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NYC Film Festivals

A Revolution with a Sense of Humor

A scene from White Lies, a work-in-progress screening at this year's Afro-Punk Fesival at BAM (Photo: James Spooner)

By Annaliese Griffin

"Afro-punk" may not be a term that’s made it into mainstream vocabulary quite yet, but the Afro-Punk Festival is working to change that.

“For me it’s always been the experience of doing it yourself by any means necessary," said festival founder and co-curator James Spooner, describing the Afro-punk aesthetic that combines visual art, musical performances and screenings to explore black activism and rebellion. (The festival opens tonight in Brooklyn.) "These are examples of people who have always done that.”

A black artist who was deeply involved in the predominantly white New York City punk scene of the '90s, Spooner found that despite their shared ethos he felt race separated him from his peers. He had been working as a sculptor but was forced to move out his loft space after financial difficulties and needed a more compact mode of expression. In response he made Afro-Punk, which came out in 2003. “I had to start working smaller and I started thinking about film,” Spooner told The Reeler in a phone interview. “It always seemed like a rich kid’s medium then digital technology made it available to me. Then I woke up one day and I was like, ‘I’m going to make this movie,’ and I worked on it every day for two years.” Spooner approached BAM hoping to organize a weekend screening; the film's reception was so enthusiastic that the festival was born.

The program seeks out and celebrates black revolutionaries through a variety of media. This year’s screening schedule includes films that highlight Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Bad Brains, Charles Mingus and proto-rap luminaries The Last Poets among others. One of this year’s dominant themes is Black Panther history, and fittingly a number of films about and by the Black Panthers will be shown; tonight's screening features an appearance by Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. For Spooner, however, the festival is more about the exploration of race than about a particular ideology. “I would hate for the festival to be this dogmatic kind of, ‘Revolution, revolution, kill whitey,’ kind of thing,” he said. “It’s a necessity to have that dialogue, but it’s not the only dialogue.”

Spooner and his festival are not without an ironic edge. One of the feature selections this year is a new print of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a choice Spooner has long wanted to include. “I’m really excited," he said. "The last few years I wanted to show this, but I wasn’t sure how it would be taken. There are obvious parallels to the Civil Rights movement. So feeling a little more confident, I took the idea to BAM; being movie nerds they were all excited about it.” Meanwhile, a special test screening of Spooner’s new feature, White Lies, Black Sheep will offer audience members the opportunity to comment on a work-in-progress. “It really blurs the line between the genres and takes up where Afro-Punk left off,” Spooner said. “It’s much more personal. This is one guy’s journey of self-acceptance.”

In addition to screenings at BAM, the festival includes an art show featuring the work of Black Panthers photographer Stephan Shames as well as that of selected Pratt students addressing the ideas of race and revolution. Several musical performances will be held at BAMcafe and Southpaw ,and an Afro-Punk block party will take place in Bedford-Stuyvesant on July 1.

The Third Annual Afro-Punk festival runs June 28 - July 7 at BAM. Visit the festival page for ticket and program information.

Posted at June 28, 2007 1:06 AM

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