Tales of Race in America, Local Stories Win Big at LA Film Fest

The 19th installment of the Los Angeles Film Festival was packed with a diverse offering, including an impressive 26 documentaries on topics vastly ranging in tone, subject and style. Several common threads could be traced among the programming selections: an impressive number of films focused on life and art in Los Angeles, while another handful offered close-up studies of race in America.

A timely inclusion on the part of LAFF programmers, Yoruba Richen's The New Black follows the evolution of same-sex marriage bill Question 6 in Maryland as supporters and opponents clash in the months leading up to a vote in 2012. The title of the film refers to supporters' opinion that the issue of gay rights mirrors the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The supporters of Question 6 see an alliance to be forged between the black and LGBT communities, an alliance that will help promote and insure equality for all.

There is a division within the black community, however: the religious faction of African-Americans see same-sex unions as an assault on the definition of marriage. The film also gives voice to those upset that "gays are trying to become the new minority." Richen spends equal time with both Question 6 supporters and opponents, at one point even putting them under the same roof at a family barbeque. Presenting both sides of the issue in an objective, fair light adds a sense of humility and legitimacy to Richen's journalistically sound film, which went on to win Audience Awards at both AFI Docs and Frameline.


From Yoruba Richen's The New Black


As one of only two panels offered at the festival that featured prominent documentary makers, "The New American Indie Cinema: Diversity Speaks" gave four filmmakers of color the chance to sit down with acclaimed independent producer Effie T. Brown (Real Women Have Curves) to discuss their thoughts on being dubbed "the new faces of independent filmmaking." The panelists, including Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs) and Ava DuVerany (Venus Vs.), all agreed that people of color have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised in mainstream media. DuVerany, a black woman who started her career in film as a publicist, decided to start creating her own stories when found herself facing a frustrating question: "Why are people telling stories about us, who aren't us?"

Both DuVerany and Lee expressed their desire to see themselves reflected back in the media, a sense of identification they did not experience when they were children. Lee stated the importance of truly emphasizing your background when pitching your creative ideas. One might be so inclined to omit certain aspects of personal history in an attempt to shy away from a pigeonhole, but for Lee, her identity as a female, Asian-American filmmaker is one of her most valuable assets.

In fact, it was the acknowledgement of that identity that lead her to make the LAFF Audience Award-winning film American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. While embarking on her nonfiction filmmaking endeavor eventually titled The Grace Lee Project, a film that explores Asian-American identity and stereotypes, Lee met the extraordinary nonagenarian and civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs. The film's director delicately weaves a portrait of Grace, including everything from truly priceless archival footage of intimate advocacy meetings right down to a guided walking tour through many of Grace's rundown but beloved sections of her home base in Detroit. Polished animated segments serve to simplify some of the more complicated social theories Grace has used to guide her through the eternal evolution that is her life's work. Equal parts inspirational and entertaining, American Revolutionary should be required viewing for those who remain unconvinced that determination and a positive attitude can still effect change. (Those in the Los Angeles area can see Lee and two from her American Revolutionary team-editor Kim Roberts and writer/producer Austin Wilkin-who, along with T3Media's Bredan Mulvihill and Panel Moderator Senain Kheshgi, will discuss the use of archival footage in this film at Doc U: Taking Stock  on Monday, July 29, at The Cinefamily. )

Produced as the first installment of ESPN's Nine for IX series, DuVerany's Venus Vs. is a story about much more than a champion female athlete. With insights on race, gender, pay equity and geographic identity, this film follows tennis star Venus Williams from her days training on asphalt courts in Compton, Calif., through to the culmination of a nearly 40-year effort-not just by her, but by predecessors like Billie Jean King-to ensure equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon. While the main conflict resides in the completely irrational discrepancy in prize money between the genders, sports analysts and journalists take turns discussing how Williams' race and socioeconomic background were obstacles that worked against her early in her career. A memorable story comes in the form of what some view as a racially charged penalty she incurred when her beads came loose from her hair during a competition match. One commentator inquires as to whether a white player might be penalized for losing a hair clip, further emphasizing the stigma Williams encountered as a racial other in a predominantly white sport. As an interloper who changed the face of women's tennis over the course of her career, Williams became a symbol for change not just for women, but for those marginalized by their race and background


From Ava DuVernay's Venus Vs.


This year's LAFF program also embraced myriad stories about arts, culture and history in Los Angeles. Viewed at a special screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture (Dir.: Doug Pray) follows the literal journey of the gigantic rock that would eventually become one of the biggest projects of Heizer's decades-long artistic career. Beginning at the Pyrite Quarry in Riverside, Calif., and ending on the suspended outdoor installation at LACMA, Pray's travelog of sorts chronicles the impact that a gigantic boulder can have on a local community. As the 340-ton rock makes its 105-mile journey through 22 cities on a specially rigged vehicle, locals gather to watch and weigh in with their opinions on what this rock signifies. Some can't believe it's being called "art." Others balk at the cost of a project blatantly showboated through their economically struggling neighborhoods. Some are moved to tears over the power and impact of the work. But no matter what their opinion might be about what the piece is trying to say, the film does display one truth: art gets people talking. It can even bring communities together. And after watching Michael Heizer's monolithic sculpture, Angelinos feel like the artwork truly belongs to them. One on-screen spectator probably said it best: "It's our rock now."


Filmmaker Doug Pray, in front of Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass. Photo: Angela Weiss/WireImage


Another film about a journey that would culminate in Los Angeles is Jeff Broadway's Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This is Stones Throw Records) about the Highland Park-based home to some of the most interesting independent artists making music today. Inspired to create a label after the passing of friend and collaborator Charles "Charizma" Hicks, Chris Manak (known also by his DJ and producing moniker, "Peanut Butter Wolf") moved from San Jose to establish Stones Throw in 1996 with the hopes of fostering a creative atmosphere outside of the oppressive recording industry. Initially helping artists like Madlib and J Dilla produce their first and most universally acclaimed work, Wolf started to expand outside the hip hop genre in later years to include names like Aloe Blacc, Mayer Hawthorne and the oddly intriguing Gary Wilson. Although slightly confused in chronology and at times relying heavily on unnecessary visual flare, Our Vinyl is jam-packed with enough cameos and fantastic beats to excite and inspire even the most casual of hip hop fans. 

Stepping outside of art in the City of Angels and into local policy is Ryan McGarry's directorial debut, Code Black, an intense, gripping and thought-provoking documentary about the current state of American health care as told through the emergency room doctors employed at the Los Angeles County Hospital. McGarry, himself an ER physician, decided to feature himself and his young colleagues as their hopes of changing lives begin to fade into the reality of a broken system. With ER wait times frequently exceeding 10 hours and new bureaucratic restrictions resulting in mountains of paperwork, residents express their frustration that contemporary designs have not improved health care in America at all-in fact, these new systems have done more to separate the residents from their patients. Rightfully winning the Festival's DirecTV Documentary Award for Best Feature, Code Black gives a never-before-seen look into the experience and opinions of the doctors who are working as hard as they can to do the right thing, under new, unforeseen regulations.


From Ryan McGarry's Code Black


Katharine Relth is IDA's Web & Social Media Producer.