Modern Griots Reviews: Films at the Crossroads – Revolutionaries and Outsiders

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Toussaint, Boneshaker and Alaskaland may seem like distinct films on the surface, but underneath they all have similar themes of people who feel as if they don’t fully fit as if in a state of in-betweenness, and trying to find a place to belong, whether it’s a community, a cause, family, or “home.”

In Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a documentary following the social climate surrounding the trial that indicted activist Angela Davis on murder and conspiracy charges for the Marin County courthouse incident, Angela is a figure who has several outsider characteristics. As one reporter mentioned in the film, she had an upper-class background, but she also had the privilege of going to a school up north when Birmingham was reaching its peak in Civil Rights Era as well as going to Germany for grad school. But the racial events happening in America, such as the formation of the Black Panthers, brought her back home. Yet, even home, she felt as if she didn’t fit in and others saw her as an outsider coming in to their territory at first. She felt slightly uncomfortable amongst the Panthers because of their sexism and nationalistic views, so she went to search for a collective to be part of and found the Che Lumumba Club, a communist party club.

Although experiencing the world as a black woman already made her an outsider, those other experiences separated her too — as an educated person, as a communist, as a feminist. Having Ronald Reagan wanting you fired as a professor because of your views doesn’t help either. Those experiences helped to shape Davis and probably helped her to handle being a fugitive, later incarcerated and put in solitary confinement. She could understand more concretely how being an outcast, like a prisoner, felt, and the film executes that well.
Not to mention, that the movie brings to light other areas of intersection, like the white farmer, Rodger McAfee, who put up his farm as collateral to help pay for Davis’ bail. That was delightfully unexpected. To top it all off, a great choice to use the Freedom Suite as the soundtrack to not make viewers feel comfortable. Together, it made the film much more sweeter when Davis received support from all over the world and was eventually cleared of the charges.

Another revolutionary figure, Toussaint Louverture, recounts the story of his life in the first major film about him, Philippe Niang’s Toussaint, which also showed him as a figure who straddled multiple sides. Even in the film, members of the Vodou religion say that his head lwa is Papa Legba and is given a rosary with a cross that he calls his treasure. Jimmy Jean-Louis, who plays Louverture, spoke at NYAFF about the difficulty of getting a film about Louverture made (Danny Glover has been trying for years) and that this was not a “Hollywood” film; surprisingly, the French supported the film. As Davis, Louverture is so mythologized that to view his full story in all its complicated glory is refreshing. It does not diminish from the greatness; it’s encouraging as it shows them as human.

For example, he is known for having his own small plantation and owning slaves after his master, Breda, allowed him to learn how to read and freed him. He has an attachment to Breda, but also feel obligated to the enslaved black people on the island, as he watches the Vodou ceremony that took place including Dutty Boukman and Cecile Fatiman. Although he refuses to take place in their rebellion at first, helping Breda’s family, he later goes to black rebels as a medicine man, eventually leading him to become their main general. Louverture switches sides between the French republic and the Spanish for the benefit of freeing slaves, and in the end wanted to be mediator between the black enslaved and the white planters to unify the island, though he received criticism from the enslaved and it caused more rebellion. His guerilla style and trickery strategies helped the black fighters to win battles and led to the eventual independence of Haiti. Although his views may have been controversial and did get him in trouble or outcasted by both sides (like his capture by Napoleon), the film gives a portrait of a dignified man who has dared to have a vision of better future for his home, Ayiti (Haiti).

The next two films, Boneshaker and Alaskaland, are not about legendary heroes, but are about people who are outsiders, too, and struggle to come into their own place. Frances Bodomo’s influence for Boneshaker  was her question of what is home as someone who migrated all over the world and always felt in-between cultures. The short film depicts a family who is inter-culturally Ghanaian, but also far from home, now in Louisiana. One of the daughters, played by Quvenzhane Wallis, has some health issue that her grandmother wants to cure spiritually, but since they are far from their cultures in Africa, they substitute it with the Pentecostal church in Louisiana. But even as they take part in the service, it still doesn’t feel like home as they look onto and step into the water, the huge void between Louisiana and Ghana, the water reminding them of their homelessness. But the film includes crossroads or in-betweeness in other subtle ways as well, such as the grandmother want to hold onto traditions of spiritual healing, while the father wants his daughter to use modern medicine. The use of the grainy film gave the short an old feel to it, but its shakiness also contributed to the instability of the characters.

These themes are also in the longer film, Chinonye Chukwu Alaskaland, about a young Ibo-American man, Chuck (Chukwuma) who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and does not feel fully Nigerian or American. His feelings of lostness estranges him from his family, he befriends the wrong people, gets him into trouble,  and leads to him being kicked out of school and tragedy in the beginning of the film. Chuck feels further lost as he is without his family; his sister and other relatives are in Nigeria. He tries to relate to his friends, but they tease him because of his background (one mockingly uses clicks to speaks to him) and he tries to relate to other Nigerians, but he doesn’t speak the Ibo language and is distant from his culture. He cannot pronounce his last name properly and cannot cook Joloff rice properly either. It is not till he almost dies and his uncle and sister come back to reconnect him to his family and culture that he rethinks what home means to him. Other characters also lack stability or feel as they fully belong — his sister Chi Chi (Chidinma) is lonely; she doesn’t have much friends in Alaska and people in Nigeria make fun of her Ibo. Brandon, one of Chuck’s troublesome friends, wants to leave Alaska, but when he does, ends up coming back. Like Boneshaker, the environment gives a physical side to Chuck’s emotion, such as the vast frozen desert that he looks out on is void-like as the water in Boneshaker. But what is different is that Chuck finds his sense of home with his family by the end, and the birds in the film’s poster encompass what I received in the films, that there is always transcendence and an opening, in being in-between, an possibility in connecting to others in ways and spaces others cannot.

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