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Touki Bouki
Photograph: BFITouki Bouki

Five films to catch at the BFI’s ace new celebration of African cinema

Curator Ekow Eshun picks a fantastical five from the best of diaspora moviemaking

Written by
Whelan Barzey
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Too rarely celebrated, African cinema and the movies of the African diaspora are getting their moment in an expansive, kaleidoscopic BFI season this summer. Alongside an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, ‘In the Black Fantastic’ will showcase films from visionaries based on the continent itself (Haile Gerima, Djibril Diop Mambety), and some, like Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons, whose magic realist storytelling is set across the ocean.

Curated by writer and journalist Ekow Eshun, the programme will blur boundaries between the present and the past in all sorts of mesmeric ways – with films infused with the supernatural and the spiritual, the realist and the dreamlike. ‘Fantasy might be the best way to explain the strange and fantastic experience of being Black in the world,’ explains Eshun, ‘and this is a collection of works that absolutely understands that.’ He took us through his five top picks on the BFI’s programme.  

In the Black Fantastic runs concurrently at BFI Southbank throughout July and at the Hayward Gallery Jun 29-Sep 18. Head to the official site for programme info and tickets.

Ekow Eshun’s Thames & Hudson book, ‘In the Black Fantastic’, is available now.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)
  • Film
  • Drama

‘Julie Dash’s dreamlike ​film is deeply influential​. It's set at the turn of the twentieth century​ in South Carolina​,​ and i​t submerges you in the world of three generations of women​. ​​It’s about the inner relationships of African-American families and the complicate​d​ relationship​s ​they have with their heritage as people who were brought to America and forced into slavery. ​But o​n another level, it​'s an ​evocation of Black possibility and Black ways of living. It’s beautiful.’

Sankofa (1993)
Photograph: BFI

2. Sankofa (1993)

Sankofa opens with an African-American woman, who is visiting a slave fort in Ghana, suddenly time-travelling back to the days of slavery in America. It’s a film that make us contemplate the legacy of slavery as a psychological and emotional condition. What makes it so significant is the way it forces us to grapple with a historical reality that seems so extraordinary, so appalling, that it couldn’t possibly be real – but it was.’

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Touki Bouki (1973)
Photograph: BFI

3. Touki Bouki (1973)

‘This is a crazy, super-stylish film inspired by the French New Wave. It’s set in 1970s Mali and it’s full of the spirit of hip-hop culture in the way it mixes together different sampled elements. ​It's no coincidence that ​Beyoncé and Jay-Z borrowed its iconic shot of a motorcycle with bullhorn handlebars for their ‘On the Run Tour’ video. They also riffed on its spirit – and the dynamism of two figures on the run. It’s a gorgeous film with a deep vibe to it. Expect to be dragged along for a ride!’

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Photograph: BFI

4. The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

‘This 1980s science-fiction movie is about an alien fugitive who comes to Earth in an attempt to escape his pursuers, only to find himself pursued with the same ferocity because he looks like a Black man. It deals with racism through the lens of fantasy and also as a lived reality, by cleverly dissecting the ways that Black people are made to feel othered and alien. It’s a really funny film, satire at its finest.’

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Yeelen (1987)
Photograph: BFI

5. Yeelen (1987)

Yeleen is a crazy film set in 14th century Mali. It’s a duel between a father and a son, who are both magicians – the father is out to kill his son and claim his power. It’s a fantasy but it’s also describing a world that really existed in medieval Mali. Now, it looks strange and fantastical, because we’re not used to seeing these evocations of African civilisation. It takes medieval Africa seriously as a place of sophistication and flourishing in a way that feels alive and present.’

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