Let the coincidental openings of Death at a Funeral and Teza start a healthy dialogue on the generally dismissive way modern film culture treats movies about black people. The remaking of the 2008 British comedy Death at a Funeral into an African-American burlesque indicates a readiness to see black folks in a trivial way. This contrasts the media’s scant regard of Teza, in which director Haile Gerima opposes the utter triviality of movies about black peoples’ lives. He’s made a deeply-felt drama about the complexity of the diaspora experience—a connection to Africa, the Mother continent, that gets totally ignored in most films we see, but has been perversely distorted in the work of Portuguese cineaste Pedro Costa, whose largely unseen films about Africa exiles have received almost hallowed acclaim, culminating in an unusual new DVD box set from Criterion.
In Gerima’s Teza, Anberber (Aaron Arefe) returns to his Ethiopian village as a broken, haunted man. After a long stint in Europe among counterculture Socialists and other Ethiopian exiles, he’s still an intransigent thinker concerned about solving the problems of Ethiopia life. Tragedy overshadows Anberber coming home to a country embroiled in civil war, expending its young men and testing the faith of its elders, including his illiterate mother. This dilemma is an indication of Gerima’s larger story: the black intellectual’s tragic fate in interacting with the West.
It takes an exorcism with a local shaman to reveal Anberber’s physical and psychic damage: a series of flashbacks to the 1970s detail his rebellious years in West Germany, even a brief mission in Addis Ababa after Emperor Haile Selassie is deposed. Anberber’s clique of Ethiopian exiles, including Tesfaye (Takelech Beyene), his best friend and political motivator. Exiled once again, they see the fall of the Berlin Wall and new political changes that exclude the best interests of immigrants.
Anberber and Tesfaye’s names translate as “Warrior” and “Hope” yet their terrible fortunes almost parallel the lives of African immigrants from Cape Verde who wind up derelicts and drug addicts in Fontainhas, the Lisbon neighborhood that Costa depicts in the films that comprise the Letters From Fontainhas box set. Costa’s exiles don’t have an intellectual background or much of a cultural tradition; they’re trapped in the sinkhole of Western colonialism. Costa’s movies fetishize this disaster into art-cinema etudes. This isn’t much different from the peculiarity of Death at a Funeral. That project puts black performers in the hamster cage of one of the most idiotic British films of recent years, essentially trapping them in a template that replicates humiliating, predetermined, cultural expectation.
Teza, however, attempts large-scale political and dramatic explication of his exiled blacks’ geographical, spiritual and political roots. While Teza tracks Anberber’s personal path, it also portrays an entire culture’s uneasy shift between feudalism and communism, but Costa’s films simply concentrate on the stasis of post-colonial urban decay. Zombie-like characters inhabit miserable social conditions (poverty, drugs, AIDS) that Costa slants into a new existential complacency.
From now on, can we dispense with the inane argument that black people deserve to be shown in various (usually demeaning) depictions? Such ignorance—and acceptance of the racism’s status quo—favors movies that repeat black stereotypes whether rowdy upwardly mobile blacks or Lisbon’s zoned-out and destitute. In Death at a Funeral, the cast of colored clowns offers no revelation. While good actors like Martin Lawrence, Columbus Short and Zoe Saldana prove their expertise, they’re way short of the roots-deep recognition. Despite a few more laffs than the British original, the cast seems to be operating on auto-pilot—the sort of regular clownishness that lets director Neil LaBute make his standard implication that nothing in (black) American life is to be taken seriously.
Gerima vividly accounts for the pain in post-colonial living, Costa anesthetizes sorrow with aesthetics and LaBute numbs reality with crude humor. These three intersecting film events place contemporary black film portraiture at a crossroads.
Directed by Haile Gerima
Runtime: 140 min.
Death at a Funeral
Directed by Neil LaBute
Runtime: 90 min.
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