By Cynthia Gibson
LOS ANGELES — As a Black teenager in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the 1950s, Ayuko Babu didn’t see himself in any of the images portrayed on movie screens or in printed publications.
The first time he did see someone who looked like him, it changed his life and set the course for his 30-year career as executive director of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival (PAFF), the world’s largest Black film festival.
The swollen and disfigured face of Emmett Till, the 14-year old African American who was beaten and lynched by a white mob in Mississippi, was published in the Sept. 15, 1955 issue of Jet Magazine. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted the casket remain open and photographs of her son be made public so the world could see the brutality of racism.
Babu said the image had a profound effect on him. At the time of his murder, Till was only one year older than Babu.
“I knew had I been in Mississippi at that time, it’d be me dead and it’d be him looking at me in Jet,” Babu says today as he prepares for the 30th incarnation of the film festival he created with actor Danny Glover and actress Ja’ Net Du Bois.
The 30th Pan African Film festival opens April 19 at the Directors Guild of America with “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story,” a film based on the life of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson starring Grammy-winning singer Ledisi.
According to Babu, “Remember Me” was the perfect choice for opening night. A renaissance woman, Jackson was one of the greatest singers of all time as well an astute businesswoman. She took chords and arrangements and mixed them with old traditional songs to modernize gospel music.
Babu said Jackson was also a confidant to Martin Luther King Jr. “Whenever he got low, wherever he was in the world, he called Mahalia to sing a song to him to get himself together,” Babu said.
The history behind the Pan African Film Festival goes back more than 30 years.
Babu met Glover through the Black Student Union at San Francisco State University. He said Glover has always had a political consciousness that carries through his work today. Babu credits Glover with bringing issues like fighting apartheid in South African to the popular “Lethal Weapon” franchise.
Babu first spotted Du Bois’ in filmmaker Oscar Williams’ comedy, “Five on the Black Hand Side.”
“She played a militant sister with braids that emanated kindness and power,” Babu said.
Although “Five on the Black Hand Side” helped launch DuBois career, she would become famous for her role as Willona, an independent, sassy single mother on the 1970s television hit series, “Good Times.”
Babu said DuBois was a big financial supporter of PAFF and contributed to elevating the festival’s public profile. She died Feb. 17, 2020, two days after the start of the 2020 festival.
The decision for the trio to start a festival based on films from the African diaspora was an easy one, according to Babu. Launching the festival six months after the Los Angeles’ civil unrest of 1992 would prove fortuitous.
“We knew we would be successful and people would be interested for the very same reasons that we were,” Babu said. “They were hungry to see themselves and their stories on screen. It’s about us in all our complexity.”
The first Pan African Film Festival debuted at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Oct. 15, 1992. At the time, Laemmle was the biggest foreign film house west of the Mississippi. There were discussions of opening the festival in New York or Atlanta, but the trio settled on Hollywood with its easy access to movie stars to appear at the premiere.
Glover and actress Whoopie Goldberg were co-hosts on opening night at the first Pan African Film Festival, which featured five film screenings — “Sarraounia” (Burkina Faso), “Chameleon Street” (U.S.), “Heritage Africa” (Ghana), “Toubab Bi” (Senegal/France), and “Ava & Gabriel” (Curacao).
Burkina Faso First Lady Madame Chantal Compaoré was the festival’s special guest and honoree. The festival was held over the course of seven days and presented more than 40 films from the African diaspora. The festival was a hit from the start, selling out the first night.
The festival has grown throughout its 30 years. In 1995, when Magic Johnson and real estate developer Ken Lombard opened the first movie theater owned by African Americans in Los Angeles, Babu and his partners negotiated a deal and moved the festival to its new home at the Cinemark 15 Theaters in Baldwin Hill Crenshaw Plaza.
Over the past 30 years, the festival has expanded from 40 films in 1992 to more than 200 films from six continents in 2022. Forty-four films are competing in six categories — Best First Feature Narrative, Best First Feature Narrative, Best First Feature Documentary, Best Feature Narrative, Best Feature Documentary, Best Short Documentary and Best Short Narrative.
Another 55 films will have their world premiere this year. The festival also serves as an Oscar-qualifying festival for animation and live-action films.
Inspired by the legacy of the late Los Angeles-born African American filmmaker, John Singleton, the winning films from the John Singleton short film competition will be this year’s centerpiece presentation. The festival also will host the premiere of FX Network’s “Snowfall” Season 5 finale and Showtime’s “The Man Who Fell from Earth,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofo.
In conjunction with the film festival, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza will once again host Artfest, a showcase featuring more than 100 established and emerging artists and craftspeople from all over the Black Diaspora.
Seeing the stories of Black experiences around the world informs audiences and provides a respite from everyday life, Babu said.
“Through stories, music, paintings, sculptures, art, we’re trying to give folks some insights, entertainment, excitement and some wisdom and rejuvenation to carry on and get back out into the world. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he added.
With the exception of the opening night gala, all PAFF screenings, panels as well as the art showcase will take place at the Cinemark 15 Theatres, and the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles.
For more information, visit www.paff.org.
Cynthia Gibson is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.