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While everyone knows about Brooklyn’s annual Caribbean spectacular, the West Indian Carnival and Parade on Labor Day - and its attendant glorious music and colorful regalia, not much thought is given to the crushing poverty and racism these Caribbean-Americans escaped when they came to Brooklyn.

This year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music chose to look beneath the sequined surface through the transporting vehicle of film. Their latest film series, "Catch a Fire: Caribbean Diaspora Films" is an exploration of both the joys and hardships of living in the Caribbean today, of being a Caribbean emigrant and even the fallen heroes of the islands’ history. The series is a collection of widely varying films including documentaries and even a comedy.

The series is named for "Catch a Fire," a 1995 documentary about the 19th-century Jamaican civil rights activist Paul Bogle, directed by Menelik Shabazz. In many ways, "Catch a Fire" feels like the film they show you before you enter Colonial Williamsburg. There’s lots of narration and re-enactors. (And there’s a big difference between the words "re-enactor" and "actor.")

The power of the 30-minute work is in the spoken word. Just as Bogle was a deacon who enlightened his congregation of oppressed blacks about politics, Shabazz’s script illuminates the viewer about England’s heavy-handed domination of the island. While America’s 13 colonies might have identified with wanting to rebel against England, our history textbooks do not record the lives of Jamaica’s brutally murdered black activists like Bogle, who should not be forgotten. The film closes the series on Sept. 3.

On the other end of the spectrum is the cult classic, "The Harder They Come" (1972), directed by Perry Henzell. This film is - rightfully - the series’ centerpiece, screening Aug. 31. When the film was released it brought the distinctive sound of reggae to a wide audience and launched reggae legend Jimmy Cliff to stardom. Its stylish filmmaking - peppered with montages - and the vintage chic clothing and cars still dazzle. But the candy coating quickly wears away as Henzell reveals the city of Kingston as a poverty stricken place where it’s every man - and woman - for himself.

Naive Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) comes from the country to the big city to pursue his dream of becoming a reggae superstar. He gets a quick education in self-preservation in a place where everyone from the preacher to the cops to his friends are corrupted.

Henzell also includes long pan shots of the needy, unflinchingly documenting women and children scavenging at the dump. A bloody altercation erupts between Ivan and another man over a bicycle with $6 tires. Henzell paints clearly the bleak prospects for a young man in this big city with scenes of Cliff in the recording studio that are reminiscent of Elvis Presley in "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). He deliberately echoes the lawlessness of Hollywood Westerns.

Henzell will be present for a Q&A following the 6:30 pm screening.

Fast forward 30 years to Stephanie Black’s "Life + Debt" (2001). The documentary returns on Sept. 1 after a sold-out BAM engagement in February. (Read GO Brooklyn’s original review.)

The slick, must-see documentary explores the beautiful Jamaica of today as seen by tourists and the underlying, enduring poverty veiled from their view. This documentary breaks with tradition by weaving in narration from Jamaica Kincaid’s previously published "A Small Place."

"Life + Debt" brings to the surface the economic destruction wrought by the invisible hands of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on this - and many other - Third World economies. Most disturbing of all, Black provocatively points out how all of us in the United States and Europe are unwitting accomplices in Jamaica’s suffering. (I was startled to see underwear I purchased in Manhattan being sewn in the militaristic Kingston "free zone" sweatshop.)

Black gets all of the bigwigs to talk on camera about why and how they keep Jamaica’s people in dire straits.

While Black goes to the top to figure out why Jamaicans are suffering economically, Claudette Coulanges’ documentary "Looking for Life" (1999) examines with long, leisurely takes, the lives of two citizens in Haiti - one who works in a factory and another who cooks for factory workers. "Looking for Life" demonstrates how the decimated economy wreaks havoc on individuals and families - not through interviews with the policy makers and university professors, but through the words and lives of two exhausted women.

Coulanges follows a woman who has created a job for herself, providing the meals for workers in a factory. But the viewer soon understands that the individual born into this society, no matter how sharp her entrepreneurial skills - must get worn out and kicked to the curb, because eventually she’ll need to take a day off.

In Port au Prince, everything is an ordeal: getting a pot, buying the food at the market, getting a ride to the factory, making the food in the dirt of a courtyard, serving the food, waiting outside the factory on payday to get payment from the workers for their week of lunches, going home and doing the backbreaking housework that awaits there. There are no washing machines. No vacations.

Just as Black demonstrates that Jamaica’s economy is crippled by imported goods, Coulanges shows that these impoverished people have no choice but to buy the cheaper, imported goods - and not support their own indigenous economy - because that’s all they can afford.

"Looking for Life" will be screened on Sept. 3.

A film series about Caribbean culture would be remiss if it didn’t include a sprinkling of levity. Pascal Legitimus’ comedy "Caribbean in Paris" (2000), which opens the series on Aug. 29, provides heaps of silliness.

The mayor of Guadeloupe’s wife is kidnapped while on a business trip in Paris. He arrives with his two grown sons to track her down, and is joined in his search by a well-meaning cop, who also happens to be a trash-mouthed, single mother bullied by her male boss.

Throw in the 800,000 Caribbeans who live in France with "jobs white people don’t want" who use their lowly positions in the telephone company, metro and sanitation to aid the mayor’s family in thwarting the kidnappers, and the silly slapstick film begins to feel like "Revenge of the Nerds." The difference: Legitimus includes very real subtexts concerning pervasive racism, police corruption and corporate greed.

Look for Legitimus in several small parts in the film including a taxi driver, a cleaning woman and a DJ.

Finally, Sander Francken’s "Papa’s Song" (1999), screening on Aug. 30, is an incredibly intense, deep examination of the relationship between two Curacao sisters, Magda and Shirley, and the implications of race relations on the island and in Holland. This dark, brooding film is dense, gripping - at times muddled - but always disturbing. (Francken includes some graphic rape scenes.) The suspenseful film and its great performances will haunt you long after the credits have rolled as you attempt to decipher the nature of the sisters’ relationship. Plan to stop for a drink on your way home.

The series also includes Felix de Rooy’s "Ava and Gabriel: A Love Story," a vivid portrait of Curacao in the 1940s and the love affair between a Dutch painter and his model, and "The Last Rumba of Papa Montero," a documentary directed by Octavio Cortazar about the legendary Cuban rumba dancer. Both films will be shown on Sept. 2.

No matter which film you choose - documentary or feature - this selection of Caribbean films provides insight into aspects of Caribbean cultures that often get lost in the revelry and revealing costumes of the Labor Day parade.


BAMcinematek presents "Catch a Fire: Caribbean Diaspora Films" Aug. 29 to Sept. 3 at 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place. Tickets are $9, $6 students, seniors and children under age 12. For a complete film schedule, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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