In my last 2011 summer movie preview entry, I highlighted mainstream, studio blockbuster releases — from titles like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, to Captain America: The First Avenger.
This time around, I will focus chiefly on alternate summer movie fare; “alternate” as in those relatively smaller films, mostly independently-financed and -produced, and/or foreign titles that a lot of you likely won’t have the opportunity to see in theaters, because they will all be distributed in a limited number of cities, as is often the case with films of their ilk.
Limited theatrical distribution usually means release in New York and/or Los Angeles first, with any later expansion into other cities determined by how well the film does in those initial markets. But, at the very least you’ll know about them so that when they eventually become available on DVD or Blu-ray, the titles won’t be unfamiliar and you might consider adding them to your Netflix queue.
I’ll begin with a film that’s opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles – a Congolese crime thriller titled Viva Riva! set in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in central Africa.
Viva Riva! is directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga, who has said that he wants to put a new face on African cinema, portraying aspects of life in his hometown that are rarely seen on screen. Having seen the film earlier this year at the New York African Film Festival, I can say that he accomplishes just that and more, with a film that’s audacious in its depictions of violence and sexuality, in ways African films in general avoid, and isn’t at all for the PG-13 crowd.
Viva Riva! centers on Riva, a small time hustler who, after several years away, has just returned to his hometown of Kinshasa, Congo, with a major score: a fortune in hijacked gasoline, in a country where it’s scarce, in high demand, and thus more of a luxury. Wads of cash in hand and out for a good time, Riva is soon entranced by the beautiful, mystifying Nora while at a night club, only to find out that she’s the kept woman of a local gangster. But that doesn’t stop Viva from pursuing her, though not without repercussions. Throw into the already volatile mix a sadistic Angolan crime lord relentlessly seeking Riva for the return of his stolen shipment of gasoline, as well as other greedy, manipulative hands with Viva’s booty in their crosshairs, and what you’ll uncover is a pulsating look at a post-war city.
The film excelled at the 2011 African Movie Academy Awards, winning both the Best Film and Best Director trophies.
If you live in New York City, or Los Angeles, you’re encouraged to check it out when it debuts this Friday, June 10th.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
Opening about a month later, on July 8th, is actor Michael Rapaport’s documentary on the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest (Q-tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi), aptly titled, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.
Rapaport shot more than 2 years worth of footage of the group, including interviews with various hip-hop luminaries, music, and behind–the–scenes recordings of them on tour, and more.
The final version — a 2011 Sundance Film Festival selection (which is where I saw it, earlier this year) — is a 97-minute time capsule that those of you who frequently reminisce about the “good old days” of hip-hop, when groups like ATCQ, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Leaders Of The New School, and the rest of the self-labeled Native Tongues, reigned boom boxes, car speakers, house parties, and the like.
Those unfamiliar with the group should consider this a primer, and may even be inspired to buy a track or two after watching it.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, like Viva Riva!, opens first in New York City and Los Angeles, although, according to the film’s web page, there are plans to expand it into several other cities around the country, through mid-August. So, it just might play at a theater near you.
Life, Above All
The following week, on July 15th, is a drama called Life, Above All, South Africa’s official “for your consideration” entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category in this year’s Academy Awards.
The film, which screened out of competition in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and is based on the award-winning novel Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton, centers on 12-year old Chanda, who, after the death of her newly-born baby sister, learns of a rumor about her family that spreads throughout the small village near Johannesburg, where she lives; a rumor that destroys her family and forces her mother to flee, causing Chanda to leave home and school in search of her mother and the truth.
Of the four films mentioned in this post, this is one that I have yet to see, but will, in a press preview next week. So my awareness of its contents is limited to what I’ve read about it thus far – mostly impressed reviews from other critics who have seen the film while it traveled the film festival circuit.
The trailer looks strong, and I’m looking forward to watching and experience the entire film.
When will you be able to see it? Sony Pictures Classics acquired all North American distribution rights to Life, Above All last year, and now plans to open it in New York and Los Angeles first, on July 15th, with other cities possible, depending on how well it does during its early release.
Gun Hill Road
And on August 5th, once again, for those in New York and Los Angeles, you’ll have the opportunity to see NYU MFA graduate Rashaad Ernesto Green’s feature film debut, titled Gun Hill Road, when it opens in those 2 cities.
In Gun Hill Road, a Sundance 2011 selection, an ex-con (played by Esai Morales) returns home to the Bronx after three years in prison to discover his wife (Judy Reyes) estranged and his teenage son (Harmony Santana) exploring a sexual transformation that challenges the already fragile bonds of their family makeup.
Isiah Whitlock also features in the film, which I saw earlier this year and loved. It’s a contemplative, compelling drama, with all-around wonderful, naturalistic performances from the cast, notably newcomer Harmony Santana, who director Green found after an exhaustive search.
The film has been travelling the country (and the world) rather aggressively since its Sundance debut, garnering fans, acclaim and support along the way, leading up to its eventual August release; so, some of you may have already seen it. And between today, the date of this posting, and the film’s official commercial theatrical debut, it’ll screen at festivals in Salt Lake City, UT, San Francisco, CA, and Philadelphia, PA; so, if you live in any of those cities, you’ll have an opportunity to see the film.
Follow the film on Facebook and/or Twitter to be kept abreast of its release schedule.
And that’s about it! There might be a surprise release or two here and there worth mentioning, but if you are able to see all four of the films listed above, you’ll be in good shape, as far as indie/foreign cinema by and/or about people of African descent, released in the US this summer, is concerned.
There are some films that played at film festivals earlier in the year, with and without distribution, which might surface at film festivals or other screening series during the summer, so look out for them; they may be closer to you than you realize.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are a few upcoming black film festivals over the next three months, during which audiences will be introduced to new works by independent black filmmakers. Kicking things off will be the American Black Film Festival in South Florida, which runs in early July; and closing out the summer will be the Martha’s Vineyard Black Film Festival, in early/mid August. And there are certainly others. You’re encouraged to attend these festivals, especially if they are happening in your city, and check out films that you may never get to see elsewhere.
I hope that between my two summer preview entries, you’ll be able to find something(s) of interest. And if not, there’s always content available on television, the web, old movie rentals, and more.
Or you could always read a book… or two or three!
Tambay Obenson is editor of Shadow And Act on the indieWIRE Network, which can be found at http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact.