AFS Essential's Torn From the Motherland: Films From the African Diaspora

Oct. 23-Nov. 20

<i>Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree</i>
Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree

In 586BC, the Israelis were expelled from their homeland by the Babylonians and scattered to the four corners of the earth. In AD136, after a triumphant but brief return home, they were once again kicked out, this time by the Romans, who were more thorough than their Babylonian cousins and made sure this time the Jews stayed gone. Greek historians called this phenomenon "diaspora," or dispersal, and the whole long, joyful, depressing history of the Jewish people ever since can find its roots in those fateful expulsions out into the unknown: forced assimilation, the Inquisition, Yiddish, Chelm, the shtetls, the pogroms, Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Berlin, New York City, the Holocaust, Zionism, even Woody Allen.

In the 16th century, with the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade, a new and equally earthshaking exile (and equally joyful and depressing history) began, this time of African blacks – to North America, South America, Europe, and around the world. And like the Jews thousands of years before them, blacks descended from those taken from Africa have been on a mission ever since to formulate their own sense of place and cultural identity.

Into this politically thorny mire the Austin Film Society is bravely descending this month, with the latest version of their ongoing Essential Cinema series, Torn From the Motherland: Films From the African Diaspora. During the next month, AFS will be screening movies that reflect the wide variety of black experience, an experience tied inextricably to that 500-year-old exile. The series started Oct. 16.

Some of the highlights include Quilombo, a film about the liberated villages temporarily erected by runaway slaves in Brazil in the 17th century. The movie, which bounces back and forth between historical epic and magical realism, is based on the novel Ganga Zumba by João Felício dos Santos and Décio Freita's book Palmares, a Guerra dos Escravos.

The following week brings Sugar Cane Alley, Euzhan Palcy's Silver Lion-winning adaptation of Joseph Zobel's novel La Rue Cases-Nègres about a young boy living in poverty in Martinique who adapts ancient African stories for a writing class in school and wins the chance at a better education. At the heart of any successful diasporic life, Palcy argues, is the will toward self-creation through the manipulation of cultural heritage.

Then there's the music. Just as the Jews surely would have shriveled up and frozen to death in those European ghettos without their klezmer and their niguns, black culture would have been as good as dead in those cane and cotton fields without its songs of hope and despair, songs that went on to form the foundation for the blues and jazz and rock & roll and hip-hop and pretty much all of American music as we know it. Legendary Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour maps this development of black African music over the last 400 years in the documentary Return to Goree. N'Dour, considered by many to be Africa's cultural ambassador to the world, travels to West Africa to play a concert rich in symbolic meaning at Goree, ground zero for the slave trade during the 16th through 19th centuries.

On Nov. 20, the series will close with a showing of Black Is, Black Ain't, the last film completed by late documentarian Marlon Riggs, who travels the United States looking for the answer to the question, "What is black?" He asks everyone – rich folks, poor folks, men, women, Northerners, Southerners, Cornel West, bell hooks, Angela Davis – and discovers the paradoxically liberating truth that "black culture" after the advent of slavery is as wide and varied and full of life as the countries it was forced to take root in.

Tuesdays, Oct. 23-Nov. 20
Alamo Drafthouse South

Oct. 23, 7pm

Sugar Cane Alley
Oct. 30, 7pm

Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree
Nov. 6, 7pm

Black Dju
Nov. 13, 7pm

Black Is, Black Ain't
Nov. 20, 7pm

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