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SXSW: Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a joyous celebration of the famed music festival and its home base. Started in 1970 by George Wein, who also founded the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has celebrated music of all types, exposing its attendees to a rich and diverse array of performers. New Orleans has always been a cultural center for music and art and the festival pays homage to that. The documentary tells the history of the festival and shares performances from the 50th anniversary in 2019. There is also archival footage of festivals past and interviews with notable artists. Performers include Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis and family, and more. I could have done without the performances by Katy Perry, Pitbull and other more popular entertainers as I felt that was an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. I wanted to see more of the indie artists and legacy performers instead.

This is not a historical biography and there is just a smattering of background and context offered. Instead, the documentary takes the viewer into the world of the festival as though they were stopping at the different stages and tents to take in the various offerings. There is also a lot of appreciation for New Orleans , its history, its music and its people.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It’s distributed by Sony Picture Classics.

SXSW: Raquel 1:1

After Raquel’s mother died at the hands of an abusive ex, Raquel (Valentina Herszage) and her father move back to his hometown. There he starts a small community grocery store and Raquel develops a friendship with teens at the local evangelical church. Raquel is deeply religious and receives a calling to explore her spirituality through her own church and study of the bible. This upsets the local religious leader and her daughter who encourage the community to retaliate against Raquel and her father.

Directed by Mariana Bastos, Raquel 1:1 is a bold exploration of female agency and spirituality. Raquel is not portrayed as a victim of religious repression rather a victim of righteous entitlement. The thematic elements are subtle but still hold power.

Raquel’s past trauma is presented through sound as the particulars of her mother’s death are detailed through her thought process. The story is part coming-of-age story and part religious horror.

Given the political and social climate of Brazil the filmmakers are waiting for a good opportunity to screen Raquel 1:1 in their home country.  I hope this film gets wide distribution because it’s a unique and compelling film about religion, trauma and the fight to be true to oneself.

Raquel 1:1 had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Slamdance: The Ritual to Beauty

“What happens to brown girls who never learn who to love themselves brown?”

Dominicans have a long and tortured relationship with their hair. As a Dominican-American woman I know this all too well. My mother and grandmother were both hairstylists who specialized in relaxing Dominican hair to a more culturally appealing state.  Wearing one’s hair “natural” was looked down upon. The pain of not being something acceptable and having to change yourself to fit an aesthetic is passed on from generation and the harm lingers for years.

This is why I’m grateful for the precious gift that is The Ritual of Beauty (2022). Directed by Shenny De Los Angeles and Maria Marrone, is a short documentary that sheds light on the social custom of straightening hair and how it keeps Dominican women from loving themselves. The doc focuses on a young Dominican woman who is on a journey to embrace her natural hair. And in doing so, she examines the stories of her mother and grandmother whose different relationships with their own hair spoke volumes of what they thought about themselves. The doc is haunting and poetic and revealing. A truly amazing film.

The Ritual to Beauty was part of the 2022 Slamdance FIlm Festival line-up.

Slamdance: Paris is in Harlem

“Jazz is the soundtrack of New York.”

The year is 2017 and the Cabaret Law is still in effect in New York City. Enacted in 1926 during Prohibition, the law states that any business serving food and drink must pay for a license in order to also allow their patrons to dance. This prohibitive law proved to be inherently racist as it hurt minority run businesses in poorer neighborhoods, especially those who couldn’t afford the fee. And now the days of this obscure but hurtful law are numbered.

Written and directed Christina Kallas, Paris is in Harlem takes place during the final days of the Cabaret Law. It follows various characters, all of whom eventually visit the Paris Blues, a legendary Jazz bar in Harlem once run by Samuel Hargress Jr. to whom the film is dedicated. Much like with Kallas’ film The Rainbow Experiment, Paris is in Harlem employs split screens, cuts and varying perspectives to offer the viewer a multi-character mosaic. While there are many storylines, everything is anchored by the ongoing angst caused by institutional racism, the threat of gun violence, cancel culture and the Cabaret Law. Even tackling these heavy subjects, Paris is in Harlem is a film brimming with hope and joy. It serves as a reminder the power of community and human connection.

Paris is in Harlem premiered at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

Sundance: Alice

“Doing the right thing is never wrong.”

Alice

Alice (Keke Palmer) has caught the eye of tyrant plantation owner Paul Bennet (Johnny Lee Miller). He teaches her to read and favors her but will not allow her to marry a fellow slave. When her love Joseph (Gaius Charles) tries to escape, Alice lashes out. After enduring a brutal punishment, she escapes through a secret portal in the woods traveling from antebellum Georgia to the early 1970s. She’s found by the side of the road by truck driver Frank (Common) who takes her in and shields her from potential internment at a sanitarium. Alice discovers what the world is like decades later, an improvement from her previous life but with progress still needing to be made. She must find the courage in herself to help her family back home and to inspire Frank to rediscover his activist roots.

Directed by debut filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden, Alice is a highly rewarding time-travel drama.  Keke Palmer is superb in the title role. Time travel elements are tricky but I found that Palmer did great job conveying the fish-out-of-water experience while also demonstrating her characters inner strength. Excellent performance by Johnny Lee Miller is truly terrifying in his role. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser especially when through Alice’s POV we get to fight back with her. There are several references in the film to Pam Grier and her character Coffy. The film is set and shot in Georgia which gives the film a great southern Gothic vibe. The soundtrack features some wonderful 1970s jams.

Alice premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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