In The Black Fantastic at BFI Southbank, visionary films from the African diaspora curated by Ekow Eshun

This July BFI Southbank presents IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC, an exciting new season of features and shorts by visionary filmmakers from the African diaspora who draw on elements of fantasy to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities. Programmed by writer and curator Ekow Eshun, whose previous publications include Africa State of Mind (2018), Africa Modern (2017), and Black Gold of the Sun (2005), the season showcases films that inventively recycle and reconfigure aspects of myth, speculative fiction, spiritual traditions and legacies of Afrofuturism. IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC includes celebrated titles by Djibril Diop Mambety (TOUKI BOUKI, 1973), Julie Dash (DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, 1991) Haile Gerima (SANKOFA, 1993), Souleymanne Cisse (YELEEN, 1987), John Sayles (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, 1984) and Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU, 1987) as well as recent films by Mati Diop (ATLANTICS, 2019) and Samuel ‘Blitz’ Bazawule (THE BURIAL OF KOJO, 2018).

IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC is presented in partnership with the Hayward Gallery who are opening a major new exhibition of the same name, also curated by Ekow Eshun, running from 29 June – 18 September. Bringing together a group of contemporary artists from the African diaspora In The Black Fantastic explores the creative possibilities of the fantastic as a bold space between the imagined and the real to express ideas and make cultural connections. These artists reimagine the ways in which we represent the past and think about the future, whilst engaging with the challenges and conflicts in the present day.

The parallel exhibition and film season features work by artists and filmmakers, from across different mediums and genres. These Black and post-colonial narratives of the speculative and the spiritual are revealed as invaluable sources of cultural knowledge and artistic inspiration. The embrace of the fantastical has nothing to do with escapism; instead, it suggests alternative ways of being, confronting socially constructed ideas about race for a more expansive outlook.

Writer and curator Ekow Eshun said; 

My aim in programming this season is to highlight the key role that film has played, alongside visual art, in establishing the terrain of the Black fantastic. The movies I’ve selected blur boundaries between the present and the past, the supernatural and the spiritual, the realist and the dreamlike. These are lyrical, thought-provoking, and thrillingly imaginative works that grapple with the inequities of racialized society by conjuring bold new visions of Black possibility.

The Programme:

Ekow Eshun introduces his curatorial vision for the season, highlighting key themes, with a talk at BFI Southbank followed by a screening of TOUKI BOUKI (13 July 17:50, NFT3).

Influenced by the French New Wave and restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation in 2008, Djibril Diop Mambety’s 1973 TOUKI BOUKI (13 July, 17:50, NFT3 / 27 July, 20:50, NFT2) is a picaresque fantasydrama, that tells the story of two disaffected young lovers who are desperate to escape post-colonial Dakar for the glamour of a new life in Paris. A modern classic, TOUKI’S BOUKI’s bold experimental style, and effervescent storytelling is characterised by its vivid imagery, sardonic humour, discontinuous editing, and audacious soundscapes.

A striking tale of resistance and rebellion, Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima’s 1993 time-travel epic SANKOFA (2 July, 14:00, NFT1 introduced by June Givanni from the Pan African Cinema Archive/20 July, 20:35, NFT2) was recently restored in 4K by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing. Set in modern-day Ghana an African-American fashion model finds herself transported into the body of an early 19th century enslaved woman. SANKOFA is Gerima’s urgent message to never forget where you came from.

Alongside Haile Gerima, Julie Dash was a key member of the radical UCLA film-making movement the ‘LA Rebellion’. Her film DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (2 July, 20:30, NFT2/13 July, 20:40 NFT2) is a seminal work of myth, history and spiritual belief, recently restored by the BFI. This family tale of migration and generational departures, leaving behind the traditions of their African ancestors remains powerfully resonant today, most notably as a major influence on Beyonce’s visual album ‘Lemonade’.

Hailed as a breakthrough for African cinema, Souleymane Cisse’s spellbinding 1987 fantasy, YELEEN (3 July, 15:50, NFT3/14 July, 20:40, NFT2), follows the mythical journey of a young sorcerer in medieval Mali forced to confront his past in a confrontation between light and darkness.

John Sayles’ low-budget 1984 comedy, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1 July, 18:05 NFT3 / 6 July 20:45 NFT2) is a smart, Swiftian social satire about a stranger in a strange land. When an alien with the appearance of a black human (Joe Morton) ‘lands’ in Harlem he has to try and navigate the illogical nature of racial prejudice and stay at bay from outer-space bounty hunters.

Part supernatural mystery, part coming-of-age drama set in 1960s Louisiana, Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 directorial debut, EVE’S BAYOU (19 July 20:45, NFT2/ 28 July, 18:00, NFT2), starring Samuel L Jackson, is a bewitching journey into a Southern gothic world of family secrets and lies, buried histories, and mystic forces, told through the eyes of 10-year-old Eve.

TOP OF THE HEAP (4 July, 18:10, NFT2/ 30 July, 20:45, NFT2), director Christopher St John’s 1972 existential film tells the story of George Lattimer (played by the director himself), a tightly-wound Black cop struggling with his inner and outer demons. The film nods to Blaxploitation conventions, but it’s ultimately more experimental, focusing on the central character’s fears and fantasies, that literally take him out of this world.

Djibril Diop Mambety’s niece Mati Diop made her directorial feature debut in 2019 with ATLANTICS (7 July, 20:50, NFT3/31 July, 15:40, NFT3), adapted from her own short of the same title. A beguiling and haunting love story set in Dakar, merging contemporary issues of global inequality and the refugee crisis with themes of magic, spiritual possession and the supernatural, ATLANTICS went on to win 13 awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival Sutherland Award.

The 2018 debut feature by Ghanaian hip-hop artist Samuel ‘Blitz’ Bazawule, THE BURIAL OF KOJO (15 July, 18:30, NFT3/28 July, 20:40, NFT3) is a thrilling and imaginative work of magic realism, throwing its childhood narrator into a mesmerising world of dreams, visions, and premonitions as she embarks on a magical journey to rescue her father.

KUSO (9 July, 20:50, NFT3/22 July, 18:10, NFT2) is the brainchild of lauded hip-hop artist Flying Lotus aka Steven Ellison. Serving up a wild, trippy slice of Afrofuturist avant-garde, Ellison’s idiosyncratic 2017 comedy anthology depicts a series of surreal vignettes about the mutated survivors of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.

In addition, the season also features two shorts programmes; ‘The Black Atlantic‘ (18 July, 18:15, NFT3/30 July, 12:00, NFT2) explores the legacy of forced migration and the translatlantic slave trade, including Rhea Storr’s HERE IS THE IMAGINATION OF THE BLACK RADICAL (2020), a portrait of Junkanoo, a carnival-like celebration in the Bahamas. Rhea Storr will be in conversation following the screening on 18 July. ‘In The Afrofuture’ (6 July, 18:20, NFT2, 17 July, 16:00, NFT2) brings the high concepts of the Afrofuturist cultural movement into compelling focus with a trio of films including James van Der Pool’s lyrical documentary, DARK MATTER: A HISTORY OF THE AFROFUTURE (2021), featuring insights from leading writers, thinkers, and artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Grace Jones.

A rich summer season of events that take inspiration from IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC will take place across the Southbank Centre, spanning literature, performance, and music, as well as a series of outdoor installations. The exhibition and season will be accompanied by a richly illustrated publication exploring the expansive territory of the Black fantastic across film, music, design, and literature. Published by Thames and Hudson, the book includes an introductory text by Ekow Eshun and extended essays by Eshun, Kameelah L. Martin, and Michelle D. Commander.

Written by: Sarah Bemand 

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