Film / TV

why black docs ruled the tribeca film festival

May 8, 2019
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It is unlikely that anyone who attended the 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival kickoff on April 24th has had a more meta experience than watching a documentary called The Apollo while sitting in Harlem’s world-famous Apollo Theater. Angela Bassett, Smokey Robinson, DeWanda Wise and 1500 other cinephiles attended the world premiere of director Roger Ross Williams’s labor of love dedicated to the history of the legendary performance space. “In these disturbing times, when the administration is promoting divisiveness and racism, I think here tonight we’re making a statement that we reject it,” Tribeca Film Festival founder Robert De Niro said in his opening remarks. “Not in this house, not on this stage.”

A still from the new documentary, “The Apollo.”

As a Black-centered film, The Apollo was hardly an anomaly in a festival committed to cinematic diversity and inclusiveness. At least 20 different features with African-American casts and/or Black subject matter were notable for their over-the-top excellence during the festival’s two-week run. The Apollo uses the theater’s recent adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me as an anchor to lay out the history of the storied 125th Street venue. With detailed info on the famous Tree of Hope, the historic amateur nights (every Wednesday), its 1970s closing and ’80s rebirth, and its modern incarnation as a staple of gentrified Harlem, The Apollo succeeds as definitive history.

During its first weekend, TFF also premiered What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali, a two-part documentary that will be airing on May 14th on HBO. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), this look at the boxer who was indisputably The Greatest of All Time differs from previous docs by focusing squarely on Ali’s professional career in his own words. Like The Apollo, What’s My Name gets great mileage out of tying its subject to overarching events in Black American history. Where The Apollo mentions the theater emerging unscathed from riots sparked by racial unrest in 1964, What’s My Name connects to Ali’s relationship with the Black liberation icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, and the 1970s Pan-Africanism that led to his famed “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against George Foreman being staged in Kinshasa, Zaire. About 165 minutes long, What’s My Name never mentions his four wives or nine children, but the details of his boxing highs and lows (including a broken jaw during a loss to Ken Norton) humanize Muhammad Ali while exploring his hero status.

The festival’s hottest music documentary ticket, Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, also debuted to raves. The soul singer’s 2015 tour,” The Second Coming,” lies at the heart of Dutch director Carine Bijlsma’s film. But even more so, she delves into D’Angelo’s 14-year hiatus between 2000’s groundbreaking Voodoo and his eventual comeback, Black Messiah. Borderline agoraphobia seems to grip D’Angelo as he speaks with an off-camera Bijlsma about his missing years, his formative time in the church back in Virginia, the death of his grandmother, and the pull of power that’s tempted him onstage. On the final day of the film fest, the SVA Theatre burst out in catcalls and laughter when D’s oiled, muscled body appeared in a clip of “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” But a moment later, Questlove explains how that exact fan reaction led to his extended disappearing act. (Like What’s My Name, there’s no mention of his son, Michael Archer II, or Michael’s mom, singer Angie Stone.) D’Angelo has recorded three studio albums in a quarter century, yet Devil’s Pie compels as much as documentaries devoted to singers with bigger bodies of work.

The Tribeca Film Festival makes a 260-page guide available to navigate its lineup, an enormous variety of dramas, documentaries, comedies, shorts and live talks. A super brief list of the film fest’s other Black-audience-friendly highlights included:

  • The Remix: Hip-Hop x Fashion. Producer Lisa Cortes was partially responsible for The Apollo and this film, a documentary centered on the intersection of female stylists, fashion and the hip-hop industry.
  • Burning Cane, starring Wendell Pierce, was directed by 19-year-old NYU freshman Phillip Youmansa, and the Louisiana-based drama won the festival’s Founders Award for best narrative feature. The film follows the triangle between a heavily religious mother, her alcoholic son and a haunted preacher.
  • Gay Chorus Deep South. Conductor Tim Seelig leads the 300-deep San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on tour through the deep south as they confront intolerance in the Trump era.
  • MotherStruck. A film adaptation of poet Staceyann Chin’s one-woman show, where Chin navigates the trials and tribulations of becoming a lesbian Jamaican mother.
  • Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. Director and AFROPUNK contributor Sacha Jenkins (Fresh Dressed, Word Is Bond) commemorates the 25th anniversary of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) with a doc celebrating RZA, Raekwon and co.