tournament. Having just a glimpse in this episode of how Duane’s character arc will unfold, what I love most so far are the smallest of details. This is a grayscale world, except for the symbols crucial to the story: the blue wallball is Duane’s passion & his way “out,” any gold—jewelry pieces, grills, coins, etc.—signal the status & wealth Duane aspires to, & then we see red when the game gets so heated there’s fire or blood. Can’t wait to stream the full series with my ten-year-old.
Bizarro World leans into the short form, offering us four 2-minute films that are each humorously off-beat. In Pink Slip, we’ve got a scrawny white guy waiting in a parking lot to buy a BMW but instead of “Ruth,” who he expected, a couple of antsy masked guys pull up to carry out the exchange. Second is Uber Beefs, where we watch from across the street as someone desperately waits for his food to be delivered. He’s calling the Uber driver for the millionth time, talking trash, & they pull up. I’m holding back on the punchlines, y’all, if that’s not obvious. The spark is in the dialogue & the physical humor; you just gotta see it for yourself—& you can! Watch the series in full above. The description claims the stories are unrelated, but I caught a couple of callbacks that hit like a sugar rush. Maybe you’ll notice one I didn’t. Let me know what you find in the comments.