Films for the Soul
The 1936 Olympic Games, held in Nazi Germany, were almost boycotted by the United States. If Jewish athletes weren’t allowed to compete, our Olympic masterminds would have to come up with an alternative, one that would unleash a real shock to the German system. Jesse Owens was the reigning star in track and field hailing from Ohio State University, but he was also an African-American. When a Jewish runner was taken off the relay team, we had to put Owens in. It’s hard to grasp the mindset today that could accept one prejudice while challenging another (or is it?). But, after all, we wanted to win.
In any event, or rather, in four events, Owens defied prejudices, winning gold in four races and becoming the most successful athlete at the Summer Games. For any sprinter to have beaten the best Aryan Übermenschen in public, in full view of the world, would upset Hitler, but to have an alleged subhuman do it put him on the spot. Throw a tantrum and the world would laugh. The chancellor restrained himself to refusing to shake Owens’s hand, but the lack of sportsmanship was another propaganda victory: Der Führer in a snit!
The story of the black sprinter and the Aryan supremacist is told in Jesse Owens, one of two films to open this year’s African American Film Festival (AAFF) at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art. (As a film festival bonus, director Laurens Grant will be present.)
The second opening night attraction is from the same era about a similarly role-breaking individual. Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World showcases a dancer/singer whose famous moves and outfit of nothing but a dress of bananas subverted, rather than reinforced, racism. Baker, powerful and uninhibited, was triumphant like Beyonce, like Madonna, like her predecessor, Sarah Bernhardt, and captivated the world. In Paris she would shoot beyond stardom, marry a Jewish millionaire, spy for the French Resistance during World War II, adopt a dozen children and other feats remarkable for anyone, let alone a woman of color in the ’20s. Interviews with her children, choreographers and others who knew her paint a portrait of a woman whose talents were far greater than singing and dancing alone.
Eight other films tell equally inspiring stories in the festival, but the standout documentary Soul Food Junkies may be the most relevant to Hawaii. Filmmaker Byron Hurt serves up the history of soul food in America and its link to preventable diseases, such as diabetes and certain types of cancer. It’s familiar but eye-opening: These unhealthy eating habits stemmed from white folks giving blacks the undesirable parts of the hog, such as pig’s feet and fatback. Frying improved the taste but only made the dish unhealthier. Out of the cuisine of slavery and poverty came a sense of community, and black cultural identity and soul food was irrevocably intertwined.
If you were African-American, eating this way might be good to you, but not good for you. Hurt explores varied opinions by tailgaters, vegetarians, family members, restaurant owners and others to see what can be done to preserve a cultural staple without sacrificing lives for it. In effect, he calls for a food revolution.
Speaking of soul food, Chef Sean Priester of Li’l Soul in Honolulu will provide pupu at the opening reception, held from 6–7:30 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 16.
Come for the food, drinks and live music by Chuck James, but most of all, to appreciate a culture so vital to American identity. There’s special relevance to Hawaii with the last short film, The Notorious C.R., in which a businessman is sentenced to prison for promoting prostitution and racketeering on Kauai.