Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles" (film review) at the Black International Film Festival, Berlin

"Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles”

Tonight we had a little taste of Los Angeles in Berlin, at the 24th Black International Cinema, Berlin, 2009 film festival. The documentary film “Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles” celebrates the cultural boom time of the 1990s in this small village in the South Central heart of L.A. Here’s the official description of the film:

“In April 1992, Richard Fulton, a formerly homeless man who had been living on Los Angeles’ skid row, opened Fifth Street Dick’s coffeehouse in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park.

“A few days later, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. For five days and five nights, a group of dedicated merchants and artists stood guard to protect their village from the fires that raged through the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

“Richard’s coffeehouse soon became a gathering spot for the community, and ultimately sparked a remarkable underground renaissance of African American art and culture. Leimert Park became a stopover for world-class jazz musicians who might drop in to jam until 3 or 4 in the morning. The sidewalks overflowed with people of all ages and races, absorbing the jazz, hip-hop, blues and spoken-word poetry performed in the park and various music venues.

“Told through the powerful words, art and music of the community, this film articulates and celebrates the profound struggles and deep spirit of the extraordinary artists and musicians who transformed a few blocks of modest storefronts into a vibrant and inspiring cultural oasis. Intimate and compelling, “Leimert Park” is also a universal tale of the struggles and triumphs of artists everywhere and of the power and importance of art and music in our lives.”

The film is based largely on interviews conducted in 1998, when the Leimert Park Village was at its height. I like the use of the word “renaissance” in this description, because the cultural blossoming of Leimert Park in the 1990s reminded me (on a smaller scale) of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I will be teaching an Honors College course on the Harlem Renaissance this fall in the Art History Department, so that era has been on my mind a lot lately.

Director Jeannette Lindsay explores the range of artistic projects that flourished in Leimert Park in the 1990s: painting, music, dance, poetry, and film, all made by African-Americans, had a vibrant home and a supportive community. Legendary jazz musicians like Horace Tapscott (leader of the Pan African People’s Arkestra) and Billy Higgins (legendary drummer) were a regular part of this scene; both are now deceased.

Richard Fulton, seen extensively in interview footage, was such a charismatic, warm, and funny person. He describes how he, as a homeless man, created this coffee shop which became a real anchor to the community. One of the funniest lines was when he described how/why his project made him happy; it combines “my three favorite things to do: A, sit on my ass; B, drink coffee; and C, listen to jazz.”

His coffee house opened just a few days before the infamous L.A. riots broke out after the verdict was read in the Rodney King trial. He said that some of the first cups of coffee he served were to the National Guardsmen.

I remember those days; the L.A. riots were probably the most surreal days that I experienced during my 14 years living in L.A. County. I was in downtown L.A. at the theater (an interracial version of “Richard II”) when the riots began, and had to drive home on surface streets because the freeways had all been shut down; the curfews and the run on the grocery stores and video stores as people prepared for the lock-down; the smell of smoke from all the fires filled the air as far west as Santa Monica, where I lived; the National Guard occupying Venice Beach, so you couldn’t walk or skate there at any time of day (which gave the local crazy – one of many – lots of material for loud public rants).

In the aftermath of the riots, all kinds of local, state, and national politicians and dignitaries rushed in to survey the damage and assure the residents that it would be rebuilt, would be better than before, and that the politicians wouldn’t turn their backs on the community like they had done after the Watts riots of the 1960s. Being politicians, they didn’t keep their promises; for years afterwards, the anniversary of the 1992 riots brought journalistic analyses of how the community was being neglected, detailing stories of how banks wouldn’t lend money, there were no grocery stores, and so on.

“Leimert Park” gives evidence to the contrary, showing us in loving detail a community that rose from the ashes of the 1992 riots. This is one case where, the film claims, the riots were the catalyst for the community to join together in creating something meaningful and positive, even transformational. Former gang members becoming poets.

That was all in the first hour. The last 30 minutes dealt with the community’s demise at the hands of politicians and commercial interests for the “redevelopment” of Leimert Park. Inevitably they ruined it, driving out the people who had made the community what it was through rents almost quadrupling overnight.

The film could be stronger – its narrative style does not, in my view, adequately foreground the historical status of the Leimert Park cultural renaissance. (“Historical” as in “it does not exist any more.”) The story about Leimert Park’s redevelopment and commercialization seem to be tacked on at the end, after an hour of what seems to be a complete, fully developed story in itself, the demise of which is never even hinted at in that first hour. Who is behind this redevelopment? It doesn’t even tell us who was the mayor at the time, or how the city council member representing Leimert Park responded to this redevelopment.

I suppose the film can’t be all things to all people. It does a much better job of telling us about the art, the poetry, and the music than about issues of urban development and gentrification.

(I like this image because it was hanging on the podium in front of where the Leimert Park poets stood to read their poems to the assembled audience.)

The 24th Black International Cinema film festival, Berlin, 2009

This was a quirky little film festival that seemed to have more sponsors than audience members. (There were no more than 20 people at the film we attended.) It’s almost like a little Mom-and-Pop film festival, except that it’s incredibly well funded, with support from the Commissioner for Integration of the Templehof-Schöneberg borough of Berlin and the German Commission for UNESCO among its many sponsors. Admission to all films was free, and tonight – the first night of the festival – this included a free buffet of very tasty Caribbean food catered by Ya-Man Caribbean Soul Food of Berlin (in the Tiergarten neighborhood).

The Mom-and-Pop feel of the film festival is reflected in the program, about 50 pages long; no fewer than 6 of these pages are devoted to photos of the husband-and-wife organizers, their two kids, and even their family going back generations! I kid you not. Inside the front cover is a full-color collage of three photos – one shows President Barack Obama, and right next to Obama is a photo of their son, dressed nicely and holding a basketball in the manner of senior class photos for the high school yearbook.

Another irony was the presence at the opening ceremony of a dignitary from the Embassy of the United States of America, Berlin; the embassy may not have been aware beforehand of this image printed in the film program on the page listing their supporters and affiliations:

Joe Louis and Fidel Castro, 1959

But the organizers did put together an impressive program of films from around the world, with emphasis on films from the U.S., Germany, Iran, and India. Several other African and European nations are represented with a single film, as well as Haiti. Most are documentary films, but some are narrative, and some are experimental shorts.

The projection left a lot to be desired. The top of the screen image was cut off, enough to be really annoying; and the sound synchronization was off.

I would love to see as many of these films as I could, but unfortunately that won’t be possible. The venue is clear on the other side of the city and takes an hour to get there; tonight’s film started 90 minutes after the time that was advertised on the website, which is a real inconvenience when you have a babysitter at home with your child. Given those factors, plus the fact that all the films are in the evening and weekend when child care is an issue, I will have to miss out on this great opportunity. Oh, well, that’s life in the big city.

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