Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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“Miles Ahead”: A Jazz Legend’s Lost Period, Revisited


In 1976, after 30+ years as a bandleader, recording artist and jazz superstar, legendary trumpet player Miles Davis took a hiatus from recording and public appearances. His disappearance from the limelight was hastened by poor health—he reportedly suffered from an ulcer, a hernia, osteoarthritis, sickle-cell anemia, bursitis, and depression—yet it’s also entirely possible he was experiencing creative burnout as well.

Davis wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting where he’d already been; simply making another Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain seemed beneath his artistic sensibilities.

After pioneering jazz-fusion with 1969’s In A Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew, incorporating rock rhythms as well as experimental recording techniques such as tape loops, Davis forayed into dense Afro-futurist funk on 1972’s On the Corner. The album is widely recognized today as a genius-level musical statement, but at the time, it offended jazz purists (which may have been an intentional move on Davis’ part). Later mid-70s studio releases Big Fun and Get Up With It weren’t terribly well-received, either, and a slew of live releases from this period, including Dark MagusAgharta, and Pangaea, continued this polarizing trend, despite their out-of-the-box use of electric effects, electric guitar, and even electric trumpet. Evidently, Davis wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting where he’d already been; simply making another Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain seemed beneath his artistic sensibilities. Instead of crafting museum-piece monuments to jazz history, he kept trying to connect with a younger zeitgeist, which by this time included psychedelic rock, way-out funk, and worldly hybrids of ethnic instrumentation.


After being hospitalized while on tour, Davis returned to his New York pad and went into self-imposed exile. He became somewhat of a hermit and stopped practicing trumpet regularly. He continued to compose, however, and made several abortive attempts at recording new music, all the while dealing with considerable substance abuse problems. His exile lasted five years, until the recording of his comeback album, The Man With the Horn (recorded in 1980-81 and released in 1981).

Curiously, it’s the tail end of Davis’ exile period that actor, director and co-writer Don Cheadle zeroes in on in “Miles Ahead,” a new biopic produced with the cooperation of the Davis estate (which means, unlike recent Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone movies, there’s plenty of Miles’ music included).

Why, one might ask, would Cheadle choose of his own free will to place his film during Davis’ least-prolific period, a time when by the trumpeter’s own admission,  he was little more than a drugged-out wreck, living almost entirely in his own head?


There’s a simple answer to that. Cheadle is a character actor, and “Miles Ahead” is primarily a character study. Freed from the moorings of having to recount Miles’ rise to fame, and the minute details of his most celebrated recordings, Cheadle burrows deep inside Davis’ skull, in an attempt to reveal a man who was more than the sum of his music.

Why, one might ask, would Cheadle choose of his own free will to place his film during Davis’ least-prolific period?

The portrait he sketches here is one of a larger-than-life individual who carried fame with the casualness of a keychain. Miles is simply Miles, no last name necessary. Cheadle doesn’t entirely disappear within the role, but he comes close. The actor was first linked to the role about a decade ago, and it’s clear he’s done his research.

While Cheadle’s Davis may seem over the top at times—this is a loud, brash, entertaining film—there’s also plenty of subtle nuances, if you look hard enough (and a superb score by Robert Glasper which largely flies under the radar). Cheadle absolutely nails Davis’ hoarse whisper of a voice. He evokes Davis’ famous temper and violent rage, although the sexual perversion and misogyny also associated with him are only hinted at – perhaps due to the need to make the lead character seem sympathetic—which he is, mostly.


In life, Davis was a dark, if mercurial, man. On celluloid, portrayed by Cheadle, his comfortability with his shadow is like a superpower he wields whenever he faces conflict. He’s just too cool and too black, and he knows it. This is clearly evidenced by the fictional relationship between Davis and a magazine reporter played by Ewan McGregor.

In life, Davis was a dark, if mercurial, man. On celluloid, portrayed by Cheadle, he’s just too cool and too black, and he knows it.

McGregor’s role is that of Hollywood buddy, yet within that context he somehow manages not to be a complete dork. He is the square who is rebirthed in coolness from merely associating with Davis. In the course of the movie, McGregor snorts lines, drinks liquor, and accompanies Davis in a mission to retrieve the movie’s enigmatic MacGuffin – a reel to reel tape of a studio session. McGregor upgrades from Brit twit status when Davis gives him a stylish blue shirt to wear (to prevent him from impinging on Miles’ cool factor by being sartorially unprepared), and finally achieves hipness in his own right, by mastering Miles’ favorite epithet, “motherfucker.”

McGregor’s a fine actor, but his role is not played for utter believability. Few music journalists, for instance, have actually gotten into shootouts with the bodyguards of rival managers while tracking down a story. And few would witness a music superstar shake down execs at a record company’s office, and then say, they’d rather write the real story.


Essentially, McGregor is there so that Cheadle has someone to bounce “motherfuckers” off of; otherwise, we could have had a far more insular movie consisting of just Cheadle as Miles talking to himself and looking regretfully at his past album covers with ex-flames displayed prominently. That might have been cool, too, but it would have confined the film to avant-garde status, and limited its populist appeal considerably.

Cheadle’s Davis is a piece of work. He’s a black man with rock star status, a host of personal demons, and a one-in-a-million talent who has forgotten his ability to even blow a solid note throughout much of the film… More than just a jazzman, he’s presented almost as a Blaxploitation hero, an Afro-Sheened superfly dude whose own contradictions enhance rather than limit him as a culture hero.

“Miles Ahead” is not a by-the-numbers biopic. It probably won’t appeal to people looking for a Cliff Notes summary of every notable musical thing Davis ever did, and the celebrity cameos are almost non-existent, until the film’s end. The flimsy, circular plot takes a backseat to character development, and the one plot device which actually moves the story – other than the frequent flashbacks to a younger Miles – does so in an ironic and somewhat anticlimactic way. But rather than nitpick what isn’t in the movie, we can simply appreciate it for what it is.

Cheadle’s Davis is a piece of work. He’s a black man with rock star/style icon status, a host of personal demons, and a one-in-a-million talent who has forgotten his ability to even blow a solid note throughout much of the film. He has no moral qualms about strong-arming record executives to buy cocaine to feed his habit, throwing a quick punch at an unexpected visitor, or shooting out the window of a moving car. More than just a jazzman, he’s presented almost as a Blaxploitation hero, an Afro-Sheened superfly dude whose own contradictions enhance rather than limit him as a culture hero.


It helps, too, that we get liberal doses of Miles’ music throughout the film, from “Blue in Green” to “Solea” to “Black Satin” to “Nefertiti.” That adds context to what is being presented on screen – a period where Miles made almost no music – and fills in the plot holes by suggesting a much deeper backstory than what we see.

The film departs from historical fact so frequently, it soon becomes clear that’s not the point. Rather, “Miles Ahead” offers parable as metaphor, folktale as fable. We get frequent flashbacks to Miles’ wooing – and subsequent post-conquest arguments with – Frances Taylor, a black beauty who in real life graced three of his album covers, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi. However, by 1979, Davis had reunited with his former wife Cicely Tyson, who is never mentioned in the film – nor is Betty Davis, Miles’ muse during the Bitches Brew period, and a funk diva in her own right. Many other details are also fictionalized; the filmmakers chose to emphasize the feeling of being in the presence of Miles over pinpoint accuracy.


The abrupt ending is a case in point. Instead of seeing Miles reunite with his true love and gradually get a new band together for what would become The Man With The Horn sessions, we get a flash-forward into an alternate universe, where Davis jams with an all-star band of contemporary artists, among them guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. , pianist Robert Glasper, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. The two connections to actual history are pianist Herbie Hancock and saxman Wayne Shorter – who played with Davis, in his legendary “second Quintet.” Though this fictional concert comes off as a little heavy on the glitz, it’s intended to drive home the point that Davis’ legacy lives on, that his legend didn’t stop with Kind of Blue or Jack Johnson. But it also makes an unintended, ironic point, that fiction is stranger than truth.

Does it work? Mostly, although the flashier scenes tend to obscure the nuanced subtleties which are the film’s true strength. Don’t be surprised if the music stays in your head long after the credits roll and you subsequently find yourself on a Miles binge, either.




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Matatu 2015 Packs A Year’s Worth of Culture Into a Week

Still from "Asni"

Still from “Asni”

Ever wonder what youth in Richmond, CA and youth in Johannesburg, South Africa have in common, as well as what separates them? Or what Ethiopian Afro-futurist sci-fi looks like? How about a Senegalese political uprising which received scant media coverage in the US? What about an underground NY hip-hop radio show which became a cultural institution?

These questions and more will be answered by the 2015 Matatu Festival of Stories, the third installment in founder and director Michael Orange’s mission to bring easily-overlooked independent films and documentaries, many of them addressing Afrocentric themes or relating to black culture. This time out, the Matatu—an East African Swahili slang word meaning passenger taxi or minibus, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines—makes its rounds through the Diaspora, touching the West and East Coast of America, the Netherlands and its former colony Suriname, as well as East, West, and Southern Africa. The ride is rife with adventure and rich in cultural capital, and this year, the festival’s cinematic selections are enhanced by live performances, meet-ups, special guest performers, and a Matatu-inspired art show.

The Opening Night selection, “Necktie Youth,” examines a fast-emerging post-apartheid South Africa, as seen through the eyes of wealthy, suburban, Jo’Burg youth who struggle to find themselves within a newly-open society which still grapples with issues of race and class. “Necktie Youth” is a coming-of-age story which sometimes plays like the African version of “Kids” – there are graphic descriptions of sex and of drug and alcohol consumption. Viewing contemporary Johannesburg through the lens of privileged yet haunted young adults, the film has a semi-documentary feel—nearly all of it is shot in black and white. It is in some ways a perfect bookend to “Dear Mandela,” a 2013 Matatu selection, which examined the bittersweet legacy of Nelson Mandela through the eyes of the poor and politically-unfortunate.

Still from "Necktie Youth"

Still from “Necktie Youth”

But this is a South Africa we haven’t seen before. In “Necktie Youth,” there are no overt politics at play, and interracialism has become a natural course of events, yet the grip of the past hasn’t completely loosened. Promiscuous white women from Pretoria fetishize their black lovers while drawing boundaries between their lustful trysts and their conservative Afrikaaner parents. It’s interesting to see African youth adopt black American slang to their own, and observe their mannerisms, which speaks to the universality of youth culture as well as its regional variations.

“Romeo is Bleeding” also focuses on youth, in this case the young black people of Richmond, CA, who struggle with their own issues—a multi-generational turf war from which there seems to be no escape, the inevitable reality of violence which has become recidivist, and their abandonment by an older generation who fell prey to incarceration and/or substance abuse. The documentary ‘s narrative arc tells the story of Donte Clark, a product of Richmond’s streets whose family members are feared soldiers in the conflict between North and Central Richmond. Clark turns to spoken word poetry as a way of expressing emotions threatened with permanent numbing by losing friends to jail or bullets. He becomes a teacher and mentor to young adults, even though he’s not much older himself in calendar years. When a white friend starts a theater company, they decide to adapt Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” into a Richmond-centered tale, with the town’s two warring factions substituting for the Capulets and the Montagues.

The movie reveals the oft-held belief that the black community is unconcerned with stopping intra-hood violence to be a glaring misconception. Clark’s commitment to being a positive, shining example in the face of adversity is tested by the cyclic nature of violence itself; still he pushes forward, on a mission to prove that “love in Richmond is possible.”

Speaking of love, it’s the central theme of “Crumbs,” a wonderfully-realized story set in a post-apocalyptic future which employs elements of magical realism, like Octavia Butler and Guillermo Del Toro’s progeny. A scavenging dwarf, his love interest, Santa Claus, a shifty pawn shop owner, plastic children’s toys and Michael Jackson album covers highly valued as mystical artifacts, second-generation Nazis, and a mysterious UFO populate this madcap tale, shot in Ethiopia. The film has much to say, even if some of it is cryptic. Like most heroes, the dwarf takes a journey. But instead of achieving the stated goal of his quest, in the end, he finds something far more precious was in his possession all along. A surreal comedy, “Crumbs” is ultimately an affirmation of human compassion and emotion which posits that the future is only as bleak as we allow it to be.

Meanwhile in Senegal, reverberations from the Egyptian uprising which saw the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak echo throughout “Incorruptible,” a documentary tracing the 2012 election which toppled the government of Abdoulaye Wade. The conditions are similar; Wade’s administration, once revered by the Senegalese people, has become a hotbed of corruption and nepotism, falling out of touch with the demands of the long-suffering underclass for better living conditions. After Wade changes the constitution to run for a third term, a protest movement begins to gather steam. Efforts by the government to quell the insurgency using tear gas and even live bullets backfire as the Senegalese take to the streets to demand regime change. Even as mosques are targeted and tanks brought in, the opposition insists it is not seeking violent confrontation with the government, but a democratic election process. After a field of candidates, including singer Youssou N’Dour, whittles down to a run-off between Wade and challenger Malky Sall, state-backed militias engage in political violence as the government tries to tighten its grip on power – “the truth is under attack,” N’Dour says. A Wade speech where he insists the dissent is unimportant is effectively contrasted by footage of protesters throwing rocks at a billboard of the President. Y’en a Marre, a youth activism group which uses rap music as a consciousness-raising tool, helps propel Sall to victory, but warns him that their loyalty is to Senegal, not to any one politician.

Still from "Marga Weinans"

Still from “Marga Weinans”

“Incorruptible” offers an eye-opening view into an African Muslim population which is more interested in dialogue than terrorism – a revelation to an American mindset inundated with Islamophobic propaganda. It effectively captures a historical moment in time which may be seen as a turning point for African democracy. A sense of urgency is conveyed through handheld footage of protesters being tear-gassed; there are many poignant looks at of the faces of the Senegalese people, while a beautiful score by Akon (who also executive-produced the film) and Mark Batson captures the emotion, idealism and dignity of a revolutionary movement all but unknown to the West.

Other highlights of the festival include “Stretch and Bobbito,” a documentary about the long-running hip-hop radio show notable for breaking major hip-hop artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan; “Fashion House: Marga Weimans,” a black designer who makes waves in both the Netherlands and Suriname; “Asni: Courage, Passion and Glamor in Ethiopia,” a documentary about Asnaketch Worku, a trailblazing female vocalist who became an East African pop culture icon; and “Red Leaves,” an Ethiopian/Israeli film which addresses immigration and cultural assimilation and retention, as seen through the eyes of a 74-year old falasha, Meseganio Tadela.

As if a whole program of inspired films wasn’t enough, the Matatu concept also manifests through an equally-rich schedule of festival-related events to engage your brain, your mouth, and your body. These include a dinner at Miss Ollie’s featuring a book reading by Saul Williams, artist talks with Mahader Tesfai and Donte Clark,  and jazz records spun by chef Bryant Terry; a happy hour hosted by Souls of Society, followed by performances by Williams and avant-garde outfit Black Spirituals; an evening of experimental music with Shafiq Husayn and Mark de Clive-Lowe; an excursion into “four-part communication” with Afro-jazz group Democratics; kora music by Zéna ft. Amaranth String Quartet;  a live set by emerging Eritrean-American artist Eden Hagos; and a dance performance by Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

Shafiq Husayn

Shafiq Husayn

Not only is this the most action-packed Matatu to date, but the level of programming is beyond ambitious, and borders on the insane: a full week’s worth of visceral, intellectual and visual stimuli which may test your stamina. It’s almost as if Orange and festival producer Maria Judice tried to make up for the relative lack of access to Afro-futuristic culture the other 51 weeks of the year, by overstuffing the Matatu to an extreme capacity. Fasten your seat belts, Oakland, and enjoy the ride.

The Matatu Festival runs September 22-26 at various locations, including Miss Ollie’s, Flight Deck, and Starline Social Club.

A complete list of Matatu 2015 films is here

A complete guide to Matatu events is here

For more information about Matatu, visit here

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“East Side Sushi”: A Tasty Film About Female Empowerment

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Great films are often a collection of little moments which form a larger gestalt. A case in point: The sushi chef competition scene in “East Side Sushi.” It’s one of the best sequences you’ll see in any film this year. Like the rest of the movie, it’s a smart scene, played with equal parts comedy and drama, as four sushi chefs, three of them Japanese, vie for the title of “Sushi Champion.” The fourth chef is our heroine, Juana, a single mom of Mexican ancestry who has improbably yet amazingly ingratiated herself into the male-dominated, highly-traditional, world of sushi chefs.

Watching the scene unfold, there’s an emotional investment in Juana’s character and the outcome of the competition. It’s the movie’s defining moment; We’ve followed the journey of Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, from abandoning her father’s Fruitvale fruit cart business after a violent robbery, to working at jobs which offer no possibility of advancement – or health benefits – to being hired as an assistant prep cook at a fictional Japanese sushi restaurant, Osaka (a stand-in for the real-life Coach Sushi, on Grand Ave.). Despite being told, “we don’t usually hire women,” she gets the job.

Juana’s a quick learner, and the knife skills she developed peeling fruit and working in Mexican restaurants serve her well in cutting sashimi and ngiri. She’s taken under the wing of Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), an amiable sushi chef, and practices her craft on her family — substituting poblano for nori, using chile relleno, pico de gallo, and Tapatio hot sauce as ingredients — but runs afoul of Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), the restaurant’s traditional-minded boss, who’s worried Osaka’s authenticity will suffer if he allows Juana to join the other chefs at the front of the restaurant.

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from "East Side Sushi." photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from “East Side Sushi.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

The larger subtext—of a patriarchal man afraid of female empowerment – is evident. Yet Juana is not only determined, she’s the fastest, most inventive sushi chef at the restaurant. With Aki’s encouragement, she sets her sights on her goal, and enters the competition as a way to prove her worthiness. She also earns the support of her initially-skeptical father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), the film’s other patriarchal figure.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood, and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note.

Juana is a feminist heroine without an academic background, a real-seeming person who embraces an adopted culture without diluting her own. Her passing resemblance to Frida Kahlo makes it easy to imagine her as a rebel and visionary. Her ideology, however, comes down to one of social inclusion: “in every great restaurant, there are great Latinos in the back, prepping the food… I don’t want to be in the back,” she says at one point.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note. Amazingly, the film was made for less than $35,000, yet it feels rich in storytelling, unlike films with exponentially-higher budgets and empty souls.

The other main theme of the movie is one of cultural intersectionality and embracing diversity, for which Oakland proves the perfect backdrop. Mexican sushi may seem like an oxymoron, but Juana’s “Mayan Sun roll” is a hit with customers, and her signature roll, the poblano-infused “Green Diablo,” plays with the idea that traditional culture can and should be updated and innovated upon.

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Part of the fun for local audiences will be in identifying all the Oakland locations referenced in the film, which include KTOP, Tacos Sinaloa, the Main Library, Aztek dancers, the salsa dancers at the Lake Merritt pillars, and cultural murals in the Fruitvale District. Foodies, especially sushi aficionados, will also enjoy all the focus on the behind-the-scenes food prep, such as the correct ratio of rice, vinegar, sugar, and salt to make sticky rice. Be forewarned, though, that watching this movie can stir a powerful craving for sushi which may cause a post-film run to your favorite spot.

“East Side Sushi” opens today (September 18) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Kabuki in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.eastsidesushifilm.com.




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“Kung-Fu Killer”: Spectacular Action, Deep Philosophy

Movie Review/ “Kung Fu Killer” (2015)

There is a special place in Oakulture’s heart for kung-fu films. We remember the days when the genre was scarcer than ninja scrolls and lovingly cherished by a subculture of cultish aficionados for whom Bruce Lee was only a starting point. There’s something to be said for the aesthetic of the Shaw Brothers studio’s prolifically classic output, not to mention the Zatoichi series, and all those low-budget, highly-entertaining Sonny Chiba movies. We witnessed the evolution and expansion of the genre during the 90s Hong Kong action film explosion, which brought about a resurgence in traditional kung-fu cinema (i.e. set in the past, often with elements of magical realism) and made international stars out of Jackie Chan and then Jet Li, along with the Asian gangsta ethos of John Woo and other modern HK directors’ urban ultra-violence dramas. The release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” showed the kung-fu actioner could be an Art Film as well – as long as plot and cinematography were up to the level of fight and training sequences. “Crouching Tiger” was a great film, and subsequent attempts to capture its momentum, including “Hero” and “House of the Flying Daggers,” helped to further legitimize kung-fu as a genre which could play the art house as well as the grindhouse.

That said, it can be argued that kung-fu genre films work better as B-movies, without the added pressure of trying to contend for Oscar nominations. A case in point: “Kung Fu Killer,” which opens April 24 at theaters near you.

Directed by HK legend Teddy Chen, “Kung Fu Killer”  (released in China as “Kung Fu Jungle”) doesn’t want to be “Crouching Tiger”; its frame of reference is more the traditional martial arts films churned out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, which relied mainly on hand-to-hand displays of skill. There’s very little of the acrobatic wire work made famous by Yuen Woo Ping, and no CGI. The result is a modern movie with a pronounced old-school aesthetic.

Donnie Yen, an veteran action star and choreographer last seen in “Ip Man,” plays the lead role of Hahou Mo, a disgraced martial arts instructor.  Yen opens the movie by turning himself into police after killing a man in a duel. When masters of various martial arts disciplines are targeted by a serial killer, Yen stages an exciting prison fight to get the attention of the police, so he can offer his services.

Donnie Yen

Donnie Yen

He’s pitted against Fung Yu-Sau (Wang Baoqiang), a man who has overcome a physical disability—he’s clubfooted—to master many different fighting styles: boxing, kicking, grappling, weapons and qi. That makes for an interesting set-up, wherein each style is showcased during a fight sequence. Fung’s motivations are driven by grief—he recently lost his wife to cancer—but also by competitive ambition: he wants to become the best, by defeating the best.

The first half of the movie mainly consists of imaginative fight scenes, as Fung targets the martial arts masters. One memorable contest takes place on a giant model of a human skeleton; another pits an x-acto knife against an iron bar (guess which weapon wins?). There’s a thrilling chase scene from rooftops to alleys. Both lead characters are haunted by flashbacks, and their symbiotic connection isn’t just coincidental.

Once Fung achieves his initial objective, the movie slows down considerably and becomes more intellectual, probing Hahou’s motives as it advances toward the inevitable climactic showdown. A fishing village becomes the backdrop for a boat chase, while the final fight scene—on a freeway, with semi trucks whizzing past—is right up there with the train fight from “Drunken Master 2.”

“There’s always a message in kung-fu films, especially the older ones. Something about culture is going to be showcased. The hero is going to go on a journey, he’s going to be taught a lesson. It’s usually around family or pride.” – Malcolm Hoover on “Kung Fu Killer”

At this time, Oakulture would like to introduce guest commentator Malcom Hoover, of Deepculture , a kung-fu aficionado and member of the Black Nerd Squad, who weighs in with his thoughts on “Kung Fu Killer.”

According to Hoover, the film is “murderously fantastic.”

He adds: “One thing I always watch in Asian films, particularly Chinese films, is the cultural content of it, what cultural values are reflected. I really liked seeing the wisdom of kung-fu and martial arts culture wrapped into a modern context. Here was somebody who was a martial arts instructor… an honorable (man) whose pride got the better of him, which led to his fall. Humility is always emphasized in martial arts. And then, his pride continued to get the better of him, even while he was helping (the police catch the killer).”

the prison fight scene in "Kung Fu Killer"

the prison fight scene in “Kung Fu Killer”

For Hoover, “it wasn’t just the action sequences, which I love, but the morality tale of it. Once he succumbed and became humble, the way opened for him… and even in the end, he didn’t win by his own devices.”

“Kung Fu Killer” calls itself an homage to Hong Kong action film tradition, as evidenced by its underlying message. “There’s always a message in kung-fu films,” Hoover says. “Especially the older ones. Something about culture is going to be showcased. The hero is going to go on a journey, he’s going to be taught a lesson. It’s usually around family or pride.”

The villain’s motivations also captured Hoover’s interest. “It’s his anger at his wife’s condition that drives him to be the anti-hero to the hero… the anti-hero has an interesting backstory, even more than the hero.”

Donnie Yen and Wang Baoqiang

Donnie Yen and Wang Baoqiang

At its best, “Kung-Fu Killer” melds a traditional martial arts film like Chan’s “Snake and Crane Arts of the Shaolin” – which is referenced with a screenshot tribute –with the sophisticated, almost “Godfather”-esque crime story Woo mined to perfection in “Bullet in the Head.” But while guns, cars, cel phones and other modern accoutrements are accounted for, “Kung-Fu Killer”’s heart lies in telling a variation on well-worn martial arts tropes, and leaving the viewer with a renewed appreciation for slam-bang fight scenes and action choreography, while raising deeper philosophical questions about whether the competitive drive to be #1 is even necessary.

Ratings: three black fists (Deepculture); three and one/half black fists (Oakulture).



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Oakulture’s Picks for the 13th Annual Oakland International Film Festival

OIFF Filmmakers at the Joyce Gordon Gallery

OIFF Filmmakers at the Joyce Gordon Gallery

Now in its 13th year, the Oakland International Film Festival is back for another inspired run of indie and sub-mainstream cinematic fare, much of it locally-produced. Though other local film fests have proliferated Oakland’s landscape in the years since, OIFF is the pioneer. Over its long run, its been a cultural tastemaker as well as a community enabler, offering a platform for local filmmakers with dreams of wide distribution for their labors of love.

At an OIFF meet and greet held at the Joyce Gordon Gallery on Wednesday, the day before the festival’s Opening Night Gala, many of the filmmakers were in attendance. They welcomed the chance to talk about their films.

Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of "Jesus saves"

Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of “Jesus Saves”

“Last year I was sitting in the audience. I never thought I would be here and be able to share my story,” said Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of a short, “Jesus Saves.” The film is about an “actual come-to-Jesus moment,” Moore-Bulnes said, adding that she hopes to attract enough interest to expand the short into a feature film.

“Last year, you were sitting in the audience. This year, you’re in the game,” remarked David Roach, OIFF’s producer and the founder of the Oakland Film Society. Over the years, Roach has doggedly pursued his vision, sticking with OIFF, largely a grassroots effort, through the Great Recession and Oakland’s subsequent Cultural Rebirth  – the city is now widely seen as an artistic incubator and an attractive destination for new residents in search of urban cool. That wasn’t exactly the case in 2002 when Roach started OIFF.

OIFF founder David Roach

OIFF founder David Roach

Oakland’s changing cultural landscape is at the center of another film featured in the festival, “Code Oakland,” which tells the story of Kalimah Priforce, founder of Qeyno Labs. According to filmmaker Kelly Amis, “’Code Oakland’ is about tech visionaries who are teaching kids how to code so they can create new paths… but it’s also about how Silicon Valley is moving into Oakland, and how the tech workforce in Silicon Valley is so white, and male-dominated. They’re coming into Oakland now, which is a historically-black city, and not hiring local people necessarily. So we hope the kids can be the gamechangers.”

Code Oakland: Trailer from TEACHED on Vimeo.

Amis went on to note that “a lot of people talk about Oakland as the new Brooklyn or a new Silicon Valley, and Oakland is already here. Oakland’s been cool before Ask.com moved here. “

Juan Davis (l.) looks on as Kelly Amis (r.) is interviewed

Juan Davis (l.) looks on as Kelly Amis (r.) is interviewed

The filmmaker, whose background is in education,  notes a parallel between the incarceration-industrial complex she covered in an earlier documentary, “The Path to Prison,” and the positive reinforcement of teaching inner-city kids tech skills shown in “Code Oakland.”

“It’s very much connected. ‘Code Oakland’ is almost the answer to it,” she said. “What happens when we tell kids that they’re gifted, instead of treating them like potential criminals? What happens when you give them the skills to do what they would like to do?”

Another film with deep cultural resonance is “Da Cotton Pickers,” an unflinching look at the historical legacy of black sharecroppers. Filmmaker Robert “Fleetwood” Bowden says he “embarked on a story to document the transplant[ing] and migrations of our people… who’ve been through all types of adversity.”

Robert "Fleetwood" Bowden

Robert “Fleetwood” Bowden

He sees his film as “an educational platform” for young people, “so the youth can understand no matter what they’re going through today, they come from a bloodline.”

The subject is one Roach related to personally. “My father was a sharecropper, he picked cotton in Texas,” he said, adding that “poverty has continued from those days. It’s really important to understand that.”

At-risk youth is one of the themes which runs through this year’s festival, represented by a number of fictional dramas about street life and hustle, as well as documentaries like “The Peacemakers” and “Free,” both of which are set in Oakland. The first describes a youth mentoring program, while the second tells the story of Destiny Arts, a dance troupe whose juvenile members often face heavy traumas.

David Roach

David Roach

“A lot of the kids out here, they need guidance. They don’t have guidance in their homes, they don’t have guidance in their communities,” explained filmmaker Juan Davis, director of “The Peacemakers.” Similarly, “Free,” Roach noted, “captures the importance of having safe environments for young people.”

Other highlights include “Melvin and Jean,” a documentary around two fugitive Black Panthers turned European expats; “The Dream Kontinues,” a short about Oakland aerosol king Mike Dream; “Beyond the Walls,” a documentary about muralists; “Zola,” a film about the plight of youth in Zimbabwe; and “The Shop,” an urban crime drama set in Oakland, featuring Tiffany “New York” Holden of VH1 fame.  A complete list of OIFF programming is here.

With multiple programs spread over April 2-5 at multiple locations –including the Grand Lake Theater, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, San Leandro’s Le Bal, and the Black Repertory Theater—OIFF offers a lot of chances to saturate yourself in the world of indie films and support local cinematic creatives. However, combing through four full days of films can be a daunting task. So Oakulture has compiled a list of our OIFF picks. These are the films we rate as must-sees, although opening up your indie-film chakra and immersing yourself in the full festival experience can be interesting too (festival passes are available for those so inclined):

Oakulture’s OIFF picks:

Melvin and Jean: An American Story

April 2nd , 5-7pm, Grand Lake Theater

TDK: The Dream Kontinues

April 2nd, 730-9pm, Grand Lake Theater

April 3rd, 12-2pm, Le Bal Theater


April 3rd, 12-2pm, Le Bal Theater

Code Oakland

April 3rd, 5-7pm,Le Bal Theater

April 4th, 930-1130am, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

Beyond the Walls

April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

Da Cotton Pickas

April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle


April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

The Shop

April 5th, 730-1030p, Black Repertory Theater

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African Actor/Director Mati Diop Featured at PFA

mati diop

Mati Diop

15 minutes seems like an eternity in Mati Diop’s short film, “Atlantiques.” The film centers around a campfire conversation between young African men dreaming of a better life, imagining themselves risking a hazardous crossing from Mauritania to Europe in a small vessel called a pirogue. Diop employs surreal cinematography, dark frames where it’s not clear what is happening, and even blank screens with supertitles to achieve a dreamlike state and emphasize the impact of their hopes, desires, and fears.

The 2009 short will be featured Thursday evening, along with two other Diop shorts, “Snow Canon” and “Big in Vietnam,” as part of a three-night program at the Pacific Film Archive , followed by a conversation between Diop and Genevieve Yue. On Friday, Diop’s 2013 feature “A Thousand Suns” will be screened, followed again by a conversation between Yue and the director. The program concludes Saturday with “35 Shots of Rum,” a 2008 French film which showcases Diop’s talents as an actor.

African filmmakers often have a take on cinema which is completely revelatory and unexpected to western audiences, so it is without reservation that Oakulture highly recommends attending one or all of the program’s three nights. >> Buy Tickets

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“Timbuktu” Offers African Perspective on Islamic Jihad

Film Review/ “Timbuktu,” opens January 30 at Sundance Kabuki, SF

TIMBUKTU de Abderrahmane_Sissako film still 3_d10bd5fc-ca9d-e411-b62a-d4ae527c3b65

Arriving at an auspicious time—after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France and reports of a Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria have raised global concerns over militant jihadists—Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissoko’s sixth film,  “Timbuktu”, offers a perspective largely missing from Western media reports: the indigenous African point of view.

The film, which opens January 30, details the arrival of an armed band of jihadists who occupy a Malian village not far from Timbuktu and declare sharia law. The film is primarily concerned with the impact of the jihadists on the village, whose peaceful existence is now threatened by violence, detention, and brutal punishments for such crimes as daring to play music.  The main protagonist, Kidane, is a cattle farmer who lives in the sandy desert outside the village with his wife and daughter. Initially unaffected by the jihadists, he is drawn into the center of their conflict following a dispute over a cow who wanders into a river fisherman’s net.

TIMBUKTU_1Sht_Acad_{f5134dd0-075b-e411-9d0b-d4ae527c3b65}The storyline is based on real-life events: a 2012 occupation of the fabled city by Islamic militants—many reportedly mercenaries displaced from Libya after the US-backed overthrow of Qaddhafi—which garnered a number of media reports in the Western press detailing how hundreds of thousands of Timbuktu’s historical artifacts and ancient documents were smuggled to safety.

There’s also a much larger backstory behind “Timbuktu.” The history of Arab incursion into sub-Saharan Africa is a long and complex one; Mali and Mauritania were both conquered by Arabs long before they were colonized by the French, and it’s not uncommon for Northwest Africans to have Muslim first names and traditional tribal surnames, as Sissoko does. Like the novelist Ayi Kwei Armah in “2000 Seasons,” Sissoko paints an unfavorable picture of Muslim conquest, but what’s interesting here is that what the audience is witnessing isn’t theological, but rather ideological, conflict. In the real world, Muslim violence is more often sectarian than not, i.e. directed at other Muslims, and, obviously, not all Muslims share militant fundamentalist beliefs.

Curiously, the jihadists in “Timbuktu” are given little backstory. We don’t know their motivation, nor whether they are part of a larger extremist/fundamentalist group. We are told that one of them, a translator—at various times, the film switches between Bambara, Songhay, French, English, and Arabic languages—is a Libyan, but that’s about all the exposition we get on the group’s origins. The jihadists aren’t quite faceless, but they aren’t exactly three-dimensional, either. We learn that one of them smokes cigarettes, implying a hypocritical morality, but while Sissoko avoids the clichéd stereotyping a Ridley Scott or Michael Bay might have brought to the material, he doesn’t supply his antagonists with much nuance. There’s no ambiguity in how the jihadists are portrayed—as violent, morally-suspect men who justify their actions through a flawed interpretation of the Qu’ran.

Filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissoko

Filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissoko

Born from a Malian father and Mauritanian mother, Sissoko—who currently lives in France—knows the territory he covers well. “Timbuktu” is far from “Black Hawk Down” or movies of that sort, which fetishize and exoticize Eastern culture from a xenophobic, culturally-imperialist lens.  Sissoko takes a cinema verite approach, often capturing a documentary-like feel in his depiction of life in a Malian village.

In one of the film’s strongest scenes, a group of youths pantomimes playing football (soccer) after the jihadists confiscate their ball. There’s no dialogue, but the visuals communicate volumes—about the ritualistic African football culture and the need of the people to maintain their rituals. In another powerful scene, a young woman sings a beautiful traditional song as she is being publicly lashed for daring to play music with members of the opposite sex.

“Timbuktu”’s pacing is slow and measured. Sissoko’s approach to directing is sparse and minimalistic; There’s none of the frenetic jump-cuts or contrived suspense we’re accustomed to seeing from major film studios, and the cinematography is simple yet effective, with lots of wide shots capturing the expansiveness of the desert’s curved, roundish sand dunes. The tempo makes viewers consider the landscape and the environment more carefully; the film soaks up the natural lushness of the Malian countryside. Its soundtrack also captures Mali’s wonderful-sounding indigenous music, often said to be the foundation of blues.

photo by Arnaud Contreras

photo by Arnaud Contreras

One of the major themes in the film, besides that of cultural displacement, is juxtaposition. The opening montage juxtaposes an antelope running across the plains with a Jeepful of armed men, shooting at it. The beautiful shots of nature and of the villages’ traditional terracotta architecture are offset by calm-shattering acts of violence. The brutal punishment of an unmarried couple is contrasted with a scene showing one of the jihadist leaders practicing yoga. The jihadists have modern accoutrements—Toyota trucks, motorcycles, and AK-47s—while the villagers are mostly traditional, save for their cell phones. In the final montage, the antelope metaphor returns, but this time it’s alternated with shots of a young girl escaping her pursuers.

The very un-Hollywood ending is both sobering and somber. There’s no 4th act deus ex machina, and the villainous jihadists never get the comeuppance you’re left hoping for. “Timbuktu” resonates strongly as more a plea for help and return to traditional cultural norms than political propaganda. However, given the current climate, the film may actually inflame anti-Islam sentiments among Westerners, despite its emphasis on distinguishing between perpetrators and victims within the Muslim faith. Still, for devotees of African films and those with enough of an understanding to digest cultural nuance, “Timbuktu” is well worth seeing.

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The OakQ&A: Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Kahlil Karn

Now in its sixth year, the Oakland Underground Film Festival celebrates independent, DIY, and otherwise non-mainstream cinematic fare. It’s one of many Oakland-centered film festivals which have popped up in the past few years; some of the others being the Oakland International Film Festival and the Matatu Film Festival. The emergence and co-existence of these festivals supports the idea of Oakland as a city which appreciates non-standard, un-Hollywoodized movies, many of which deal with subject matter which rarely makes it onto cineplex screens.

A quick glance at this year’s OAKUFF schedule shows there’s plenty of celluloid diversity to go around, from the opening night double bill of “The Infinite Man,” a time-travel romcom, and “Falcon Rising,” a black martial arts actioner set in Brazil featuring yakuzas;  to subsequent screenings of “Que Caramba Es La Vida,” a documentary about women mariachis in Mexico; “Lost Landscapes,” a collection of archival footage of Oakland through history; three programs featuring short films; “Out in the Night,” a documentary about “killer lesbians”  which examines race, gender, crime, and mainstream media narratives; and “Giuseppe Makes a Movie,” a comedy about an independent filmmaker trying to make a feature, despite having no budget. The festival runs Sept. 25-28; the complete festival program is here ; all screenings are $10.

What follows is a Q &A with Kahlil Karn, OAKUFF’s Director/Founder, who explains his motivation for presenting the festival, the logistical challenges inherent in such an undertaking, and how the festival fits into Oakland’s cultural mix.

Oakulture: What’s OAKUFF’s mission?

KK: OAKUFF’s mission is to serve fresh independent and unconventional films and film events to one of the smartest and most dynamic audiences in the world. Cinema that speaks to the culture and character of the Oakland, the East Bay and beyond.

OAKUFF"S Kahlil Karn and Cate Freyer

OAKUFF”S Kahlil Karn and Cate Freyer

Oakulture: The festival is now in its sixth year. What were some of the highlights of previous festivals?

KK: Some of the events and films we are most proud of are; our Northern California premiere of “Black Dynamite” to sold out audiences at the Grand Lake and Castro theaters, our outdoor screenings at the Linden Street Brewery, our screenings at NIMBY, and more recently our Northern California premieres of “Bones Brigade” and “The Punk Singer.”

Oakulture: OAKUFF is a labor of love and a grassroots effort. How much do the organizers really have to love these kinds of movies to put the festival on every year?

KK: Members of our all-volunteer staff work at Sundance, Frameline, Mill Valley, Jewish, Latino, and San Francisco International film festivals and have other jobs in media and art as well and they all give hundreds of hours a year to put OAKUFF on because they love Oakland and what it stands for and they love movies and the power of cinema. There is no financial reward but there is massive joy in connecting with your community and helping shine a light on some of the most fabulous aspects of living in the Bay.

Screenshot from "Que Caramba es la Vida"

Screenshot from “Que Caramba es la Vida”

Oakulture: What’s the biggest challenge in presenting the festival every year?

KK: We have not entered any agreements with corporate sponsors and yet we make great efforts to host a festival with relatively high production value and an exceptional audience experience. We are lucky to be sponsored by the East Bay Express for some print advertising, but we rely heavily on grassroots and word of mouth to get the word out about the festivals. If folks don’t show up to enjoy some films together with us, we cannot continue to do what we do.

Oakulture: In terms of this year’s offerings, what are you particularly excited about?

KK: Personally, I am most excited about “Lost Landscapes,” “True Son,” “Out in the Night,” and “Giuseppe Makes a Movie.”

Oakulture: What’s the selection process? If I’m an independent filmmaker, how do I get my film, documentary, or short screened?

KK: OAKUFF takes submissions from January 1 through June 30. Filmmakers are invited to submit on the website under submissions. We are taking all submissions in the form of password protected online screener links next year (a first). Also filmmakers can submit through Film Freeway if they prefer.

Oakulture: Why watch indie films? What do they offer that you can’t get elsewhere?

KK: Cinema is, to quote [author and OAKUFF programmer] Shawn Taylor, the last campfire. And cinema is like bread. It is an essential part of a healthy and full life. It helps us understand ourselves and each other. To remind us of where, who, and what, we have been, are and may become. Cinema is the written word, it is visual arts, it is music sound and light. It is best served fresh and local. And also, there is something sacred about watching movies together as a community.

Oakulture: When OAKUFF started, the only other Oakland-based film festival was David Roach’s Oakland International Film Festival. Now there’s the Matatu Film Festival, the Fist Up Film Festival, Briefs (the collection of erotic shorts), and probably some others I can’t recall. Do you see these other festivals as competition, or are you more like, it’s good to have them around, because it creates more of a dedicated fan base for the types of films you screen?

KK: It is so exciting that the Oakland film culture is widening and deepening. OAKUFF works closely with David Roach and the fantastic Oakland International Film Festival as well as the EBX Scream and Briefs film competitions. We have from the beginning made a point of never adopting a competitive posture towards other festivals for philosophical reasons and because it doesn’t make any sense. The only way Oakland will be recognized as a destination and a home for film culture is if we work together, that simple. Together we are stronger and Oakland wins.

Screenshot from "Lost Landscapes"

Screenshot from “Lost Landscapes”

Oakulture: How soon after the end of one year’s festival do you start thinking about the next one?

KK: Ha! Good question. We are usually exhausted but we try to have a meeting soon after the festival and start discussing for the next year in earnest starting in January.

Oakulture: Where do you see OAKUFF being in four years, which will be the tenth anniversary?

KK: It is my hope that OAKUFF continues to grow and thrive. It is essential that we become an organization with a few all-year part time employees. To be honest, if we cannot make that step in the next few years, I am not sure that our model of simply “doing it for the love of cinema and Oakland” is sustainable. I am hoping we can enter into an agreement with a like-minded organization that will take OAKUFF under its wing and share some resources. OAKUFF has built an organic, bottom-up film festival infrastructure and takes pride in quality presentations. I believe there is a film organization out there that would love to prop up OAKUFF as a vehicle for good, while allowing OAKUFF to do what it does best and continue to represent our communities.