Wanted at Africa's biggest film festival: Hollywood's black stars

While Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman bask in the glow of their Oscar gold, filmmakers a world away from Hollywood are trying to figure out how to get their attention.

This week, Africa is holding its version of the Cannes Film Festival here in the capital of Burkina Faso, one of the world's poorest countries. Le Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) screens nearly 200 films, many of them made on budgets no more than the cost of the Versace dress that Halle Berry wore on Sunday. FESPACO is the biggest and most prestigious film festival in Africa, but it faces a problem moviemakers here would like to solve: a distinct lack of participation from African-Americans in Hollywood.

At a time of unprecedented success by African-Americans in Tinsel Town - five of the 20 Academy Award acting nominations went to black actors this year, a fact noted by many festival participants - the ultimate goal here is "fostering some kind of exchange between African-Americans and Africans," according to FESPACO's chief executive, Baba Hama.

Kevin Arkadie, a writer- producer of prime-time network shows such as "Soul Food" and "NYPD Blue," is in Ouagadougou to work on a documentary about FESPACO. He hopes it will reach a US audience via the Sundance Film Festival or a cable-TV deal. "We are trying with film to bridge what we feel is a huge gap, wider than the Atlantic Ocean," says Mr. Arkadie.

Actor Danny Glover, best known for his work in the "Lethal Weapon" series and "The Color Purple," is on the jury for this year's festival, which runs until Saturday. He and others here are banding together to boost the profile of FESPACO's Paul Robeson Award, for the best independent film from the African diaspora, blacks living outside the continent.

"For me as a man of African descent, it's about trying preserve memory. Through films, we understand collectively who we are," he says. Mr. Glover has made four films in Africa, has close relationships with African directors and actors, and agreed to be on FESPACO's jury because, "When it comes to Africa, I've never said 'no.'"

Many African filmmakers say that their stories could resonate with African-Americans, though that remains an open question. Black Americans have a complex relationship with Africa, says Arkadie, and won't necessarily be interested in a story simply because it comes from the continent.

He says that African artists need to "Americanize" their work somewhat by improving technical quality and appealing to the sensibilities of a sophisticated audience. "I don't think you have to compromise your story to get something that might travel a little further," he says.

While some African filmmakers bristle at what they see as a patronizing and arrogant attitude from people in Hollywood, they know that funders get to call the shots. For instance, the South African film "Drum" - a story about apartheid-era journalist Henry Nxumalo, competing here at FESPACO - got US funding on the condition that an American actor, ultimately Taye Diggs, be cast in the lead role.

"If you want to make a quality film you have to have funding, and the Africans in diaspora have more funds and more skill at raising money than Africans here on the continent," says Abdulkareem Mohammed, president of the Motion Picture Practitioners Association of Nigeria. His country has by far the continent's most prolific industry, but the vast majority of the estimated 800 Nigerian movies made each year are low-budget soap-opera-like tales in which witchcraft, infidelity, and corruption predominate - not quite ready for prime time in the United States.

But Hollywood is gradually showing more interest in making films in Africa, particularly South Africa. Since the end of apartheid, the country has gained a reputation as a beautiful and affordable place to shoot. South Africa provided the location for "Hotel Rwanda," which garnered Oscar nominations for star Don Cheadle and Britain's Sophie Okonedo. This year also marked the first time a South African film ("Yesterday") was nominated for best foreign-language film.

FESPACO attendees also noted with pleasure that at this year's Academy Awards Sunday, black actors were better represented than ever before. It marked only the second time that two African-Americans won top acting honors. Mr. Foxx won Best Actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles and was nominated for his supporting role in "Collateral." Meanwhile, Mr. Morgan won Best Supporting Actor for his role as a former boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." Three years ago, Denzel Washington and Ms. Berry both won Oscars.

People here realize that just as it has taken a long time to bring down the racial glass ceiling in Hollywood, persuading industry funders to support African filmmakers could be a slow road."We would like for Hollywood to acknowledge the work being done by African filmmakers," says C. Sade Turnipseed, a professor at California State University Northridge and an industry producer.

She is at the forefront of the effort to get more American involvement in FESPACO. Attention bottomed out at the previous festival when so few films were submitted for the Paul Robeson prize - named for the late performer, activist, and scholar who is perhaps best known for his deep-bass renditions of such songs as "Old Man River" - that it wasn't awarded.

Ms. Turnipseed is managing director of the Paul Robeson Award Initiative, whose goals include raising funds to bring more American independent filmmakers to FESPACO. The initiative has gained support from people such as Mr. Glover and the writer Maya Angelou, whose names and contacts could help attract donors.

"The word is getting out, there's a great interest and everybody is very excited," Turnipseed says.

She says she believes that a US audience not only would be interested in African productions but also has a responsibility to watch. "It's a healthy thing to try to understand other places and different cultures," she says. "If you try, you will understand."

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