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Black talent on the big screen

INSPIRING TALE: Madina Nalwanga (left) and Lupita Nyong’o star in Queen of Katwe

CELEBRATING its 60th anniversary this year, the 2016 BFI London Film Festival is paying particular homage to black screen stars.

Throughout the 12-day event, a host of films will showcase a wealth of black talents and black-interest tales. From director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom; Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe; and the groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust from director Julie Dash, the festival’s programme presents dramas that explore everything from race relations in America, politics in Nigeria, interracial romance, female black identity and much more.

Additionally, the festival will be immediately followed by Black Star – a huge season of film and television dedicated to celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors.

The purpose of the Black Star programme will be highlighted throughout the festival, not only to celebrate black acting achievements, “but to ask the searching questions that underpin this season,” says Clare Stewart, Director of the BFI London Film Festival.

Recognising the discussions and campaigns of recent years, which have called for greater diversity in the film and television industries, Stewart explains that the festival seeks to raise questions about “opportunity and aspiration, about the power to decide. Questions that have become increasingly urgent over the course of this year, intensified by the Black Lives Matter movement and by world events, including those close to home.”

Here are a few of the highlights of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.

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QUEEN OF KATWE
Directed by Mira Nair
Queen of Katwe is based on the inspirational true story of young Ugandan chess champion, Phiona Mutesi (portrayed by newcomer Madina Nalwanga). The 10-year-old lives with her family in an impoverished township in Kampala, Uganda. Her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) scrapes together a meagre livelihood selling maize and vegetables in the street.
Phiona’s curiosity is piqued when she discovers a chess club run by football-player turned missionary, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Despite being unable to read or write, Phiona has a natural aptitude for strategic thinking and risk-taking, and she rapidly develops her skill for the game. With Katende’s guidance, her confidence and ambition grow, and soon she is advancing through the ranks in local competitions.
The powerful tale examines the hardships faced by a family, while also rejoicing in a young girl’s determination to succeed.

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A UNITED KINGDOM

Directed by Amma Asante
Starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, the film is a powerful testament to the defiant and enduring love story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the government of the time.
At a London dance, there is an immediate spark of attraction when the erudite and dashing Seretse (Oyelowo) meets the independent-minded Ruth (Pike). Ignoring the opposition of friends and family, they plunge into a whirlwind romance that leads rapidly to marriage. Reality sets in when, having completed his studies, Seretse has to return to Africa to assume his duties as King. Their interracial union is seen as a slap in the face both to apartheid-riven South Africa and to the royal traditions of Seretse’s own people. As the international diplomatic crisis escalates, the British Government sets out to do everything in its power to drive the couple apart.

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DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Directed by Julie Dash
Originally released in 1991, Julie Dash’s majestic feature film is a poignant portrait of three generations of Gullah women (descendants of West African slaves) at the turn of the 20th century, as their family struggle with the decision to migrate from their sea island home off the coast of South Carolina to the mainland.
The film portrayed a new type of blackness and black identity – one located in a pastoral island setting still informed by myth and ancestral traditions. Dash’s perspective is determinedly feminist as she fuses together image, sound, authentic dialect and traditions of African oral storytelling to portray the power, beauty, and resilience of black women.
With the film serving as the inspiration for Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album, Lemonade, it demonstrates the enduring impact of Dash’s debut feature film.

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76

Directed by Izu Ojukwu
Inspired by true events, 76 uncovers the plot that led to the 1976 assassination of the then popular Nigerian military ruler, General Murtala Mohammed.
Six years after the Nigerian civil war, Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) a young officer from the middle belt becomes embroiled in a romantic relationship with Suzy (Rita Dominic) a young woman from the south east. Their relationship is threatened by the overwhelming strain of their ethnic difference. Now heavily pregnant, Suzy’s world falls apart when news of her husband’s involvement in a botched coup attempt hit the headlines. Stunningly shot and given extra texture by the use of footage from the BBC Archives, 76 atmospherically recreates the era.

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CHI-RAQ

Directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee is back on the rampage and the result is this dazzling, rage-fuelled hip-hop musical that re-purposes the ancient Greek play, Lysistrata – a comedy about a Greek heroine who leads a sex-strike to prevent war. Lee’s version, however, is set in Chicago’s South Side.
Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is the leader of the Spartans and the lover of foxy, feisty Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). The Spartans are at war with rival gang, the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When an 11-year-old-girl is killed in the crossfire of a gang battle, Lysistrata decides to take action. On the advice of her activist neighbour Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), she convinces all the sisters, on both sides, to take a stand. Their rally cry: “No peace, no p***y”. Needless to say, deprivation undoes the men. Song lyrics, spoken word, on-screen titles and great dialogue from Samuel L. Jackson – a one-man chorus in a nifty three-piece suit – bring it home.
Beneath the raunchy entertainment, Chi-Raq (the title conflates Chi-cago and I-raq) is a scorching social analysis that underscores the fact that there have been more gun-related deaths in Chicago in the last 15 years than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

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THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Directed by Nate Parker
Nate Parker’s monumental tour-de-force – he produces, directs, writes and gives a scorching performance in the lead role – is a gruelling account of the life of Nat Turner, an enslaved African American and ordained preacher who led a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831.
Young Nat (Tony Espinosa) dreams of his African ancestors and is predestined to be a leader of his people. He is encouraged to read by the wife of the plantation owner, who gives him a Bible. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has become a man of religion, but when the white slave owners detect insurrection, he is forced to preach submission to his fellow slaves. Unable to accept the atrocities he witnesses at other plantations, and the abuse of his own wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), he begins to plot an uprising.

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FONKO
Directed by Lamin Daniel Jadama, Lars Lovén, Göran Hugo Olsson
From the award-winning makers of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 comes this story of musical, social and cultural revolution.
Africa is home to some of the most rapidly-changing countries in the world and Fonko is a pulsating musical journey through this exuberant, culturally-diverse continent. From Dakar, Accra and Lagos to Luanda and Johannesburg, through original interviews with artists, videos and live performance footage, audiences witness a rapidly evolving melting pot of styles. Woven through this journey is a narrative comprised of statements by the godfather of modern African popular music, Fela Kuti.

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13TH

Directed by Ava DuVernay
In this searing look at a century of race relations in America, Ava DuVernay draws an indisputable connection between the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment and the rising incarceration rates – which are astronomically disproportionate for black men – in the United States.
The 13th Amendment, introduced to abolish slavery, states: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.’ Opening with an address from Barack Obama, where he notes that America has almost 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, the film uses archival footage and contemporary interviews to outline the systemic exploitation of this ‘exception’ in the last century of African-American history.

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THE REVOLUTION WON’T BE TELEVISED
Directed by Rama Thiaw
Rama Thiaw’s film taps into an example of grassroots political action in Senegal, where a group of disenfranchised activists decide to campaign against the country’s elite.
The engaging documentary details a once popular, democratically-elected Senegalese president, as he unsuccessfully attempts to extend his autocratic rule across the West African country.
It wasn’t always this way. In his many years in opposition, Abdoulaye Wade had campaigned to establish political pluralism, but once elected he became worse than his predecessors. The Revolution Won’t Be Televised begins in January 2012 as young people bravely launch a resistance movement against Wade. Founded by a group of school friends that include popular rappers Thiat and Kilifeu, the movement grows into a formidable force. Filmmaker Rama Thiaw joined the campaign to document the emerging youth protest.

The 60th BFI London Film Festival runs from October 5-16. For screening details and the full programme of films, visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff

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