The 32nd Pan African Film & Arts Festival, America’s largest Black-themed filmfest, is taking place Feb. 7 – Feb. 19 in Los Angeles. During Black History Month PAFF annually screens movies ranging from Hollywood studio productions and Hallmark Channel TV-movies to indies, foreign films, documentaries, low budget productions, shorts, etc. Films span the spectrum from Oscar nominees to hard-to-find gems from Africa, the Caribbean, America and beyond that L.A. viewers are unlikely to be able to see at any other venue. Here are reviews of just a few of the films audiences have an opportunity to see.  


In one of the early Civil Rights movies, 1964’s fact-based Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (the real-life Caucasian journalist is depicted by James Whitmore) dyes his skin color in order to pass as African American. Sixty years later this might be condemned for perpetrating and perpetuating “blackface,” but at the time, it was hailed as heroic because by posing as a Black man, the white author was able to gain ingress and expose the despicable apartheid conditions of the segregationist South.  

Ines Johnson-Spain’s poignant documentary Becoming Black put me in mind of Black Like Me’s race-switching theme. Unlike Griffin, a white who tried to “change” his race, Ines was born in the early 1960s in the German Democratic Republic (aka the GDR and “East Germany”) to an Aryan mother and raised by her and her German husband as just another Germanic child in East Berlin – despite what is called onscreen her “black frizzy hair” and dark complexion. Ines knew there was more to the unusual circumstances of her birth than some sort of rare genetic mutation or occurrence (as she was told) and stumbled upon part of the truth when she was about 12 or 13 years old. Her moving nonfiction film is about Ines’ unique personal odyssey to unlock and fully discover the truth as to why she was Black growing up in the Red, pro-Soviet portion of eastern Germany.

As Becoming Black unfolds, in order to prove the superiority of socialism (or what passed for it in the East Bloc), in the early 1960s the GDR invited Africans to study at German universities, which is how Ines’ mother encountered Lucien, perhaps at a Leipzig demonstration of these foreign exchange students protesting the murder of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in January, 1961. There’s a lot that goes unsaid in this deeply personal documentary, but apparently Ines’ mom (who died in the 1980s) was married at the time Lucien impregnated her to Ines’ stepfather (they already had an older brother), who was doing his military at the time and posted elsewhere in the GDR.

Beneath its socialist sheen, the GDR – which was only 16 or so years earlier ruled by the vehemently white supremacist, fanatical “Master Race” Nazis – still had lots of racism (although sticky Nikki Haley, aka the “Go-Along-to-Get-Along Collaborationist,” might disagree, LOL!). Ines grew up with the sense of being a fish out of water, with lots of mysteries surrounding her origins, as beyond the GDR’s communist façade, she felt herself to be an outsider because she was dark-sinned. Perhaps it could be said that this was a sort of ethnic equivalent to sexual dysmorphia?

To make a long story short, Becoming Black focuses on Ines’ brave travels from East Germany to West Africa to meet and ultimately reunite with her extended family in Togo and Benin, two countries that border one another. Ines made her first journey of discovery there when she was 28, but like much else in this narrowly focused film, there’s no footage and few if any photos of that initial family foray, although it is described. Most of this documentary zooms in on recent footage of Ines with her African brothers and sisters, aunties, uncles, et al, and her German stepfather who, to his credit, steps up to be candidly interviewed, as do Ines’ affable African siblings, etc.

How will Ines’ African family and father, Lucien – who remained in Germany all those years! – receive and treat her? How will her stepfather grapple with what seems to be his young wife’s infidelity during the early years of their marriage? It’s all rather touching as Ines uncovers and reveals the truth in a deeply personal piece of investigative journalism directed by the subject –  Ines herself, working with a small film crew. As indicated, Becoming Black is a closeup on the issue of Ines, her racial identity and ethnic origins, vis-à-vis her German and African kinfolk, but this single-minded film tells us little if anything else about the subject and filmmaker, who is one and the same here. There’s a 30-year gap and we learn precious else about Ines and her life, info she could have briefed audiences with via voiceover and onscreen title.

One of the points just mentioned in passing at the start of the documentary has to do with how Ines came to be, so during a post-screening Q&A I asked her a question regarding the Big Picture, that went from the micro to the macro, involving the Cold War geopolitics of the time. As Ines explained, in the postwar era, “The GDR was rejected as an independent German country. [Therefore] they tried to make relationships with anti-colonial, likeminded nations. [So] Africans were invited to study [at government expense], to be brainwashed and return to their countries [presumably to spread socialism, or the GDR version of it]. But the GDR government did not want them to stay in Germany, to have families.” Fraternizing with German residents was frowned down upon; at one point, dogs were called in to patrol GDR universities, Ines said. Commenting on her mother’s relationship with Lucien, Ines remarked: “To be [a German woman] with a Black man in GDR was something, because of the racism.”

The Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels may have written in The Communist Manifesto that “The workingman has no country,” but in the GDR version, this says nothing about “the workingwoman.” Thankfully, as Becoming Black indicates, Ines Johnson-Spain – who says “my identity is someone always searching” – has found herself and homeland, as she divides her life and time between Berlin, Benin and Togo.    

Becoming Black is being shown 8:30 p.m., Feb. 11, screen #14.


Co-executive produced by TV weatherman Al Roker and Eternal Polk, Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land provides an in-depth look at African Americans and agriculture, from urban gardens to family farms and beyond. The Polk-directed documentary’s cast of commentators includes row crop farmers; academics; landowners; attorneys; and more who have direct ties to tilling the soil and feeding us. Ground includes some refreshing perspectives and astonishing facts. We have been conditioned to think that Blacks provided the brawn to work on America’s plantations, but author/screenwriter Natalie Baszile, who has written for the Queen Sugar TV series directed by Ava DuVernay (BTW, why is her new feature Origin missing in action at PAFF this year? Inquiring minds want to know), asserts that Blacks were enslaved and brought here to work the land because of their brains, filled with agricultural knowhow.

Row crop farmer Phillip Haynie III of Virginia’s legacy Hayne Farms and chairman of the board of the National Black Growers Council is a fount of fascinating stats. In 1920, there were 1 million Black farmers (who presumably owned land), but today, there are only 10,000. In 75 years, the number of acres owned by Blacks dropped from 16 million to 2 million. The loss of generational wealth is calculated to be more than a third of a trillion dollars for Black America.

What accounts for this dramatic decline? According to some of Ground’s interview subjects, including Shirley Sherrod – whose husband, Charles Sherrod, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer and Civil Rights hero, who is glimpse in archival footage – racism by white supremacists and government bureaucracies are among the culprits. One interviewee asserts that prominent African Americans such as successful farmers were more likely to be lynched than  Black men accused of acting “inappropriately” towards white women, as a way of keeping the you-know-who down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, too, is criticized for double standards and practices biased against farmers of color, which resulted in class action lawsuits and more. Heirs’ Property is also one of the perpetrators this doc points at.

Gaining Ground is an award winning, exhaustive chronicle of the history, plight and current circumstances of Black farmers – to be sure, this is an important topic, which Raoul Peck also tackled in his latest documentary, Silver Dollar Road (see: But this lengthy film could have been titled Everything You Want to Know About Black Farmers (But Were Afraid to Ask), and those not particularly interested in the topic are likely to find this nonfiction film to be exhausting. Polk seems like one of those directors who never heard of the word “Cut!”, as the same talking heads repetitively reappear to make the same or similar points, over and over again, and it becomes boring. For the general public, Ground grinds on and on and this nonfiction film could stand to lose footage. A Dede Allen-like skilled editor should cut this 96-minute extravaganza down to about 45 minutes or so for the layman. Sometimes less is more.                      

A production of Al Roker Entertainment (the meteorologist has produced 40-plus movies – who knew?) and John Deere, the ag macinery manufacturer, have co-made what feels like a made-to-order, commissioned industrial film (albeit about an agricultural subject!) that doesn’t have any of the poetic grandeur of the Depression era, New Deal produced 1936 and 1938 black and white classics helmed by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River.

On the other hand, anyone who is really interested in the issue of African Americans and agriculture will find Ground to be a thorough, essential primer on a subject which, as an interviewee states, is threatened with becoming extinct. Citing one of the film’s startling facts, Phillip Haynie III notes there are more bald eagles – a species threatened with extinction – than Black farmers owning 1,000 or more acres of land in the USA.     

Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land will be shown 3:45 p.m., Feb. 13, screen #8.

The above PAFF screenings are all taking place at: Cinemark Baldwin Hills 15 & XD

4020 Marlton Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90008. For more info see: