A promotional postcard for this year's Starz Denver Pan African Film Festival features a thuggish-looking white boy with headphones around his neck. Clad head to toe in hip-hop garb, he is a sign of the urban style that is ubiquitous not only in high schools, shopping malls and playgrounds across the country, but around the globe, as well.
"He was kind of confused when we saw him on the street and told him why we wanted to take his picture," says Ashara Ekundayo, founder and co-director of the festival. "Here was this cat who had taken on the identity of hip-hop culture without really connecting to it, without really understanding it. It showed perfectly just how big this culture has become, that someone can be totally engulfed by it and not even realize it."
That trend convinced Ekundayo and fellow directors Shawn White and Jennifer Mabry to make the theme of this year's festival "I See Hip Hop," as a testament to the culture that began as a creative means of resistance and rebellion but morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry. The trio hoped to put together a movie lineup that would speak to the popularity of the medium, as well as express understanding and appreciation of hip-hop's roots. So when Ekundayo caught David LaChapelle's documentary Rize this year at the Sundance Film Festival, she knew it was the perfect film for the festival, which kicks off its fifth year on April 25.
An extension of his award-winning short Krumped, Rize, LaChapelle's feature debut, details the phenomenon of "krumping" or "clown dancing," an intense, spastic form of battle dancing in which participants often don clown makeup, that has been exploding in parking lots and alleyways across South Central Los Angeles. Ekundayo was impressed not only by how the film recalled the energy of the early B-boy breakdancing scene of the 1970s, but also by how krumping seemed to be steeped in the ancient African rituals she had studied in college. Ekundayo spoke with some of the dancers in the film, who were also at Sundance, and eventually got to make her pitch to LaChapelle.
"He was very cool about it," Ekundayo remembers. "For someone as big as he is, he was really gracious. He said he would love to come show the film in Denver; the producers all seemed excited about the idea, too."
Lions Gate Films wasn't so excited, however. The motion-picture acquisition, production and distribution arm of Lions Gate Entertainment had acquired the worldwide rights to Rize -- essentially taking screening control out of LaChapelle's hands -- and had other plans for the documentary's roll-out.
"Lions Gate told us that they didn't want to screen the film in any more festivals because they are anticipating a summer release and they don't want to saturate the market," says festival co-director White. "But that doesn't make sense, because they're not even planning on bringing the film to Denver at all, so there's no market to saturate. There's no harm in letting us screen the film here. We'll get them glowing praise and tons of buzz, and a few months down the road, they'll see that in DVD sales."
Lions Gate Films did not return numerous phone calls, but Natalie Reubens, a production coordinator for LaChapelle, agreed that Lions Gate most likely will not release the picture in Denver.
"It's because of the demographic here," festival co-director White says. "We're 4 percent black, and people look at that and think this is not a good urban market -- which, given the popularity of hip-hop, is just ridiculous. We thought we would be at an advantage with the hip-hop theme; it's so popular we figured we could get the suburban kids, get the Latino kids, everybody. I guess other people don't see it that way."
"Here we are trying to put together this black film festival with a hip-hop bent, but Denver still has this reputation as a cowtown," Ekundayo adds. "People are like, 'I'm not going to give you this hip-hop film, why would I do that in Denver?' Because this is a hip-hop market. Everywhere is. Take a Roots concert, for example. Outside of New York and Philadelphia, that's not a black crowd; it's the white kids buying all those tickets."
The difficulties have extended beyond Rize. Festival organizers also tried to pick up Hustle and Flow, winner of the Audience Award for an American Dramatic Film at Sundance this year, but they were promptly denied. The John Singleton-produced film -- which tells the story of a pimp who decides to pursue a career in rap and features Ludacris in a small role -- was quickly snatched up by MTV Films, a division of Paramount Pictures. The film has generated such a buzz in the world of independent cinema, distributors are picking and choosing what they do with it -- and that means taking the festival darling off the rounds.
"They're still planning their roll-out for that film," says Pan African co-director Mabry. "But it's going to be a hard sell here. Studios just don't see this as an urban market."
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It's ironic that the hip-hop theme that organizers thought would increase their audiences and access to movies has actually made producing a film festival far more difficult. Either the distribution companies don't feel that Denver is a big enough urban market to bother promoting here, or the films without distribution deals want more exposure than they believe the Starz Denver Pan African Film Festival can offer.
"With the success of films like 8 Mile, urban films have become a commodity," Ekundayo says. "So there is this growing perception that hip-hop-genre films, they don't need festivals anymore, at least not festivals without an enormous name. Even the small indie films with no distribution deal want to expose their films on a bigger scale, because they know there's such a demand right now. They don't want to come to Denver, to some small festival, especially a conscious pan-African one."
In spite of the obstacles they have encountered, Ekundayo and company have already arranged a series of intriguing panel discussions for the week-long fest, including "Revolutionary Rappers: Where Are They Now?," focusing on the descent of rap from revolution to consumerism, and "What the ^#@$% Is a Tip Drill?," a look at the objectification of women in rap videos that will feature video directors as well as the women in the videos themselves. Ekundayo also recently nailed down the festival's opening film, Jordan Walker-Pearlman's Constellation, which stars Billy Dee Williams and Gabrielle Union and depicts an African-American family in the Deep South that is forced to come to terms with an interracial affair.
"They're really excited about opening up a festival," Ekundayo says. "They think it's a prestigious thing; they're sending us their stars and everything. I was like, yes, this is how things are supposed to work...I almost feel that the culture of hip-hop has been so usurped and manipulated that the people whose culture it is can't even access it. It's like we've sold hip-hop, and now we can't afford to get it back. This festival has definitely presented a challenge that I was not anticipating."