Film reviews: Black films thrive at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival

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At the last minute, due to omicron concerns, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival transitioned from an in-person, virtual event to a purely digital experience. Thanks to streaming, black filmmakers and black films took center stage all over the world. Check them …

Replica (***)

According to the WHO, the United States ranks 60th on the list of countries with the lowest maternal mortality rate. The Population Reference Bureau quotes: “Black women are three times more likely to die in pregnancy after childbirth than white women.” The insightful documentary from directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee breaks down the contributing factors and possible solutions to maternal mortality following the deaths of two specific women. Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac both died after labor and a grassroots movement for justice and birth equity in their honor is heroically started by Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre, the fathers of their children. Courageous dads, like shamans, guide you through the perils and needs of change in obstetric care from pregnancy to delivery and aftercare.

Systemic issues (hospitals profit more from risky and quick C-sections than from slow vaginal deliveries), disparities, root causes, and miscommunications are revealed. Notably, work once done by black slave midwives is now the domain of white male OB-GYNs. Watching widowed Black men’s awareness support groups is as inspiring as a thousand million man marches. Very strong documentary filmmaking instincts reflect a nurturing movement born out of painful experiences. The revolution in pre- and postnatal care for black women will be Instagrammed, Twittered, Facebooked…

Descendants (***1/2)

The desire for a definitive story is the driving force behind this moving documentary. The schooner Cotilda was the last American slave ship to bring Africans to the United States. Imprisoned captives from Benin arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1860. Black descendants of this ship settled in Africatown, which has since been parceled out by public domain highway projects. , a lumber yard and other businesses. Yet the proud residents keep their history alive, orally, passing down information, names and dates to future generations who become historians and archivists.

Director Margaret Brown captures the spiritual experiences of these chosen Alabamians. She films their interviews at the very moment when a white journalist and a white mechanic shop owner decide to go in search of the ship burned by its owner, Timothy Meaher, and hidden in the nearby swamps.

Brown’s chronicle of this hunt and what it means to the heirs of the Cotilda’s last passengers is never intrusive. Its style is reminiscent of the popular documentary “Something in the Water”. The culture, history, reckoning, and repairs add a richness that makes the film emotionally gripping. Grainy footage of the ship’s last survivor, Cudjo Lewis, filmed by author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s, is as stunning to watch as a Meaher heir showing up at a ship’s discovery ceremony. These faithful descendants of slavery save their culture and their history. Their tenacity and courage prevail in a very enlightening way.

jeen-yuhs: a Kanye trilogy (***)

Ten minutes into this animated documentation of 21-year-old Kanye West, the unsettling contrasts between this hopeful, humble teenager and his embittered, bloated persona these days are quite shocking. Chicago public-access television host Coodie chronicled West’s pilgrimage from Chicago to New York in the late ’90s as he attempted to transition from music producer to superstar rapper. Blurred images reveal everything. Consider Coodie’s tribute more like a home movie/travelogue with famous characters (Damon Dash, Pharrell) than a typical documentary. No video stuff. No gimmicks. No mounds of news footage, interviews, etc. Just a largely unfiltered look at West battling for a record deal at hop-hop’s holy grail, Roc-A-Fella Records.

The most touching scenes are West and his wise, nurturing schoolteacher mother who wants him to stay humble: “You can stand on the floor with your head up at the same time.” The most awkward scenes watch RR CEO Jay-Z keep Kanye at bay: He wants the milk (West’s “jeen-yuhs” producer) but not the cow (Kanye as a rapper). On-the-fly moviemaking lets you frolic with your family, friends, opponents, mentors, and addicts. Learning about West’s middle-class background explains his early brand of rapping and its often spiritual elements, which are evident in the making of his classic hit “Jesus Walks.” West, without any gangsta cred, was on a mission: “I’m going to bridge the gap with hip-hop.” And he did, with a verve and naivete that reflected in his smiling face. Luckily, Coodie documented the good old days, otherwise no one would believe 1990s West and 2022 Ye were the same people.

Nanny (**1/2)

Stories of African immigrants often possess an innate appeal. In this case, Senegalese writer/director Nikyatu Jusu’s bizarre blend of horror, thriller, romance and muddled family drama has the opposite effect. Aïcha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman in her twenties, leaves her young son to find work in New York. A white couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) hire him to care for their young daughter Rose (Rose Decker). Wealthy spouses are lax with wages, Aisha loses communication with her son, and strange visions of a boy in the rain haunt her.

Supernatural aspects and cryptic imagery have no context for 90 minutes of this 97-minute film. Regardless of the questionable narrative choices, Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang make a very engaging film that displays their excellent taste in direction, composition, angles, lighting, and more. The scenes look fresh and modern. The director also excels at depicting a love story between Aisha and an understanding doorman (Sinqua Walls, “American Soul”). Jusu is very promising as a director. Even a messy movie can’t hide his talent.

We need to talk about Bill Cosby (***)

Really?! Is there an explosive secret about the shamed comedian that hasn’t been revealed yet? So thinks W. Kamau Bell, comedian turned documentary filmmaker. To make his point, he brings together an exhaustive array of talking heads (Roland Martin), comedians (Hannibal Buress), rape counselors and even a reporter who investigates date rape drugs. Cosby’s highly publicized fall from ’60s television pioneer (“I, Spy”), to quintessential 1980s/90s American boob hit dad (“The Cosby Show”), to convicted and imprisoned felon is meticulously mapped. Victim after victim, he exposes his habits of drug addiction, assault and rape. The initial ambivalent feelings of the black community are pondered. His hypocritical attacks on young black men as he assaults women are also documented.

Two hours of this negativity in the face is more than enough. Four one-hour segments are overdone. Too many Fat Albert clips. Too much fake outrage for dumb stuff like Cosby playing an obstetrician on “The Cosby Show.” The deluge of information will test your patience. Plus, watching people speculate while sitting on expensive leather trainers, dressed like fashionistas, and lit like they’re in a fashion shoot is off-putting. But credit Bell for his inventive style. Incriminating words dance across the screen and victims are noted on a horizontal timeline that identifies Cosby’s crimes in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Additionally, Bell’s knowledge of black culture, history and television industry are deep and sometimes deep.

Charging rapists like Cosby is fair game and worthwhile. But many viewers might want the second two hours of this documentary to be devoted to teaching women how to beware of predatory situations, detect rapists, defend themselves, report incidents and find help (for example, centers support for rape victims). We have discussions with our sons about encounters with the police. Why don’t we talk to our daughters about how to deal with people like him? Bell and this doc had a chance to stand up for rape victims and provide a public service. It’s a missed opportunity that would have given depth to the series.

There would be no President Obama without Bill Cosby. There wouldn’t be more than 60 rape victims without Bill Cosby. It’s an ugly paradox now captured on film.

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