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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why there are no great Kwanzaa movies

In a recent episode of "Totally Biased," W. Kamau Bell laid into white folks who make misguided attempts to be inclusive by celebrating (or inventing) Kwanzaa traditions:

Even Barney attempts to get in on the Kwanzaa action.

While it might be equally ill-considered to propose that someone make a proper Kwanzaa film - The Black Candle hasn't quite crossed into A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life territory - I nominate starting a new Kwanzaa tradition: selecting seven films, each honoring one of Kwanzaa's tenets.

Day 1, Umoja (Unity): Do the Right Thing
An urban parable about the importance of unity, and the perils of division, Do the Right Thing is a complex, and oft misunderstood work. Take this sequence where racial division and the threat of violence looms, and where verbal sparring is encouraged in ever more absurd ways. It is tragic, comic, and prescient in its gentrification message:

Day 2, Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): Daughters of the Dust

Julie Dash's landmark film shows the self-determination of a Gullah family on St. Helena Island at the turn of the 20th Century preparing to move to the mainland and migrate North. Filled with song, magical realism, and poetry, Daughters of the Dust remains a unique, and unequaled cinematic experience.


Day 3, Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): The Interrupters
Steve James, part of the Kartemquin team behind Hoop Dreams, chronicles the collective work and responsibility of CeaseFire, an initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention that literally sends its practitioners onto the streets to "interrupt" disagreements from escalating into deadly violent incidents. Treat yourself and watch the whole thing right here:

Watch The Interrupters (Graphic Language) on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.


Day 4, Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Within Our Gates
Entrepreneur Oscar Micheaux is the poster child for Cooperative Economics. A true pioneer - Micheaux was a homesteader - he built the first black production company, and produced over 44 films between 1919 and 1948. Within Our Gates, one of his earliest films, also one of his best, addresses the issue of cooperative economics, as northerner Sylvia Landry an African-American woman visiting her family in the Deep South, is inspired to raise money for a rural school catering to poor black children. Watch it here:


Day 5, Nia (Purpose): Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett's masterpiece showcases a tour de force performance by Henry Gayle Sanders as a working class hero. Whether spending hours in the slaughterhouse, or trying to make a buck selling a car engine, Sander's Stan is a relentless laborer whose determined purpose in life is to support his family.

Day 6, Kuumba (Creativity): Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Unlike the narrative biopic (which showcases a terrific performance from Jeffrey Wright) this doc features a look behind the myth. Personal footage shot and edited by Tamara Davis twenty years on looks into the creative tour de force, an outsider artist on the brink of mega-stardom:

Day 7, Imani (Faith): Good Deeds
It is nearly impossible to think of the concept of "faith" on film without evoking the work of Atlanta's Tyler Perry. (Hopefully, Spike Lee won't call us out for being disrespectful for including him.)


What seven films are you going to watch for Kwanzaa?

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