Ashara Ekundayo knows full well that there's more to people of African descent than what's on view at the typical multiplex. "If the only thing you see of yourself is what Hollywood wants to sell you," says Ekundayo, who founded the Starz Denver Pan African Film Festival, "you don't get to see anything outside of stereotypical images."
The more than fifty flicks that can be seen in the festival's fourth edition -- April 21 through 27 -- often leave those cliches in tatters. That doesn't mean they lack entertainment value, though. The portion of the bash that's open to the general public takes place at the Starz FilmCenter, inside the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus; the kickoff is the April 24 screening of Only the Strong Survive. The film, co-directed by Chris Hegedus and rock-doc pioneer D.A. Pennebaker, celebrates the work of classic soul singers via performance and interview footage that features the likes of Jerry Butler, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas. Music crops up in subsequent films, too, including Hip Hop Hope, directed by Darrell Wilks, about New York emcees responding creatively to 9/11; Big Pun: Still Not a Player, which focuses upon an oversized rap talent who died of a heart attack in 2000; and Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a look at the life and work of South African composer/activist Vuyisile Mini that closes the proceedings.
Still, the centerpiece of the festival, a joint project of the Pan African Arts Society and the Denver Film Society, is the April 26 tribute to filmmaker Stanley Nelson; it will be highlighted by a viewing of his latest effort, The Murder of Emmett Till. Ekundayo also touts the rough cut of NO!, a work in progress by director Aishah Shahidah Simmons that challenges African-Americans who ignore the problem of sexual abuse to face it head on. "There's this collective silence in the black community around when men rape women," Ekundayo says. "Aishah has had people tell her, 'We can't air this dirty laundry.' She's had to fight with African-American folk to finish this film."
It's been a long struggle. Simmons unveiled a twenty-minute chunk of NO! five years ago as part of 1998's International Women's Film Festival, a Denver-based showcase staged in part by Ekundayo; the success of that event, which featured a guest appearance by Maya Angelou, helped inspire the launch of the Denver Pan African Film Festival two years later. The fest has earmarked a share of proceeds from both an April 26 screening of NO! and an April 27 panel discussion about rape, at which the film will also be seen, for Simmons to help defray post-production costs.
Getting others involved with similar causes is among Ekundayo's primary goals. She calls the Pan African Arts Society, in which she serves as executive director and curator, an "art-and-social-change institution" that reaches out via ventures such as Cafe Nuba, a multimedia hip-hop and poetry gathering that takes place monthly at Gemini Tea Emporium, 2680 Welton Street. She thinks the Denver Pan African Film Festival is another avenue for introducing people of all ages to new ways of thinking.
"We are into promoting urban art and using it to teach," Ekundayo says. "And we know we have access to an audience that can appreciate -- and learn from -- these films."