Hold on tight, Oakulturists. Making up for lost time, Oakland’s funkiest and freshest arts and culture column returns after a brief hiatus with two amazing films, and the return of an Afrobeat legend. Scroll down to see this week’s picks.

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Assata Shakur hovered over Sankofa Events’ screening of “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” Not in physical form. But certainly in spirit. The timing of the screening—May 8—was impeccable. Just a few days earlier, the FBI had brought new attention to Shakur by placing her on its most recent “Most Wanted Terrorists” list – a curious move, considering the onetime Joanne Chesimard has been living quietly and peacefully in Cuba, following her voluntary exile from the United States after being convicted of murder in the 1973 slaying of a New Jersey state trooper.

Onscreen at the Piedmont Theater, the voice of Angela Davis explained that the reason she didn’t leave the country after going underground in 1972—following the announcement of murder charges against her in the attempted 1970 kidnapping of a federal judge from a Marin courtroom, which resulted in four deaths—was that she knew she “could never come back.” Which is exactly how the Assata Shakur story played out.

Instead, Davis was caught after an extensive womanhunt, extradited in the middle of the night from New York to California and jailed while she awaited trial. The story of the trial is at the center of “Free Angela,” a powerhouse documentary which not only fills in the details on Davis’ icon status—more than just a poster-worthy pretty face with an Afro, she’s a certified intellectual with a thing for German philosophy, revolutionary Communism, African-American liberation, and fellow Black Power icon George Jackson–but, just as importantly, gives viewers the context in which Davis’ epic drama unfolded.

As the documentary illustrates, the late 60s and early ‘70s were a time when the police and FBI were at war with the radical elements of the black community. Black Power activists who ran afoul of The Man were frequently incarcerated, or had bogus charges dumped on them while incarcerated. Some were even assassinated or subject to attempted assassinations. In other words, s__t got real.

Even before her trial—and the international “Free Angela” movement—Davis had already become something of a cause celebre, being fired from a teaching job at UCLA for being an avowed Communist. (Archival footage shows Davis chain-smoking Gauloises as she gives a lecture.) But the trial is what made her story the stuff of legend. The odds seemed heavily stacked against Davis; not only was the venue (San Jose) 75% white, but she was listed as the registered owner of the guns used in the shooting, despite not having been present when it happened. And, the prosecution was in possession of her love letters to Jackson, intended to be used as evidence of her guilt.

As the film recounts, one by one, the barriers to her freedom came tumbling down. First, the state Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty, making her eligible for bail. Once released, she reclaimed the presumption of innocence which allowed her to enter the courtroom as a free woman. A technicality prevented the state from using its most experienced trial lawyers. Her defense team brought in an ace lawyer who devised a brilliant strategy, allowing her to take the witness stand, painting her as too intelligent to have been implicated in the crime, and refuting the prosecutor’s arguments as being male chauvinistic.

We all know the outcome—Davis won “not guilty” verdicts on the counts of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and went on to become a respected college professor, author and perhaps the premiere black feminist shero of our time. But what’s interesting is that Davis’ story could just as easily have been Shakur’s.

Just as compelling is the way the film builds to its conclusion, with archival footage—including video footage of Ronald Reagan and audiotape of Richard Nixon, still photography (including a 35mm set of pictures which show Davis on the lam in a motel room, sans Afro), and contemporary interviews with the surviving cast of characters, including Davis’ sister Fania (the Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth).

Framed around a taut, cohesive narrative, “Free Angela” does an excellent job of telling the story of the Black Power era from a feminist perspective, without meandering into the jumble of historical oversaturation which has bogged down many other documentaries on the theme. It also gives a humanistic, alternate perspective of so-called domestic terrorism in an age when that phrase has returned to the headlines. And, it reminds Oakland of its not-so-far-off past, which still holds an ironic relevancy in these days of federal consent decrees and ongoing public outcry over police misconduct.

At press time, two more screenings of “Free Angela” were scheduled: May 19th has sold out, but tickets are still available for June 2nd at the New Parkway.

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Buzz keeps building around “Fruitvale Station,” the Ryan Coogler-directed film about Oscar Grant, which was easily the most buzzworthy selection at Sundance this year. Last week, the film’s first official trailer was posted on YouTube, raising anticipation to fever pitch. Though dramatized, the trailer shows real-life events which take on a chilling tone in retrospect, such as Grant’s mother telling him to take the train, thinking it would be safer, and the call he placed to his girlfriend from the station platform while being detained. Brief scenes also appear to humanize Grant, showing him hugging his daughter, trying to find a decent job, and reflecting contemplatively by the ocean. The film—produced by Forest Whitaker and starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant—opens July 26.

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Joni Haastrup has been called an “Afrobeat mastermind.” An early pioneer of the genre, he fused African music with psychedelic rock, and was the lead vocalist on O.J. Ekemode’s Super Afro Soul album, on which a young Fela Kuti played trumpet. After releasing two innovative albums with the group Monomono in the early 70s, and a 1978 solo album, Wake Up Your Mind, Haastrup disappeared from the music scene for years, resurfacing in 2011 after his early albums—now collector’s classics—were reissued. Now based in the Bay Area, Haastrup has played occasional gigs over the past couple of years, such as his recent opening set for Afrolicious at the New Parish.

Haastrup wasn’t in top form during the show; signs of rust were evident, which is unsurprising after so many years out of the scene. But just seeing him up there playing his music was rewarding for true Afrobeat fans. And, the more Haastrup and Monomono played, the more locked into the groove they became.

Kudos to Afroclicious for asking Haastrup to open for them. As for Afrolicious, they are quickly becoming a phenomenon. After building a cult following during their weekly Elbo Room gigs—renowned for infectious party vibes—the nu-Afrobeat collective anchored by brothers Pleasuremaker and Senor Oz have expanded to bigger stages and national dates. Their New Parish show gave Oakland a taste of what SF audiences have been getting for years: uptempo, incredibly rhythmic, super-dance-y grooves which vacillated from funk to reggae to African, depending on which of their revolving team of vocalists is on the mic at the time.

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This week’s picks:

A Night of Classic Hip Hop with Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist. 5/15, 10pm-1am, free, Somar, 1727 Telegraph

 

4th Annual Fist Up Film Festival. 5/16-6/4 at various venues (trailers at www.FistUp.tv)

 

Bounce Back: Let’s Rebuild Little Baobab. 5/16, 10pm-2am at Bissap Baobab, 3386 19th St, San Francisco

 

Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival. 5/18, 11am-7pm, free, San Antonio Park, Foothill Blvd bet. 16th-18th Aves.

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