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Black Films and Artists Triumph at 2016 Toronto International Film Festival

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By Dwight Brown (NNPA Newswire Film Critic)

For 41 years the Toronto International Film Festival has attracted the world’s best films and built and audience. At the 2016 festival, 480,000 film lovers filled seats, screened movies and experienced the festivities.

Credit TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and his discerning team for assembling a high quality and culturally diverse program that includes African heritage films, films with Black artists and other excellent movies that will be released this fall and next year. Check out the best of the best.

BLACK FILMS

The Birth of a Nation (****) History reveals itself in this uncompromising retelling of the country’s most heralded slave rebellion. Actor turned director Nate Parker assembles a stellar cast and tech crew that takes viewers back to when Nat Turner led a revolt in Southampton County, Va. on August 21, 1831. Brutal. Uplifting. Informative. Deeply emotional. Haunting. The best scene is when Turner comforts his battered wife (Aja Naomi King) after she’s been severely beaten. Superb acting. Deserves Oscar nominations for Best Film, Actor (Parker), Supporting Actress (King), Screenplay and Direction.

I’m Not Your Negro (***1/2) Just in case you need a reminder that racism is not dead, James Baldwin, the intellectual and award-winning author who died in 1997, has left behind some biting and enlightening words about the subject. His poignant thoughts and searing words were included in an unfinished book that’s the basis for this documentary by director Raoul Peck (Lumumba). Baldwin had turned his attention to his friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., pointing out their differences and similarities. Peck links the ‘60s with civil unrest today by covering the four iconic legends.

I Called Him Morgan (****) It doesn’t really matter that Lee Morgan was a trumpet player in the ‘60s and ‘70s that most people have never heard of. This documentary stands out because it follows the life of that talented trumpeter who led a tragic life, fought drug addiction and met an untimely death. Reconstructing his bio, through interviews with jazz greats like Wayne Shorter, photos, footage and a cassette tape of his common-law widow’s recollection brings the world of jazz to life, circled around a gruesome event on a cold New York winter night. Swedish director Kasper Collin and the splendid cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma) show that music survives even when love kills.

Loving (***1/2) Kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud) for retelling the true-life story of a Black woman (Ruth Negga, World War Z) and a white man (Joel Edgerton, The Gift) who married and were jailed for it in Virginia, in 1958. His approach is low-key and natural; few theatrics, lots of personal drama with a controversial case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The subtle performances by Negga and Edgerton are filled with grace. The ensemble cast is augmented by Christopher Mann as her dad and Sharon Blackwood as his mother. Sweet.

The Magnificent Seven (***) The original 1960 The Magnificent Seven was a homage to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. This 2016 version, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), respects old Westerns, but adds a modern day sensibility. The seven culturally diverse gunslingers who attempt to save a town from a tyrant (Peter Sarsgaard) are led by a strong black man (Denzel Washington). Lots of bullets and well choreographed gunfights. The characters are somewhat shallowly written. However, there’s thrill a minute, and what’s on view is fun to watch.

Moonlight (***) With just his second film, director Barry Jenkins teams up with writer Tarell McCraney to tell a story about sexual repression and ambiguity through the eyes of Chiron, a young, overly passive and emotionally abused boy, who becomes a teen and then a young man in inner city Miami. His mom (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict. The closet thing he has to a father figure is a warm-hearted drug dealer (a restrained and superb Mahershala Ali). Artfully directed and photographed with indelible images. Topical subject. Unique location. Pity the protagonist’s angst is so internal it becomes monotonous. Reminiscent of Precious.

Queen of Katwe (***1/2)
The true story of a Ugandan girl who becomes a champion chess player is inspiring and charming all at the same time. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) deftly balances drama, whimsy and humor as she puts the novice actor Madina Nalwanga through her paces aided by David Oyelowo who plays the coach and Lupita Nyong’o her mother. Shots of shanty towns in Katwe have a Slumdog Millionaire feel. Even with all the poverty on view juxtaposed by upper class neighborhoods, Africa looks very inviting. Written with great insight by William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist).

A United Kingdom (***1/2) Amma Assante, the director of the thoroughly romantic interracial love story Belle, is not through with that ebony/ivory subject matter. She turns her sights to the true story of a young Botswana king, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, Selma), who falls in love with a white working class girl (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) in 1940s London while he’s attending law school. He’s determined to bring her back home and make her his queen. His uncle and the British government are equally determined that he doesn’t. Historical. Political. Romantic. Dramatic. Keeps you entranced almost from beginning to end. Gorgeous shots (Sam McCurdy cinematographer) of Botswana.

Vaya (***) We’d call them country bumpkins. Three not so savvy people board a train to the bustling city of Johannesburg. Pimps and con artists await. One traveler is looking for a job. Another brings a young girl to meet her mother. The last one has come to retrieve his father’s corpse. Nigerian-born actor turned director Akin Omotoso follows the three stories as the characters lives intertwine. It took seven screenwriters to concoct this urban drama and one judicious editor (Vuyani Sondlo) to keep the proceedings totally comprehensible. Set in South Africa but could have played out anywhere in the world.

BLACK ARTIST IN FILMS

American Honey (**1/2) Writer/director Andrea Arnold steals a page from the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine school of voyeuristic teenage filmmaking, as she traces the footsteps of an adolescent (Sasha Lane) who joins a crew of young people who roam the Midwest in a van selling magazine subscriptions while they rob and steal. Shia LaBeouf is a ringleader. The reckless spirit of the film, with nudity, sex and some violence is not quite enough to warrant its three-hour length. Will be more digestible on cable TV,

American Pastoral (**) Why did actor Ewan McGregor decide to mark his directing debut with the screen adaptation of an esoteric Phillip Roth novel that will leave viewers cold? In the tumultuous ‘60s a man (McGregor) runs a quality leather glove factory in Newark, NJ, in the middle of civil rights uprisings. The mayhem outside his windows is not nearly as stormy as his relationship with his radical teenage daughter (Dakota Fanning) who runs off and disappears. Not a bad first film. Just a bad choice and a story that is never affecting despite strong performances. Jennifer Connelly plays the wife. Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) is the loyal factory manager.

Arrival (***1/2) Quebec director Denis Villeneuve is famous for his thrillers (Sicario, Prisoners). Now he will be noted for his creation of a compelling sci-fi movie, thanks to Eric Heisserer’s evocative screenplay about aliens who arrive in massive floating pods in 12 locations around the world. A linguist (Amy Adams) tries to communicate with them. She is helped by a mathematician (Jeremy Renner) and guided by a military Colonel (Forrest Whitaker). Very little action and special effects. Tons of suspense, dread and brain-numbing science. Rarely less than riveting.

La La Land (***1/2) This tricky movie starts off with an MTV-looking musical number on a traffic-jammed on-ramp to an L.A. highway. It gets better when it focuses on a romance between a broke jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling, The Big Short) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone, Birdman). This quirky follow-up film by writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) gets more whimsical by the minute. Characters break into song and dance in an instant. It’s wistfully appealing. Gosling is totally charming. Ditto Stone. Though neither is an expert dancer or singer, it doesn’t really matter. John Legend also co-stars as a guitarist and bandleader.

Message from the King (***) Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire) brings life to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s (Unknown) gritty revenge thriller screenplay that follows a man from South Africa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) who comes to Los Angeles looking for a sister (Sibongile Mlambo) who disappeared. A tip from a neighbor (Natalie Martinez) leads the man down a trail of drug deals, blackmailing, child selling and murder he hadn’t fathomed. Gruesome violence, a smart script, streetwise performances and very savvy direction make this a nail-biter.

Snowden (*1/2) Parker Sawyers (Southside With You), Jaymes Butler and Lakeith Lee Stanfield have supporting roles in this chronicling of a controversial geek who stole government data. According to director/writer Oliver Stone, Edward Snowden is a whistleblower hero. As the NSA’s illegal surveillance habits get exposed, you can partially see his point. What’s on view would be more believable if there was a second viewpoint. But there isn’t. If a film makes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting look dull and comatose, it’s a bad film. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Nicolas Cage also star in a dry film that doesn’t deserve their talent.

OTHER FILMS OF NOTE

Denial (****) A Jewish historian (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner) gets sued by a sleazy Holocaust denier (Timothy Leonard Spall, Mr. Turner) and goes to London to fight the case. Turns out U.K. law assumes a person’s guilt and not innocence. A solicitor (Andrew Scott, Spectre) and a barrister (Tom Wilkinson, Belle) take up her case, which she could lose. The script, by David Hare (Plenty), provides tight and tense courtroom drama. Great performances all perfectly orchestrated by director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard).

Jackie (****) It must have been three to four days of pure hell. That’s the blueprint Noah Oppenheim provides in his woeful screenplay that follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) as she deals with the aftershock of her husband’s assassination and the planning of his funeral. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) takes on a dauntless task and aces his exam. He perfectly manages a skillful tech crew (cinematographer, Stéphane Fontaine; editor Sebastián Sepúlveda; costume designer Madeline Fontaine). Portman’s impressive portrayal carries the movie. She will likely win the Oscar for Best Actress.

Lion (****) After getting lost on the streets of Calcutta, a five-year-old boy named Saroo gets adopted by white parents in New Zealand (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) and grows into a young adult (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) haunted by his past and the mother and brother he left behind. Constant yearning takes a toll as the adopted son must decide on how he will find a home he barely remembers. The premise is enough to make any viewer run through a box of Kleenex. Sunny Pawar as the little Saroo is a wonder to watch. Luke Davies’ screenplay delves into reasons why people adopt even though they are capable of conceiving their own children. Heart-wrenching.

Manchester by the Sea (***1/2) Dealing with a death in the family is so much harder when you’re a hopeless alcoholic (Casey Affleck in an Oscar-worthy performance) who’s divorced and running away from a tragedy. Kenneth Lonergan (screenwriter/director for You Can Count on Me) meticulously sets the blue-collar characters in motion, giving them everyday dialogue that unearths hurt and feelings that run deeper than the sea. He directs the cast with stark realism, akin to a John Cassavetes film (A Woman Under the Influence).

Nocturnal Animals (**1/2) Fashion guru turned director Tom Ford has a thing for high-end production elements. This drama/crime/thriller’s cinematography, art direction and set design are exquisite and way over the top, like a multi-million dollar Chanel commercial. Amy Adams plays a wealthy art gallery owner who reads a book her ex-husband wrote about a family who is hijacked by three killer/rapists. That story is visualized on the screen and Jake Gyllenhaal plays the father who is brutalized and Michael Shannon a rogue law enforcement officer. Scenes of dark highways are so David Lynch it’s as if you’re watching a sequel to his Lost Highway. The story-within-a-story format gets farfetched at times and is ultimately emotionless.

Keep a look out. These movies and artists, fresh from their premieres in Toronto, will be on a screen near you before you know it.

Visit NNPA Newswire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.

Freddie Allen is the Editor-In-Chief of the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Focused on Black people stuff, positively. You should follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @freddieallenjr.

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Will Packer Drama, ‘Ambitions’ Brings Star Power to OWN

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Entertainment juggernaut Will Packer, the man behind hit films like Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton. Little, Stomp the Yard, Ride Along, “Ready to Love,” and “The Atlanta Child Murders” has brought “Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, to the small screen.

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“Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
“Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

By Nsenga K. Burton, Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., NNPA Newswire Entertainment Editor

Entertainment juggernaut Will Packer, the man behind hit films like Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton, Little, Stomp the Yard, Ride Along, “Ready to Love,” and “The Atlanta Child Murders” has brought “Ambitions,” a big drama starring Robin Givens, Essence Atkins, Kendrick Cross, Brian Bosworth and Brian White, to the small screen.

Robin Givens plays the role of Stephanie Lancaster, a sophisticated lawyer hailing from a long line of distinguished attorneys. Stephanie desperately wants to be in charge of her family’s prestigious law firm and will stop at nothing to get it. Brian White is ‘Evan Lancaster,’ the Mayor of Atlanta, who is married to attorney Stephanie Carlisle (Robin Givens). Evan’s dream is to be the first African-American governor of Georgia and there’s no line he won’t cross to get there.

Kendrick Cross stars as ‘Titus Hughes,’ a passionate attorney and dedicated husband to Amara (Essence Atkins). Titus has accepted the challenge of being in-house counsel for a big pharma company run by Hunter Purifoy (Brian Bosworth) to fight a class action suit brought by the powerful Carlisle family.

Brely Evans stars as ‘Rondell Lancaster,’ the sister of Atlanta Mayor Evan Lancaster and manager of the Thelma’s Place restaurant. As the new face of an anti-gentrification campaign, she never thought she’d become a crusader for the people, but it’s a badge she wears with pride – and nobody is removing it.

Erica Page plays the role of ‘Bella (Tru) Trujillo,’ Atlanta’s newest and trendiest fashion designer. She’s the exclusive dress designer for First Lady Stephanie Lancaster, but has set her sights much higher. 

Essence Atkins plays the role of ‘Amara Hughes,’ a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who has newly arrived in Atlanta with her husband, Titus (Kendrick Cross). Originally from Texas, she is quickly gaining attention from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a diligent investigator and prosecutor.

In addition, Brian Bosworth (“What Men Want”), Matt Cedeño (“Power”), Deena Dill (“Conrad & Michelle”), Gino Anthony Pesi (“Shades of Blue”) and Kayla Smith (“Star”) will appear in recurring roles.

Created by executive producer/writer Jamey Giddens “AMBITIONS” is produced for OWN by Will Packer Media in association with Lionsgate and Lionsgate-owned distributor Debmar-Mercury.

Will Packer is executive producer. Kevin Arkadie is executive producer/showrunner. Creator/writer Jamey Giddens and Will Packer Media’s Sheila Ducksworth also serve as executive producers.

Benny Boom directed and served as a producer of the pilot episode.

Connect with the series on social media via: @AmbitionsOWN (Instagram & Twitter)

Check local listings for channel information.

This post was curated by Nsenga K Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. An expert in intersectionality and media industries, Dr. Burton is also a professor of film and television at Emory University and co-editor of the book, Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire

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Film, fellowship puts Memphian Jamey Hatley on course for the big screen

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Hatley is the recipient of the inaugural Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting. Funded by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the two-month fellowship comes with a $7,500 unrestricted cash grant to help Hatley develop her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

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Jamey Hatley (Photo: Demarcus Bowser)
Jamey Hatley (Photo: Demarcus Bowser)

By Karanja A. Ajanaku, New Tri-State Defender
kajanaku@tsdmemphis.com

Jamey Hatley is from Walker Homes and while debates still rage over whether that’s in Whitehaven or Westwood, there is no question that Hatley’s writing career is on an upward trajectory.

Hatley is the recipient of the inaugural Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting. Funded by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the two-month fellowship comes with a $7,500 unrestricted cash grant to help Hatley develop her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

Jenkins also handpicked Raven Jackson, another native of Tennessee, as the winner of the Indie Memphis national Black Filmmaker Residency for Screenwriting. The two-month residency, including travel and housing, affords Jackson, a thesis student in New York University’s Graduate Film program, $7,500. Her feature film product is “all dirt roads taste of salt.”

“As an artist, I’ve always admired Memphis and what it’s meant to black artistry across many forms and genres,” said Jenkins. “To partner with Indie Memphis in supporting Jamey Hatley and Raven Jackson in taking the next steps in their quest to creatively engage and contribute to the diaspora is an honor most high.

“In their work, I find resounding proof that Memphis both raises talent from within (Hatley, a native Memphian) and inspires it from abroad (Jackson).”

A Whitehaven High School alum, Hatley had definite plans – attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and become a corporate executive – the day she walked off the graduation stage.

What happened? So many things, she said, including an internship that contributed to her rethinking her plans. Later, she got a journalism degree from the University of Memphis and at one point got mixed up in the music industry via a connection.

“…(W)ords and books were so important to me that I could not imagine myself being a writer. I tiptoed up to it,” she said. “I was doing everything to run away from these stories, but I was still scribbling. The stories ended up catching up with me.”

Screenwriting came into the picture by email and out of the blue last September.

“At that time, I had no job. My literal organization had gotten defunded, it had fallen apart. It was like, ‘Oh, this fancy director considers you an ideal collaborator. Would you do it?’ I’m like, ‘I like to eat, I like to pay my rent, so OK.’”

That project, which is for a major network, still is in development. The experience opened the door to the Writer’s Guild and primed her for the Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting opportunity.

“I think one of my superpowers is knowing, ‘Oh, here’s your door. Are you going to walk through it?’ If it’s a door and I feel like it’s mine, then I’m going to run through it and I’ll figure it out on the other side.”

That the fellowship was being funded by Jenkins was a huge attraction. She’d met him at an event in New Orleans (where she was living at the time) and had summoned the resolve to share with him her first – and then recently published in the Oxford American – short story.

Content to “just watch Barry’s beautiful movies for the rest of my life,” she learned on Twitter that she had won the fellowship and the opportunity to learn more directly from him.

“I still can’t believe it,” she said.

Hatley entered a treatment into the fellowship, eager for the resources and support to create a finished version of her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”

The Eureka Hotel was a real place in Memphis. Hatley became aware of it while researching for her novel, learning that it had operated out of a Victorian-styled home that she had stared at so many times while visiting a friend’s Downtown Memphis art gallery.

“The Eureka Hotel,” Hatley says, is “a journey story because the Eureka was a colored hotel. … Their tagline was ‘Always open.’”

A short film based on the screenplay now is in post-production.

“It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” says Hatley, who must deliver a script for a feature-length film to Jenkins.

She also has “a few things else that are secret that are working in the background that happen to be scripts.

“But I’m also going to finish my novel, because I’m still a novelist….”

The novel is about Memphis.

“Everything I write is about Memphis, and it’s about Walker Homes. It’s called the ‘Dream Singers.’ It takes place in the wake of the King assassination, and there is a woman … I call her a dream singer. …She has babies, twins. One is born at the moment that King is assassinated. One is born at the moment that he dies, and all the hopes and dreams of this community, that’s based on Walker Homes, reside in these babies. In three months, four months, later in July, one of the babies passes away. That stymies the community. …

“I feel like Memphis feels a debt about King dying here that we’ve never fully acknowledged. …To me, dreams are debt. Anybody’s dream, somebody else pays for it. …It’s really exploring who gets the dream and who pays the price for that.”

America, she says, has never been honest with itself, regarding the root-level issues that existed before Dr. King – issues that brought him to Memphis and ultimately led to his assassination.

“I think art gives us an opportunity to at least explore being honest in a way that’s not comfortable, but more successful.”

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FILM REVIEW: The Farewell

NNPA NEWSWIRE — When you walk out of the theater you may feel like you just left a family meal or a close friend’s house. That familial reaction is the result of Wang’s welcoming storytelling and an ensemble cast that makes you feel at home as you experience a sweet and sour drama, which tends to be more sweet.

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The cast of The Farewell

By Dwight Brown, NNPA Newswire Film Critic

That thing called life. Everyone goes through it, somehow putting a greater focus on the beginning and not the end. Who’s more adorable? Babies or elders? Yea, right.

The Farwell dares to venture to the last chapter of our existence as it examines how an Asian family handles the finish-line process. It does so with a warm-hearted and uplifting spirit that is quite affecting.

Writer/director Lulu Wang dug into her own experiences to develop the script’s premise, storyline and characters, basing her 98-minute anecdote on an incident that happened to her.

Wang’s alter-ego is Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians), a Chinese-born, U.S.-raised twentysomething who is stunned to learn that her grandma, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and given a short time to live.

Billi is even more shocked when her dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma, The Quiet American, Rush Hour) and mom Jian (Diana Lin) advise her that the family will not tell the matriarch her diagnosis. Instead, they will gather around her in Changchun, China, their hometown, under the pretense of celebrating a wedding.

For Billi, who is brash, the impulse to reach out to Nai Nai and console her is almost uncontrollable. It’s so strong, her parents don’t want her to travel to China, in fear that she’ll spill the beans. They leave for their motherland, without her. Billi, poor as a church mouse, finds a way (credit cards) to follow them there. In China, her parents and extended family are on pins and needles wondering if their cover will be blown.

Bravely Lulu Wang takes on a dreary subject, but adds an inventive touch of magic, humor and artistry to her narrative. Her Nai Nai character is a magnet of strength. Scenes with her practicing Tai chi and teaching it to Billi are priceless.

The tension between Billi and her parents over a tradition of holding back bad news seems authentic. In America, patients hear about the grim reaper all the time. In China, or at least in this family, the focus is on preserving a quality of life for as long as possible. And if that means sheltering the patient from a death sentence with a group charade, so be it.

Many films start or end with a screenshot that says, ‘Based on a true story.” The Farewell begins with the notation, “Based on an actual lie.” So, from the git-go, audiences know that this will not be an ordinary family drama. And it isn’t.

Wang is very deft at creating a vibrant family vibe, with rivalries, past history, love and conflict all rolled into one. Her efforts are complemented by an ensemble cast that knows their roles and plays them out accordingly. Tzi Ma as dad is the stodgy patriarch. Diana Lin and Ma make the perfect couple, who have one foot planted firmly in the Western world, and the other in their homeland and its culture.

Awkwafina as Billi, is their polar opposite. She’s as American as apple pie and an Apple Computer. She struggles to stay modern, yet respect her culture, traditions and family, too. Her dilemma will resonate with her generation or the offspring of immigrants. Emotional scenes between the three lead actors run quite deep, giving Awkwafina a chance to show her solid dramatic acting chops.

Wang is an artist. It’s evident in the way she frames scenes like family photo portraits, and also in the excellent choices she makes with her tech crew: The music, from the original score (Alex Weston) to the eclectic playlist (musical supervisors Susan Jacobs and Dylan Neely), is as impeccable as it is quirky. The clothes looked lived in (Athena Wang, costume designer). The footage’s colors and tones look great and the cast is well-lit and photographed (Anna Franquesca Solano, D.P.). Sets, from banquet halls to homes and apartments (Yong Ok Lee, production designer) look genuine, and you often question whether you’re watching a movie or real life.

If there is one imperfection, it’s the editing choices. Some scenes, especially the dinners, run on too long, way after the dramatic point has been made (Matt Friedman and Michael Taylor, editor).

When you walk out of the theater you may feel like you just left a family meal or a close friend’s house. That familial reaction is the result of Wang’s welcoming storytelling and an ensemble cast that makes you feel at home as you experience a sweet and sour drama, which tends to be more sweet.

Visit NNPA Newswire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.comand BlackPressUSA.com.

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Grant paves way to “Take ‘Em Down 901” one-act play

NNPA NEWSWIRE — The real-life drama that culminated with the removal of Confederate-era statues from what had been two Memphis-owned parks will be the subject of a play being developed by Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of the Hattiloo Theatre.

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Ekundayo Bandele and Johnny Jones

By Karanja A. Ajanaku, The New Tri-State Defender
kajanaku@tsdmemphis.com

The real-life drama that culminated with the removal of Confederate-era statues from what had been two Memphis-owned parks will be the subject of a play being developed by Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of the Hattiloo Theatre.

With Bandele and an associate, Johnny Jones, forming the creative team, the Hattiloo is among the 2019 recipients of MAP Fund grants. Forty-two original, live performance projects will be funded, with a total of $1.3 million in direct support for development and production.

Hattiloo will receive $18,725 to support the Take ‘Em Down 901 play.

“This play will premiere in 2021, with free performances in both Health Sciences and Memphis parks,” said Bandele in announcing the grant award. “The MAP Fund invests in artistic production as the critical foundation of imagining — and ultimately co-creating — a more equitable and vibrant society.”

The MAP grantors note that “at a time of deep division, the grantees seek to interrogate marginalizing structures in the United States while asserting new possibilities for thriving interdependence.”

Some of the projects will employ processions and other performance practices as a strategy for “transforming spaces with racist histories, such as contentious borders, waterways, or landmarks.” Others will generate shared rituals, dances and songs in celebration of life.

Topics covered by the 42 performance projects include an exploration of the mental health of firefighters in Detroit, where the vacancy and arson rates are the highest in the country, and a look at the “larger psychological ramifications of border politics for immigrants.”

MAP Fund Executive Director, Moira Brennan, said, “As a whole, this extraordinarily diverse group of artists sends a resounding message of determination and hope. We are honored to support their efforts and can’t wait to watch their visions unfold.”

Here is the description of the Hattiloo performance project:

“Take ‘Em Down 901” is a one-act play about the grassroots movement that resulted in the December 2017 removal of statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes from public parks in Memphis, where they had stood for more than 100 years, casting their shadows over residents of the fifth ‘Blackest’ city in the country.

The script will be developed by Ekundayo Bandele to tell the story from the perspectives of the group of roughly 50 concerned citizens, who succeeded in legally toppling the controversial landmarks, in the process, upending the powerful institutions that had long protected them and the enduring legacy of oppression they represented for Memphis’ marginalized majority.

The City of Memphis sold Health Science Park and the easement to Memphis Park to Memphis Greenspace, Inc., to clear the way for the removal of the three controversial statues saluting Confederate-era figures.

The parks were sold to Memphis Greenspace, Inc. for $1,000 each. The sale of the parks followed the city’s unsuccessful attempt to get a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park. Memphis Greenspace, Inc. removed the trio of statues within hours of taking ownership.

The MAP Fund was established in 1988 by The Rockefeller Foundation to support innovation and cross-cultural exploration in new works of live performance. Over the past two decades, MAP guidelines have gradually broadened to welcome artists exploring issues of class, sexual orientation, gender, generation, faith and other aspects of cultural difference.

The presentation of the 2019 MAP grantees is in celebration of the group’s 30th anniversary of grant making.

Q&A

Karanja A. Ajanaku: Describe the development of the play idea. Did you have the idea and were in search of funding? Did you learn of the funding, with the idea for the play then coming to mind?

Ekundayo Bandele: I have long been fascinated with how the Confederate statues were brought down and with the people involved. As Hattiloo approaches its 15-year anniversary, we want to start telling the stories that are around us. So often, Black Memphis history is forgotten within the span of a few short years. My desire to tell this story came before the grant opportunity. Still, the support that comes with the grant makes my idea of the play more tangible.

KAA: Have you already started the writing? How long will it take?

EB: I am still in the research-and-interview phase. I’ve met with Mayor (Jim) Strickland and his team, (Shelby County Commissioner) Tami Sawyer (#TakeEmDown901 spokesperson), (Shelby County Commission Chairman) Van (D.) Turner (Jr. of Greenspace) and Patrick Ghant. I anticipate meeting with (Rev. L.) LaSimba (M.) Gray (Jr.) and Alan Wade, as well as (Rev. Dr.) Earl (J.) Fisher. I will take the rest of this year devising the play – it’s surroundings, the archetypal characters, the symbols. Next year I plan to start workshopping it through table and staged readings. The play will premier in the spring of 2021.

KAA: How important is the aspect of the free performances, particularly in the parks? Did you have to get prior permission for the performances? If so, what was the feedback and from whom?

EB: I asked Van Turner if Memphis Greenspace would grant us permission to perform the play there. He said ‘yes’. I think it is imperative that the community is invited to see this story unfold, a story that will be fiction based on fact. Everyone that I’ve spoken to about the free performances have been excited to see them happen.

KAA: Should we expect to see any of the “takemdown901” activists playing themselves? How will you go about casting and when?

EB: None of the real-life people involved in the statues’ removal will be in the play. There will be characters who represent the sentiment of, say, Tami Sawyer, or Alan Wade. This play isn’t meant to be a documentary work, but a spotlight on a movement that has happened in other cities – Baltimore, Charlottesville, New Orleans. I want to make sure that, while the story is about Memphis, there are themes that any person in any of those other cities can relate to.

KAA: Can you describe your history/partnership with Mr. Jones.

EB: I became acquainted with Mr. Jones through actor and director Baron Kelly, who is also at the University of Louisville. Once I learned that the University had the only program where a student can earn a certificate in African-American theatre, I knew that the play had to have input from that department. Mr. Jones is an accomplished thespian, and I’m eager to see how his insight helps bring this play to fruition.

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Hattiloo Theatre panel explore 400 years of Africans in America

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “When we unify, we can work with people we wouldn’t normally get along with. Our commonality is that we all want the best for our people. Black love does not mean white hate. I unapologetically love Black people. I want the best for my people — unapologetically,” said Minister Anthony Mohammad with the Nation of Islam.

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As part of an ongoing commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Africans in America, the Hattiloo Theatre hosted “Our Faith, Our Story,” a panel discussion on how Africans used their faith to survive slavery. Above, Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner (left), pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, provided a Christian perspective on the quadricentennial of Africans in America. Later, Sadio, a self-styled spiritualist, and Min. Anthony Mohammad of the Nation of Islam shared their views. (Photo: Herman Williams)

By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, The New Tri-State Defender

It was quite an extraordinary encounter: a Christian, a Muslim and a Spiritualist on a panel at the Hattiloo Theatre talking about their belief systems during a discussion framed against a backdrop of 400 years of Africans living in America.

One truth outweighed every likely point of contention: each of these systems of belief has sustained African Americans. And in this year of marking the quadricentennial of Africans being brought to America by slave trade, the harmonious meeting of the minds celebrated what is possible when a race of people is unified.

“We have curated an eight-month long commemoration of the 400 years Black people have been in America called ‘Lest We Forget,’ using theatre, film, music and discussion to speak to the triumphs and tragedies of what it means to be Black in this country,” said Ekundayo Bandele, founder and executive director of Hattiloo Theatre. “I was not surprised at the spirit of accord struck with these spiritual giants. So much is possible when we come together in commonality and oneness.”

Hattiloo’s event for June was a panel discussion, “Our Faith, Our Story,” featuring Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church; Sadio, also known as Sadio Butterfly, a self-styled spiritualist; and Minister Anthony Mohammad with the Nation of Islam.

All three agreed that self-love must be a conscientious mindset, whatever faith someone claims. Self-hate and infighting were common themes for all three panelists.

“When we were taken from Africa, we were not slaves,” said Mohammad. “We were brought straight to America. They made a stop in the Caribbean where we were broken. Our spirit was broken. This was not a physical breaking, but a mental breaking. We were taught to hate ourselves and each other. They took away the light and left only darkness. How can you love anyone if you hate yourself? We are still broken in our minds.”

Turner agreed that Christianity has had its dark side.

“White Christians selected the scriptures they wanted us to know,” he said. “One of the most well-known was ‘Slaves, obey your masters.’ We learned the ones they wanted us to read, but we started to read those other scriptures, too. White Christians helped organize the Black church. In 1787, Black worshippers were told to get off of the altar praying. They allowed the cultural norm of separation and oppression to creep into the church. This was the beginning of the ‘Black church.’

“But God in Christ has suffered with us. The Black church historically has been the center of our community,” Turner said. “And those who say the Black church is too emotional is missing the richness of our faith. Africans were the first to do the remix. They remixed the European hymns with rich, diverse creativity. God’s son, Jesus, died and rose from the dead. And because He lives, I can face tomorrow. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Sadio, the only female panelist, declared her faith to be steeped in self-empowerment and self-love.

“Our feminine energy tempers masculine energy,” she said. “I recognize the Black woman as ‘God.’ We have always been a part of the resistance. The slave cook would season the food with herbs, herbs brought over from Africa. The white family would get sick and die. No one knew why. The green herb looks like parsley.

“I am African living in America. I pray to the ancestors, use voodoo and juju, pray with crystals, all of that. Sisters, take back your power. Some call it sexual or sensual power. The ancestors told me who I am and the power I have within me. I celebrate my femininity and the power it gives me.”

Sadio said voodoo and juju were given negative connotations because history was rewritten by Europeans.

“I worship the Orisha. I perform her ceremonies and rituals. I pour out libations. I honor the ancestors and the Most High,” she said.

During panel discussions, Mohammad reflected on his faith as it relates to African Americans.

“In the Nation of Islam, we are taught to love ourselves and to love our women. We don’t beg other people to do for us what we can do for ourselves. We don’t beg other folk to protect us or protect our women. We can do that ourselves,” he said.

“When we unify, we can work with people we wouldn’t normally get along with. Our commonality is that we all want the best for our people. Black love does not mean white hate. I unapologetically love Black people. I want the best for my people — unapologetically.”

While many in the mainstream world may not know the significance of 1619, Hattiloo Theatre’s “Lest We Forget” is making a concerted effort to acknowledge the year the first African Americans were brought to the New World colonies as indentured servants.

To learn more about upcoming events in the series, visit www.hattiloo.org.

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Books

Jeanne B. Goodwin Story Telling Festival Wednesday, July 10th At Rudisill Regional Library.

OKLAHOMA EAGLE — Celebrate the rich tradition of sharing wisdom and humor through words during the “Jeanne B. Goodwin Storytelling Festival” on Wednesday, July 10 from 10 to 11 a.m. at Rudisill Regional Library. See stories brought to life by performer Linda Gorham. For more than 25 years, Gorham has presented her award-winning stories around the world. She will inspire children using movement, humor, and zaniness as she tells imaginative folktales and personal tales.

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Linda Gorham (Photo by: lindagorham.com)

The Oklahoma Eagle Newswire

Celebrate the rich tradition of sharing wisdom and humor through words during the “Jeanne B. Goodwin Storytelling Festival” on Wednesday, July 10 from 10 to 11 a.m. at Rudisill Regional Library. See stories brought to life by performer Linda Gorham. For more than 25 years, Gorham has presented her award-winning stories around the world. She will inspire children using movement, humor, and zaniness as she tells imaginative folktales and personal tales.

The festival is part of the Tulsa City-County Library’s Birth to Pre-K & Children’s Summer Reading Program, May 28-August 3, 2019.

While we hope that you would come, we understand if it will not be feasible for you to attend.  Family that can attend are asked to share a treat as the children exit the auditorium and walk through the Jeanne B. Goodwin Story Time Room.

Should you have questions, please contact Cher Lyons, Rudisill Regional Library Youth Librarian (clyons@tulsalibrary.org) or me (info is below).

“Linda can rivet people of all walks of life with tales from all over the world – To some, Gorham is a hip, here-and-now, modern day griot.” – Chicago Tribune for more information on Linda Gorham follow the link below.

www.lindagorham.com

This article originally appeared in the Oklahoma Eagle. 

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