Who gets to tell Black stories? In Hollywood, it seems any and everyone. The 2019 Academy Awards began as a historic night of wins for Black people, with six Black people winning Oscars. By the end of the night, the Oscars had given the highly-contested white savior film Green Book, the highest award of the night, Best Picture.
Backstage, Shadow And Act asked the producers if the controversy surrounding them telling the story of Black musical genius Donald Shirley through the lens of his white one-time chauffeur would change the way they told stories in the future. They all looked incredulous and producer Charles Wessler even laughed and scoffed at the question. The powers that be in Hollywood are not interested in empowering Black stories or Black storytellers.
So what do Black storytellers do about that? Ayuko Babu’s Pan African Film Festival is a platform where Black storytellers can launch their projects into the world outside of the white gaze.
“No one can tell our stories better than us,” Babu told Shadow And Act. “We have so many different types of diverse stories to share from within and all across the globe. We can’t be subjected to a singular narrative or perception.”
Created in 1992, the Pan African Film Festival is critical in amplifying the work of Black writers and filmmakers. It is America's largest international Black film festival, screening over 190 films at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Embracing the diversity and complexity of people of African descent, the new films showcased at PAFF are from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, South America, Europe, the South Pacific and Canada. Babu is its executive director and co-founder.
“As a result of the slave trade and colonization, our stories spread all over the world; therefore we are interested in understanding the vastness of our stories through film,” Babu said. “Through PAFF we wanted to introduce audiences and distributors to great new content domestically and globally, and stories that were truthfully told from our actual experiences,” said Babu.
This year, PAFF celebrated its 27th year in existence with a star-studded opening night screening of Aretha Franklin’s highly anticipated documentary, Amazing Grace. PAFF is directed by Hollywood veterans Danny Glover (The Color Purple, Proud Mary), Ja'Net DuBois (Good Times) and Babu, who serves as the executive director. In our lengthy conversation, Babu shared the most fundamental aspect of filmmaking, which is not so much about awards as it is mastering your craft. “You have to have a great story. Then you have to find an audience for your film and get backing, support and distribution and that’s where film festivals come into play, shared Babu. It’s about stories and content--the awards or recognition come later if at all.”
A small percentage of Black films are recognized for Hollywood’s highest accolades, despite the box office success and cultural impact of films like Black Panther and Girls Trip. For Black films, both domestically and internationally, the path to the big screen can be grueling with no guarantees of ever reaching a wider audience outside of your own circumference. Before most filmmakers can even envision a seat inside the Dolby Theater during Awards season, “they have to understand the process,” said Babu.
“The way most independent films get seen is by being presented at film festivals. The problem with this, especially back then, is that almost all the film festivals in the U.S were white and there were rarely any opportunities for Black films to be included in these festivals. So there wasn’t a chance for Black folks to show distributors just what type of films they wanted to see and also show that there were audiences from around the world that wanted to see different types of Black films from Black people everywhere,” Babu said.
“Like in L.A, you have Black people from Australia, New Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, London, France and so forth. When we show these films at our festival, people from everywhere come out to see the films. From Watts, South Central L.A, all the way to Caribbeans and Africans, we all show up. These films are reflective of how we feel, think and are a better mirror of who we are. This is critical,” Babu said.
“Secondly when an independent film gets picked up by a studio, the studio backs them. When you have a studio behind you, the studio puts money into the film and into promoting your film, but a lot of times, they don’t have a guide on who to promote the film to and how to promote the film. So they will put your film in a festival because there’s a need to test the film and see what type of audience it will have based on reactions and interest. This is critical for distribution purposes but again because there are very few Black film festivals in the U.S. Sometimes people in power are making decisions based on their own conclusions,” said Babu.
Babu said understanding each person’s culture and respecting their differences is paramount in filmmaking and it is the core that inspired the creation of the Pan African Film Festival. PAFF was birthed out of the need to interconnect Black cultures from all aspects of the globe. He shared to me that many years ago ,he snuck into a picture show that was playing “Black Orpheus.”
“Black Orpheus was a Brazilian film and it was the first time that Black folks got to see other Black people from around the world who looked like us in film, but were an entirely different culture. That film really exposed many people to Brazilian music too! It was impactful for us. So we told other people about it and they went to see it and were excited about it. It was beautiful. So I knew that that same kind of thing could be in store for us for a long time through a festival that brought all of the Black films together. We wanted to show distributors that our stories were diverse, varied and crossed borders.
“There are great African films there, great Caribbean films and South American Black films that deserve a platform. For example for a long time, studios and distributors were saying there was no place for Nigerian movies. So Nigerians created their own Hollywood and look how Nollywood and Nigerian based films have become a billion-dollar business. The audience dictates success. It’s a beautiful thing. PAFF is important ‘cause we have to bridge these gaps and have films out there that are more truthful and reflective of who we are in all of our true diversity. Films that reach our audiences. We gotta keep pushing and supporting our own stories, our writers and our own films. This is where our focus and energy should be,” said Babu.
Photo: Courtesy of PAFF