A Feast of Films to Watch

Documentaries are windows into African American life

Darleen Ortega | 4/25/2017, 4:24 p.m.
Darleen Ortega writes her second installment about her annual sojourn to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C.
(top) Tayla Solomon (from left) Cori Granger and Blessin Giraldo from the documentary "Step." (bottom) Black colleges in America have educated the architects of freedom movements and cultivated leaders in every field for generations. The long overdue piece of history is told in the new documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.”

My annual sojourn to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this month offered a feast of films to watch for. I reviewed the first eight two weeks ago; here is the second half of the films I saw, in the order of my admiration and including three worthy windows into African American life and fascinating studies of political quagmires in New Delhi and Oakland, Calif.:

"Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities" is a long-overdue feature-length documentary on a piece of history that too few of us know. The material is in good hands; director Stanley Nelson ("Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," "Freedom Summer," "Freedom Riders") has made a career of documenting crucial pieces of black history. Here he has enough for a miniseries, but in 85 minutes has placed the history of Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in context, from America’s history of denying, even criminalizing education to slaves and freedmen; to a shocking 20,000 people who were killed for educating blacks during just the first six years after abolition. The film addresses contrasting views about black education from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois; the role of HBCUs in creating a black middle class and seeding the black Civil Rights Movement, and their importance in preserving places where black students can experience a level of community that otherwise often is not possible. The film will air on PBS in February 2018, and its website, hbcurising.com, features an online yearbook for alums to make and celebrate connections.

"Quest" won awards, including a Full Frame Grand Jury Prize, for its attentive depiction of the life of a black family from North Philadelphia. Filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski allows them to speak for themselves, and Christopher and Christine Rainey simply allow us into the world they share with their young daughter and the friends for whom they offer a studio space to sing, talk, and rhyme. Christopher, whose hip-hop nickname gives the film its title, overcame addiction to become a solid partner to Christine, who goes by Ma, and a patriarch to their daughter and, in some ways, to their community. Their neighborhood is left behind in terms of resources and influence; they and their neighbors work hard and struggle against poverty and neighborhood violence. This film gives this particular family a place of respect and challenges the dominant narrative about African American life by holding up the mirror of truth. I really hope this empathetic film finds a platform and an audience.

"Step" was the best of the three documentaries I saw about school life. Amanda Lipitz, directing her first feature-length documentary, chooses to follow the senior year of the first graduating class at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which aims to successfully place all its students into college and to equip them to succeed there. The film focuses on three young women and on the dance team to which they are all devoted. It provides useful windows into the struggles that are typical of African American girls and the amount of fight and sheer luck it takes for even those in such supportive environments to aspire and reach goals beyond survival. The role that dance plays for these girls is also important, planting into their bodies a sense of determination and expression they didn't know they possessed. I'm not completely sure the filmmaker knows what she has here, but she handles her young subjects with care and respect so that the film doesn't feel exploitive as other such films do. It is headed for a theatrical release (I just saw a preview for it in a theater this weekend) and is worth watching for.