2020 American Black Film Festival goes virtual

Scenes from the films featured at the 2020 American Black Film Festival that went virtual this year: Death of a Telemarketer, The Birth of Deceit, Curtis, Lola, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, The Available Wife, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Tazmanian Devil, and A New York Christmas Wedding.

In the age of COVID, film festival directors are finding creative ways to screen movies for audiences without gathering large groups at indoor venues. Hence, the 2020 ABFF Online Edition. For those who tuned in, the array of films for the 24th festival by Black artists was vast. These movies will do the film festival circuit, and some will find their ways to streaming services too. Get ready.

The Available Wife (**) – Nicole (KJ Smith, Queen Sugar) runs a struggling record company in D.C. She signs the sexy superstar singer Kingston (Terayle Hill) and thinks he can generate dollar bills. He does, along with violence and other problems. Screenwriters Tressa Azarel Smallwood, Kyjuan Cleveland and Jamal Hill have created an Empire and Power knockoff.

Bed hopping, forgery, deceit and murder abound, but play out on the level of a TV soap opera and not a film. Clichéd dialogue sucks the life out of conversations. The direction (Jamal Hill) fails to exhibit any significant style. Smith is fine. Terayle Hill plays the egotistical rapper menacingly like he is T.I. For some unknown reason veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith, as a disgruntled exec, overacts and looks spasmodic. This one is cheesy. It’s also surprisingly entertaining.

The Birth of Deceit (**) – Director/co-screenwriter Yaw Agyapong and co-writer Ella B. Lynn play at the doorstep of the horror genre, but never step in. Their misguided crime/suspense/thriller takes place in the ‘burbs.’ Twenty-seven-year-old Ambar (Vanessa Noel) is haunted by the death of her parents.

She’s been raised by her loving grandma (Rochelle Dickerson) believing that her father and mother were killed in a car crash. A shady cop Lucy (Jennifer Silverstein) knows more about their demise than she’s telling. Ambar and her friend Oggie (Devin Richardson) are lured into the cop’s home. Should they be concerned? Yep!

In a better script, the cop would be a serial killer with bodies in every closet of her house—and the freezer too. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have other, less absorbing ideas centering on an iffy crime mystery. The wavering tonal issues will leave viewers perplexed on how to react. Any real drama seems affected. The focus should be on one mystery, not several. Jumps between time periods add confusion, not clarity. Devin Richardson and Rochelle Dickerson get their parts right. Silverstein and Terrence Keene as her partner Herald doesn’t.

Curtis (***) – He’s that weird dude that hangs around the neighborhood basketball court reminiscing about the player he used to be. Director/screenwriter Chris Bailey’s ode to hard-luck local heroes gives those kinds of guys their due. His protagonist is Curtis (Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild), a homeless man with a touch of mental illness that makes him disorientated and living in the past: “I hit the shot that won the city championship!”

A young struggling basketball player Drake (Alex Henderson, Creed) needs a lot of coaching, as evidenced by his friends who never pick him for their teams: “Drake you the weakest “N—” out there.” The two seem destined to meet.

Bailey evocatively paints a fairly humanizing portrait of Detroit life and two wayward souls finding common ground and a purpose. But it is Mr. Henry who breathes life into Curtis making him a simple, sympathetic mentally ill person headed down a rabbit hole. He’s living on the edge, possibly beyond repair, and Henry makes you care.

There’s just enough meat on this bone for a strong short film. As a feature-length film it starts to feel thin. Regardless, audiences will be grateful that Henry has a showcase for his huge talent. Ditto Henderson, who is photogenic and should have a long career ahead of him. Footage is graced with lots of quiet tender moments in a very Charlie Chaplin kind of way.

Death of a Telemarketer (**) – Director/screenwriter Khaled Ridgeway tries to turn a one-joke premise into a comedy/suspense/thriller. Even at a short 88 minutes, it overextends its welcome and goes on well after viewers have had their laugh, gotten their revenge and understood the film’s point. Kasey Miller (Lamorne Morris, TV’s New Girl) is a cold-hearted telemarketer. Is that redundant? Kasey says brazenly: “You think I care? I don’t—after the sale is over.”

He is all mouth and bravura until a pissed off victim, Asa Ellenbogen (Jackie Earle Haley, Oscar nominee Little Children), corners him in his deserted office one night. The gun-wielding Asa holds the bigmouth hostage and threatens to kill him unless he calls a past client on the phone, apologizes to the customer for his previous behavior and earns an acceptance of his apology.

If you hate telemarketers and robocalls, this is your moment. Nice set-up, but it would take a creative genius to keep audiences’ attention rapt after the 10-minute mark. As the movie runs out of ideas, the cast is left holding the bag. Tech credits from cinematography, editing music and production design don’t help. The only person who can walk away with his head held high is Lamorne Morris. He’s as animated as Kevin Hart, as sly as Chris Rock and as mischievous as Bernie Mac—great use of facial expressions, body movement and comic timing.

G.O.D. – Givers of Death (**/12) – Some dystopian tales are better left untold. In this post-apocalyptic world, people are so forgone that they are desperate to die or someone is desperate to have them killed. Tasked with the job of ending lives are a mystery man, a detective and others. It’s a sci-fi film with a well-worn premise. Technically the footage looks pretty good thanks to Frank Coppola’s production design, Lincoln Coppola’s art direction and Matthew Quinn’s cinematography, which are all aided by a Christy Carew’s musical score.

This is an ambitious work by writer/director Addison Henderson (The Q&A Show) who also stars as one of the killers named Phog. The major flaw? Creating a movie about people wanting or needing to die senselessly. A lack of urgent pacing or chase scenes takes it out of the Mad Max realm. A dearth of exquisite artistry leaves it in the shadows of Blade Runner.

Unengaging storylines. Banal dialogue: “Sometimes you have to let go of the things you love the most.” Really? It’s tough to watch but has a few redeeming qualities. Henderson commands the screen quite well as an actor. He has great promise. The very pudgy looking J.J. Alleri is fun to watch too. Is there an audience for dour sci-fi?

Intolerance: No More (**) – Hitching a ride on the police brutality bandwagon can be very risky. Especially if your film has comic elements at a time when no one is laughing about blue on black violence—or vice versa. Lucretia (Paulette Patterson) is having a bad day. She’s late picking up her child from school, arguing with her ex-husband Mike (Freddie De Grate) over custody issues—and she’s an ex-con. An altercation in a parking lot with a White cop leads to his death. Scared, Lucretia is on the run, and she’s being chased by the LAPD, like O.J. in the Bronco.

Director/writer Sergio Guerrero Grazafox and co-writer Jennifer Irons’ attempt at examining an issue that haunts the Black and Brown communities feels exploitative even if the situation seems real. What follows is a string of hyped-up incidents that throw reality out the window. There are too many extraneous characters and improbable situations, like the protagonist seeking refuge from a Latinx podcaster (Yeniffer Behrens) who live-casts the ordeal.

Tonally, the film is too conflicting. There isn’t one believable performance from a cast struggling to interpret looney characters or stereotypes. The director is pretty deft at playing with the footage, splitting images, using panels, mimicking smartphone screens. The pacing isn’t bad for what this is. Memo to the filmmakers: pick your battle, e.g.: Police brutality; social media gone wild. Then if you want your message to be profound, skip the high jinks and comedy and go with real drama, watch an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and follow that tone for clarity.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain (****) – What it’s like to be in the middle of an unwarranted police raid? In White Plains, New York on November 19, 2011, 68-year-old vet Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. (Frankie Faison, The Wire) is in his apartment when his LifeAid medical alert necklace is inadvertently triggered. Police arrive at his door and insist that he let them into his apartment for a look-see: “We got to check you out.” The ex-Marine and Department of Corrections retiree doesn’t want to open the door. He’s afraid and has chronic heart problems. It’s all a mistake, and he wants to be left alone.

A test of wills erupts, as the officers outside the door grow in numbers and are increasingly angry that the older man has kept them at bay. Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s LifeAlert machine picks up all the conversations, including one of the cops calling him the ‘N’ word as the standoff becomes a life or death situation. Chamberlain’s tragedy brings up similar incidents: Eleanor Bumpurs in the Bronx in 1984 and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13, 2020. Both are situations where the proper personnel could have de-escalated the situation instead of making it worse.

Director/screenwriter David Midell puts you in Chamberlain’s place—physically, mentally and spiritually. He makes you feel the increasing anger of the thwarted policemen and the anguish of the older man’s children and relatives (Anika Noni Rose, LaRoyce Hawkins, Eunice Woods) who are left helpless. The film’s center of gravity is Frankie Faison who never overplays the character. He’s steady, sympathetic, vulnerable and determined to keep his dignity. If the film gets enough exposure, Faison could earn an Oscar nod.

The entire cast breathes life into characters in ways that will haunt audiences long after the film ends, e.g.: the racist White cops; the humanistic but weak-willed Latino policeman; the son who never comes over to protect his dad. Also, the claustrophobic setting (production designer Jacquelin Stanford) works its magic. The dim lighting (cinematographer Camrin Petramale) is eerie. The music (Garret Beelow, King Luck) surges at the right time during an 83-minute movie (editor Enrico Natale) that is as succinct as it is traumatizing. So scary and real you’ll never let your elderly parents out of your sight.

Lola (**) – There is something so inspiring about a female boxer character starting a career. You have to root for her, even if the film she’s is in is not as aspirational. Lola (Taja V. Simpson, TV’s The Oval) gets caught in bed with her lady lover Stephanie (Jennifer Figuereo), by her homophobic dad (Nakia Dillard). He throws a fit and kicks her out the house. Looking for stability, she stumbles into a boxing gym and learns to box. The center, its staff and the sport become her refuge.

It’s a lovely premise. One that would have been helped greatly if the writers (Antoine Allen, Gregg DaCosta and Julia Aaryn Montanez) hadn’t written generic dialogue that undermined the drama: “No guts no glory.” “You’re the hero in your story.” The director (Antoine Allen) needed a much stronger hand with his actors, e.g., Dillard’s initial hysterical fit as the berserk father went from acting to an uncontrollable outburst. Also, long after a scene has made its point, the camera lingers (editor Christopher Fox). Fortunately, once the boxing starts, the film finds its purpose. Through it all, Taja V. Simpson exhibits a grace, strength and emotional core that carry the movie over its rough spots.

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back (***) — They were brothers and dancing partners, but not alike. Gregory was the superstar actor/singer/dancer known as much for his movie work (White Knights) as Tony Award wins (Sophisticated Ladies). His older brother Maurice, though twice as animated and self-involved, is more the enigma.

Hence, this documentary that chronicles Maurice’s achievements, ups and downs is pretty enlightening and certainly entertaining. Never willing to hold his tongue, the older brother can be brutally candid. Chita Rivera comments: “Maurice, you have a tendency to upset people.”

The energy Maurice burns tends to be egocentric. Still it’s fun to trace him back to the 1960s where he got his start performing in the family group Hines, Hines and Dad. Then it’s on to his tap dancing career with his brother, which culminated in their final pairing in the film The Cotton Club. Maurice is as humorous and brazen as Greg was introspective. He’s fun to watch. Poignant too, as he reveals the frayed relationship he had with his sibling that kept them apart for decades at a time.

This documentary is as much about dancing, Broadway and Hines’ friends and lovers as it is about a complicated fraternal relationship that rivals that of Cain and Abel. As Maurice, at 76, contemplates death and dying he pines: “I want to see my mother, father and Gregory.” Director John Carluccio and screenwriter Tracy E. Hopkins have produced a very brilliant portrait—an homage to a Broadway hoofer who has stories to tell.

A New York Christmas Wedding (**1/2) – Jennifer Ortiz (Nia Fairweather) is about to marry a very wealthy man, David Wilks (Otoja Abit). Her pushy mother-in-law insists on a Christmas Eve wedding. Jennifer is traumatized at the thought, due to an old incident. At night on a jog, she stumbles into a young man (Cooper Koch) who has magical powers. He enables her to wake up in a bed next to a woman she used to love named Gabby (Adriana DeMeo). Now the soon-to-be bride must choose which world to live in and who to love.

Writer/director/actor Otoja Abit has created a very ambitious and potentially winsome work. The execution of his dream seems to be beyond his current skill set. Too much of the footage looks like a student film. The flashbacks between now and then are never smooth. Camera angles (cinematographer Eythan Maidhof) are often awkward.

Scenes drag on (editor Ian Phillips), the drama seems silly and Tyra Ferrell as the mother-in-law from hell overdoes it. This kind of romantic drama requires direction that has an innovative and quirky style—the kind that could make the romance magical. Like Love Actually. Somewhere hidden in the mix is a winsome story about a young woman who has the chance to live her life over.

Tazmanian Devil (**1/2) – Dayho (Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation), a Nigerian teen immigrant, tries desperately to acclimate to his new surroundings in Arlington, Texas. Flashbacks depict him as a kid living with his mom (Adepero Oduye, Pariah, 12 Years A Slave) back in the Motherland while his free-floating zealot dad, Rev. Julius Ayodele (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, The Chi) runs a church in the U.S. Then scenes in the present show Dayho trying to fit in with his new Texas peers by joining a Black fraternity. Lyn (Lyn Andrews), one of the leaders of the frat, hates Dayo and during hazing rituals beats him mercilessly while yelling the ‘N’ word.

The premise couldn’t be more topical. Lead actor Attah brings so much depth and emotion to the role that it’s almost cruel that the script and direction fail him with needless jumps in time periods and locations among other transgressions. What writer/director Solomon Onita, Jr. gets perfectly is the feel for young Black men: swagger, bravura, pride, and language.

What he gets wrong, is graphically depicting the vitriol, evil and degradation the frat boys hurl on the pledge. It’s enough to make you switch channels or leave a theater. When one pledge complains to another: “They beat us while calling us brothers,” the irony is not lost.

The acting all around is superb and natural as the cast reflects on infidelity, jealously, revenge, strict parenting and deceit. Onita’s script is sometimes brilliant and his intelligence is occasionally expressed in the dialogue: “Worst thing that happened to Black people was Christianity.” The parallels between the shackles of religion and frats won’t be lost on astute viewers. Pity that the sadistic hazing scenes may turn audiences off before they have a chance to be enlightened.

Young & Reckless (***1/2) – Two storylines; two young characters. Writer/director Timothy Barker, Jr. examines the wild sex and love lives of Atlanta’s Generation Z, which includes a lot of partying and booty calls. Teenager Terrence (Aaron Valentine) swears to his White girlfriend: “Just me and you. I’m not gonna do anything to f__ this up.” Is he faithful? No. Jordan (Binkey Lew) likes to talk nasty on the phone to her boyfriend while he is oblivious to the fact that a young woman is making love to her at the same time. Lawrence and Jordan are players.

Writer/director Timothy Barker is deft at setting up this slice of life story. He’s created engaging characters and directs the actors in a way that lets them be uninhibited. It’s like you’re one of the gang hanging out as they vividly reveal their attitudes on life, friends, family, love and sex.

The language is graphic, but that’s how kids talk behind closed doors. The drama hits when Terrence and his mom reach an impasse, and he may be homeless. Other upheavals come in waves until the finale. The soft hip-hop soul music feels like H.E.R., Khalid and Jhené Aiko stayed up all night to write the tunes. Nice performances from the entire cast. Barker takes on editing and cinematography duties too. His camerawork needs some fine-tuning and the audio has technical glitches. But for a feature film debut, he has masterfully achieved a relaxed and apt representation of young cool Atlanta. One that is rich enough to spawn a streaming series. The ending will shock you. Excellent job.

(FYI: ABFF Founder/producers Jeff and Nicole Friday have announced the launch of a new pay-per-view streaming service and digital movie theater platform called ABFF Play. This platform hosted the festival this year. For more information about this new endeavor and the festival go to <ABFF.com>.)

Visit NNPA Syndication Film Critic Dwight Brown at <DwightBrownInk.com> and <BlackPressUSA.com>.

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