Friday, September 16, 2011

Urbanworld FF: Brooklyn Boheme

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Co-director Nelson George
Brooklyn Boheme, the opening night film at the 2011 Urbanworld Film Festival, is a documentary co-directed by notable black culture writer and filmmaker Nelson George (with Diane Paragas) about the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and the thriving black artistic scene that he was part of as a native. George, a former Village Voice columnist, has authored a number of books on a variety of subjects, from James Brown and Michael Jackson to movies and basketball. In this movie, not only does he explore the recent history of his neighborhood, but he discusses how different black artistic movements - film, jazz, spoken word poetry, stand-up comedy, visual art - interacted with each other and made each other stronger. Among the fellow neighborhood denizens, past and present, he talks with includes Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Vernon Reid, Branford Marsalis, and many more.

Spike Lee, with 'Attack the Block' star John Boyega (second from left)
I hang out in Fort Greene fairly often. I've eaten in some of the restaurants, but mostly I like to go to the cafes. (A couple of weeks ago I had planned to go to a Mexican restaurant there that plays outdoor movies, but Hurricane Irene put the kibosh on that.) The Brooklyn Academy of Music is in the vicinity, and of course I was there earlier this year to see Belle de Jour. It is a lovely neighborhood, from the rows of brownstones to the shops and restaurants on Dekalb Avenue and Fulton Street to Fort Greene Park itself. The current development of the sports arena on Atlantic Avenue makes me a bit fearful for its future, not to mention that of nearby Park Slope. I wonder how traffic patterns will be affected in the area, particularly that of pedestrians and bicyclists. As the arena is being built right next to a major transportation hub, one would hope that the need for more car traffic would be alleviated, but I suspect it may not be quite that simple.

George, Chris Rock, and co-director Diane Paragas
Still, despite my surface familiarity with Fort Greene, I never knew its history that well, and I certainly didn't know that so many talented black artists came out of this area. Watching this film reminded me of the first time I saw Love Jones, a fictitious movie inspired by the real black bohemian scene in Chicago. I remember being fascinated at seeing an aspect of black life not often depicted in the movies, and it just so happened that the year Love Jones came out, 1997, I was planning a trip to Chicago. I tried to find the nightclub seen in the movie, but I never did.

Co-director Diane Paragas
In the Q-and-A that followed the film, George emphasized the fact that by having so many creative people coming together in different permutations, he and his peers created a community of their own, and that having a community is often a necessary part of the creative process. I can certainly attest to that. My current association with the LAMB is only the latest in a series of artistic enclaves that I have been lucky enough to have been part of over the years in my former life as a comics self-publisher and journalist. Each one has had a positive effect on my work, in one way or another, and of course they've led to some wonderful friendships. Being around like-minded talent has a way of doing that. George said something similar in the Q-and-A when he said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that if you surround yourself with talented people, you're much more likely to make better work, but if you surround yourself with jerks... well, you get the idea.

My only complaint about Boheme is that George, as skillful a writer as he is, does not make for the best narrator. He rushes his words whenever he narrates in the film, making it a bit hard at times to understand him. I sympathize; I used to have the same problem. Regardless, this is a wonderful film that deserves the widest possible audience.

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