Top Picks for Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) 2020

by Tom Nguyen

The 28th Annual Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) opened on Tuesday, February 11, and continues through Sunday, February 23, at the Cinemark Rave 15 Theatres at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles, California. The festival is a crown jewel of the African American community in Los Angeles, the largest and most prestigious Black History Month event in the country. This year’s theme is “20/20 Vision,” kicking off the decade with a fresh lens and solidifying its commitment to tell diverse stories with a global, luminous view.

It’s absolutely one of my favorite events of the year and must-see film festivals in Los Angeles. It’s the only opportunity to see so many independent films from the Black diaspora that might not otherwise make it to movie screens here. And it’s more than just a film festival…next door to the theater, inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, are 2 floors of fabulous art, crafts and vendors from all over the country.

The festival opened Tuesday, February 11, with HERO: Inspired by the Extraordinary Revolutionary Life and Times of Diplomat and Judge Ulric Cross at the Directors Guild of America, and will feature centerpiece film She Ball on Friday, February 21, and will close with film Zulu Wedding on Sunday, February 23.

Here is my list of other great films I’m excited to see (in alphabetical order). The list is by no means exhaustive, because there are too many worthy films to choose from! This year, PAFF has selected more than 150 films, representing 40 countries in 26 different languages, and you can find the full list of films here. #PAFFNOW is is where I will be movie-binging the next 10 days!


(South Africa/75min)
West Coast Premiere
Tue, Feb 18 @ 07:15pm
Directed by: Harold Holscher
Bankruptcy forces William Ziel to return to the farm he inherited from his estranged father in an attempt to start a new life with his young, fragmented family. Lazarus, the farmhand who took care of William’s father in his lonely final hours, reappears soon after William, Sarah and adopted daughter Mary, arrive at at the farm. A supposed chance meeting between Mary and Lazarus develops into a bond between two kindred spirits. But Lazarus, the old soul who struggles to find peace in this place of sad memories, carries a dark secret that constantly haunts him.

Tue, Feb 18 @ 07:05pm
Sat, Feb 22 @ 08:45pm
Directed by: Maryam Touzani
Abla runs a modest local bakery from her home in Casablanca, where she lives alone with her 8-year-old daughter Warda. Their routine of housework and homework is interrupted one day by a knock on the door. It is Samia, a young woman looking for a job and a roof over her head. The little girl is immediately taken with the newcomer but her mother initially refuses to allow a pregnant stranger into their lives.

Black Mexicans (La Negrada)
Fri, Feb 14 @ 04:05pm
Mon, Feb 17 @ 11:30am
Directed by: Jorge Perez Solano
“Black Mexicans” is the first Mexican feature film about the Afro-Mexican community, filmed entirely with people from different towns around the Costa Chica in Oaxaca. Neri, a fisherman, splits his time between two women: his wife Juanita with whom he has a daughter and his lover Magdalena, mother of three additional children. Things are about to change for Neri as Juanita falls gravely ill and Magdalena prepares to take her place. Shot entirely on the beautiful beaches of Corralera in Oaxaca and featuring a cast of non-professional actors from the nearby communities, “Black Mexicans” explores the social mores of and the discrimination faced by Mexico’s unacknowledged black community.

Foster Boy
World Premiere
Mon, Feb 17 @ 07:30pm
Tue, Feb 18 @ 04:00pm
Directed by: Youssef Delara
Micheal Trainer is a lawyer at the center of a trial in which a for-profit foster care agency puts a known sex offender into the same foster home as his young client Jamal, with catastrophic results. Michael, a successful litigator with a long career protecting corporate interests, wants nothing to do with Jamal’s case, until a Judge forces him to accept it. Initially he sees Jamal as a kid off the streets looking to grab a piece of corporate profits. But, when Jamal refuses to settle the case for any amount of money, Michael begins his representation in earnest. As their work together reveals the horrifying depth of the corrupt and abusive for-profit foster care agency, Michael is transformed from cynical skeptic to fierce warrior in the pursuit of justice.

Knuckle City
(South Africa/124min)
Wed, Feb 19 @ 07:05pm
Sun, Feb 23 @ 09:20pm
Directed by: Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
A slice of street life in South Africa’s Mdantsane township, known as the boxing mecca of South Africa, Knuckle City follows the journey of Dudu Nyakama, a down and out ageing boxer as he struggles to attain the one fight that he believes will uplift his fractured family. Contending that the underbelly of the boxing world is rife with criminality, Dudu unwittingly enlists the help of his reckless but resourceful, gangster brother who’s coming out of jail. Haunted by the ghost of their father, Dudu soon finds that the fight at home is far more challenging than any opponent he can possibly face in the ring. South Africa’s Official Submission for Consideration for the 2020 Academy Awards.

Sun, Feb 16 @ 09:35pm
Tue, Feb 18 @ 08:40pm
Directed by: Wagner Moura
Currently banned in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, this absorbing thriller begins with a breathless, Robin Hood-style train robbery. “Marighella” is a searing and energized portrait of one of Brazil’s most divisive historical figures, Afro-Brazilian poet and politician, the legendary Carlos Marighella. Driven to fight against the erosion of civil and human rights following the CIA-backed military coup of 1964 and the brutal, racist right-wing dictatorship that followed, the revolutionary leaves behind his wife and son to take up arms, becoming a notorious enemy to the power structure. Relentlessly pursued as the government’s number one enemy, Marighella cleverly evades capture, all the while continuing to inflict damage and further enraging his sadistic pursuers. Stars Actor/Musician Seu Jorge (City of God).

Mr. Weekend
US Premiere
Mon, Feb 17 @ 07:35pm
Wed, Feb 19 @ 04:10pm
Directed by: McKenzie Woodward
Bad luck follows good when a low level L.A. bookie finds five pounds of crystal LSD.
[Editor’s Note: You might also enjoy Brown Paper Bag.]

Our Lady of the Nile (Notre Dame du Nil)
US Premiere
Mon, Feb 17 @ 04:50pm
Sat, Feb 22 @ 11:45am
Directed by: Atiq Rahimi
Set in 1973, this coming-of-age portrait follows a group of young Rwandan girls at a Belgian-run Catholic boarding school and takes inspiration from true events that would come to foreshadow the 1994 genocide during the Rwandan Civil War. Many of the girls belong to elite families, while others hold less privilege; further division is sown by ballooning anti-Tutsi rhetoric under existing Hutu rule. The terrain is tense, but in the foreground lies a bewitching yet unassuming story of colonial refusal, flanked by adolescent mischief and curiosity that is surely typical but has, in this case, much higher stakes.

The Cuban
US Premiere
Fri, Feb 14 @ 06:50pm
Sun, Feb 16 @ 02:25pm
Thu, Feb 20 @ 01:05pm
Directed by: Sergio Navarretta
Oscar Winner Louis Gossett Jr. expands his repertoire of exceptional performances in the role of Luis, an elderly Cuban musician with dementia who is brought out of his shell by his care worker, Mina. Mina’s attempts to get through are futile until a poster of Benny More inspires her to hum a jazz tune that, to her surprise, ignites a spark inside him. As each day passes the music awakens Luis more and more until the colorful world of his past becomes vibrant and real again. Featuring the music of Grammy nominated, Afro-Cuban jazz virutoso Hilario Duran, THE CUBAN is a powerful heart-warming experience of music, friendship and imagination that highlights the humanity of some of the most vulnerable in our society and the light they are still capable of bringing those who care for them in their final days.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Screening Time TBA.
Directed by: Joe Talbot
Jimmie Fails dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont, Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind. As he struggles to reconnect with his family and reconstruct the community he longs for, his hopes blind him to the reality of his situation. A wistful odyssey populated by skaters, squatters, street preachers, playwrights, and other locals on the margins, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a poignant and sweeping story of hometowns and how they’re made—and kept alive—by the people who love them.

The Mercy of the Jungle
Los Angeles Premiere
Sat, Feb 15 @ 08:30pm
Sat, Feb 22 @ 07:00pm
Directed by: Joël Karekezi
Two men, exhausted by what seems like endless war, are forced to reckon with their pasts and their region’s present in this survival drama. It’s the outset of the Second Congo War, and Xavier, a Rwandan sergeant and lifetime military man who grew up in the refugee camps, and Faustin, a farmer and civilian soldier enlisted by force, have just been accidentally left behind by their battalion along the Rwanda-Congo border. Hoping to catch up, they quickly realize that their two-person outfit is no match for the Congolese squadrons patrolling the roads, forcing them to endure the harsh and unforgiving jungle should they ever hope to make it to the border alive. This is God testing them, Xavier is certain, “for the atrocities I’ve done in the forest.” But maybe there is a chance for forgiveness. For mercy. A harrowing story that reflects the horror of past genocide but advocates for reconciliation and a brighter future for the next generation.

Una Great Movie
Fri, Feb 14 @ 04:05pm
Thu, Feb 20 @ 09:15pm
Directed by: Jennifer Sharp
A beautiful diverse movie about a Black American woman traveling to Mexico which slowly turns into a romantic comedy with an all-white cast. The absurd reality of chasing a dream. The documentation of her journey has been turned into a documentary film, “The Chasing of A Great Movie,” which can be seen now on NETFLIX.


Always in Season
Fri, Feb 14 @ 03:30pm
Sun, Feb 16 @ 11:00am
Directed by: Jacqueline Olive
An exploration of the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching nearly 5,000 African Americans connects this form of racial terrorism with racial violence today. At the height of their popularity, lynchings attracted tens of thousands of white men, women, and children spectators. They were public events, complete with souvenirs and photographs. Train seats were even specially reserved for out-of-towners to watch. Victims were tortured, mutilated, and photographed for hours. Lynching was like the sport of hunting, and black people were “always in season.” ALWAYS IN SEASON follows Claudia Lacy as she moves from paralyzing grief to leading the fight for justice for her son, Lennon, who was found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina. As the film unfolds, Lennon’s case, and the suspicions surrounding it, intersect with stories of other communities committed to breaking the silence of their own recent histories and leading the way to justice. ALWAYS IN SEASON asks what will it take for Americans to build a national movement for racial justice and reconciliation?

An Ordinary People
(South Africa/96min)
Sun, Feb 16 @ 04:05pm
Thu, Feb 20 @ 04:00pm
Directed by: Ernest Nkosi
Car spinning is South Africa’s First Original Motorsport. Unique for its longstanding popularity, hustlers and dreamers of modest means become heroes.

Buster Williams Bass to Infinity
Mon, Feb 17 @ 02:20pm
Sat, Feb 22 @ 01:00pm
Directed by: Adam Kahan
Imagine hanging out with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, hearing them jam together, trading riffs, then riffing with words and trading stories. Bird and Diz are gone, but giants still walk among us. One of those giants is Buster Williams. Buster has played with everyone – Miles, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Art Blakey, etc. In this intimate portrait, Buster trades stories and plays with some of the world’s greatest musicians – Benny Golson, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and others, and takes us on a journey through his life, legacy, and America’s greatest art form – the truly universal music called Jazz.
[Editor’s Note: You might also enjoy The Gathering – Roots & Branches of Los Angeles Jazz and Up From The Streets.]

My Friend Fela
Los Angeles Premiere
Sun, Feb 16 @ 07:15pm
Fri, Feb 21 @ 06:40pm
Sun, Feb 23 @ 02:00pm
Directed by: Joel Zito Araújo
An insightful presentation into the life and influences of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer, activist and Pan Africanist, through the eyes and conversations of his close friend and biographer, Carlos Moore. Following his early journeys to London and New York, and his life in Nigeria at the Kalakuta Republic, the film highlights how Fela first became introduced to his own African identity and discusses the forces close to him which shaped his views, often offering a different perspective from the more popularly prescribed ones which see Kuti emerging fully formed as a ghetto pop idol. Great soundtrack. Followed by Q&A with Sandra Izsadore.
[Editor’s Note: Also recommend Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes.]

One Child Left Behind: The Untold Atlanta Cheating Scandal
West Coast Premiere
Sat, Feb 15 @ 07:00pm
Mon, Feb 17 @ 04:00pm
Directed by: Jodi Gomes
In 2009, 1,176 Atlanta teachers were investigated for test cheating; 35 were indicted, 12 went to trial and 11 were found guilty on RICO charges, which are typically reserved for the mafia and drug lords. The guilty, serving 30-year sentences, finally break their silence in this tell-all, controversial film that takes a closer look at the legislation called ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the politics behind it, and a race and power struggle that spawned one of the most complex scandals in American history. Directed by Emmy Nominated Producer Jodi Gomes, the harrowing documentary, “One Child Left Behind: The Untold Atlanta Cheating Scandal” brings the accused, whistleblowers, cheaters, and innocent together on film for the first time to tell the real story. The US Education debate takes a front seat in this harrowing, investigative film that will leave many wondering how our education system could be so blind.
[Editor’s Note: Also recommend PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.]

Our Dance of Revolution
Fri, Feb 14 @ 01:15pm
Sun, Feb 16 @ 10:25pm
Wed, Feb 19 @ 01:30pm
Directed by: Phillip Pike
This untold history of Toronto’s Black queer community spans four decades of passionate activist rebellion. Refusing to be silenced and raging with love, the featured trailblazers demanded a city where they could all live their truths free from the threat of violence. In the spaces they found for loud laughter and sweaty block parties, they also found themselves. Each bit of revolutionary ground was gained collaboratively, whether protesting police brutality, forming feminist collectives or making room for grief and healing in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Their transformative creativity and visionary organizing made Toronto more livable for generations to follow.

Pigeon Kings
Los Angeles Premiere
Sat, Feb 15 @ 08:35pm
Fri, Feb 21 @ 03:55pm
Directed by: Milena Pastreich
Not the typical image of South Central Los Angeles, “Pigeon Kings” takes us through the backyards, where men are devoted to tumbling pigeons. We watch as enthusiasts breed and train their birds for the Birmingham Roller Pigeon World Cup, where pigeons must fly together and somersault in unison, like a flock of synchronized swimmers in the sky. Keith London, a former champion, guides us through this world. His masterwork is his family of birds, a result of decades of quiet patience, determination, and desperation. Keith becomes mentor to big-hearted Choo Choo. Having recently received the “loser award,” a gift of shame from fellow birdmen, Choo Choo is intent on improving his pigeon game. The pigeons provide our heroes with a community and a sense of hope; as long as they have their birds, nothing will stop these men.

Los Angeles Premiere
Tue, Feb 18 @ 06:20pm
Thu, Feb 20 @ 01:20pm
Directed by: Daniel Etim Effiong
“Skin” explores through identity the meaning of beauty in all the different shades of black. Set in present day Lagos, Nollywood actress Beverly Naya goes on a journey to learn about contrasting perceptions of beauty. She speaks to school children, traders, artists, beauty entrepreneurs and sex workers. This narrative is interwoven by poignant personal accounts of individuals who have dealt with the pressure to conform to certain standards of beauty, revealing how colourism continues to shape the face of the entertainment industry in Africa. Beverly concludes her journey with a trip to her hometown exploring her rich cultural heritage with her mother and grandmother. Between them, we have three generations of beautiful black women who through sheer hard work and self-love have built useful businesses, laying a solid legacy for her and many like her to build upon.

World Premiere
Sun, Feb 16 @ 01:40pm
Fri, Feb 21 @ 01:15pm
Directed by: Hasan Söylemez
Tenere tells the true story of African people who set out from Agadez, Niger, crossing the desert to reach Libya and Europe. In the film, we witness the arduous journey of Bachir from Agadez and his companions in a truck resembling Noah’s ark. We see how they struggle both physically and emotionally with harsh natural conditions, thirst and many other problems.

The Great Green Wall
Fri, Feb 21 @ 07:20pm
Sun, Feb 23 @ 12:15pm
Directed by: Jared P. Scott
Singer Inna Modja travels across the edge of the Sahel region of Africa where the plan is to build a green wall of trees and vegetation against climate change and drought. The ambitious vision is to grow an 8,000km “wall of trees” stretching across the entire width of the continent to restore land and provide a future for millions of people. If completed, the Wall will be the largest living structure on earth, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef — a new world wonder. As Modja passionately pursues an African Dream for a generation seeking to control their own destiny, she reminds us of the enormity of the task ahead and that time is not on our side. The resulting journey of hope, hardship and perseverance reveals our shared human condition, reflecting a deeper moral and existential question we all must confront: “Will we take action before it’s too late?”

The Third Strike
Los Angeles Premiere
Sat, Feb 15 @ 08:40pm
Tue, Feb 18 @ 06:05pm
Fri, Feb 21 @ 01:25pm
Directed by: Nicole Jones
“The Third Strike” tells the stories of four people sentenced to life in federal prison regardless of the fact their crimes weren’t violent and in some cases, it was their first incarceration. For some, freedom depends on the ink in the President’s clemency pen. For others, freedom depends on the will of Congress. For all, freedom means a second chance. The film focuses on the transformative power of (DE)carceration, a Chicago lawyer and community organizer’s efforts to dismantle America’s harsh drug laws and women’s visionary response to mass incarceration.
[Editor’s Note: You might also be interested in Bedlam.]

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