Oakland Local

The Oakland-Brooklyn connection has never seemed quite as apparent as with Joshua Bee Alafia, who recently presented his latest work, “Let’s Stay Together,” at the New Parkway.

Joshua Bee Alafia in "Let's Stay Together"

Joshua Bee Alafia in “Let’s Stay Together”

Alafia, who lived for some time here in Oakland before transplanting himself to Brooklyn, NYC, has amassed a formidable resume as a documentary and narrative filmmaker, touching on such subjects as Rodessa Jones’ Medea Project—not to be confused with Tyler Perry’s Madea—Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, and several films dealing with Cuba, including “Everyday Art in Cuba,” “Cubamor,” and “Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars.” Currently a teacher at the Harlem School for the Arts, Alafia is also a mentor at Reel Works and works with the Youth Film Fellows Program at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“Let’s Stay Together” is part romantic comedy, part pseudo-documentary, and part drama. Its title derives from the Al Green song of the same name, a couple of versions of which are heard throughout the film. Green is somewhat of a running gag in the film:  there’s an epiphany moment involving the soul singer-turned preacher’s newer material and a pilgrimage/road trip to the church where he currently spreads his gospel of love.

The film is set in Brooklyn and features an ensemble cast. Watching it, one is reminded of Spike Lee’s early films, particularly “Do The Right Thing.” Like DtRT, “Let’s Stay Together” addresses race upfront as a topic, yet Alafia’s approach isn’t to barrage you with ugly stereotypes, but rather to flip clichés into unexpected outcomes – an altogether more holistic, compassionate approach.

The result is one of the more honest takes on the subject we’ve yet seen, one that peels away layers of standoffish attitudes and eminence fronts, to get to the issues underneath: single motherhood and absentee fatherhood, as well as the confusion which can arise from being a mixed-race person. In that sense, the film is less about race than it is about identity or, more precisely, the personas we take on in relationships.

There’s a comedic aspect to Freddy, the light-skinned brotha who overcompensates for his confusion about his own racial identity by angrily trying to out-black everyone around him. The joke is that the audience and his SouthEast Asian girlfriend see right through the mask Freddy wears, but he can’t see himself, until a series of coincidental events cause him to rethink his identity-obsessed mindset.

Cast of "Let's Stay Together"

Cast of “Let’s Stay Together”

As Parker, the film’s erstwhile protagonist, Alafia is subtly charismatic. Parker, a documentary filmmaker, seems like he has it all figured out, but that’s just a mask too. He’s really searching for love and the courage to express himself in a non-superficial way. Other male characters also get to a point of truth, addressing the mental blocks which have held them back from being complete human beings. The women in the film are more well-rounded than Lee’s female characters (though that’s not saying much), displaying a range from narcissism, to casual hedonism, to emotional unavailability, to searching for their inner truth and, ultimately, embracing love—you know, just like in real life.

The dialogue is laugh out-loud-funny at times, and casually laid-back, to the point where it sometimes seems unscripted (it’s not). When Parker expresses doubt over a potential paramour who “isn’t feeling Fela,” another character responds with “how can you not like Fela? He’s all feeling.” Such lines wouldn’t be out of context with dialogues people might actually have and make audiences want to say, “true dat.”

screen shot from "Let's Stay Together"

screen shot from “Let’s Stay Together”

That’s not to say “Let’s Stay Together” is a perfect film. It probably has too many characters for its own good, it leaves some plot points unresolved, and Al Green himself doesn’t show up for the 3rd act denouement, like you’d expect him to, in a big-budget Hollywood rom-com. But what’s the point of seeing a movie that doesn’t challenge its audience? Alafia’s film has an honest integrity and, yes, soul, which is too often lacking from even indie films. It’s not trying to be something it’s not, or take you on a fantasy ride out of the realm of possibility for your own life.

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Alafia at the New Parkway

Alafia at the New Parkway

In an email interview, Alafia discussed his intentions and approach with “Let’s Stay Together.” According to the filmmaker, “LST is a romantic comedy that uses bits of documentary footage within the film to underscore some of the themes of fractured family and dysfunctional relationships.  It is a film about relationships, identity, and the delusion of false sense of self.  For me, it was also an exercise in expressing un-stereotypical representations of Black masculinity: brothers are cooking in the kitchen, expressing their feelings, being vulnerable, questioning their ability to be good fathers.”

Alafia didn’t just want to show something predictable and rote, he explains. “I liken it to how Billie Holiday would push the envelope by singing at the edge of her vocal range to the point of displaying the notes of where her voice would crack. I wanted to show the veins in the hand, not just our fists.”

What holds the film back most is probably the miniscule-to-nonexistent budget Alafia was working with. “If I would have had a larger budget, I would have cast some Hollywood actors so that the film would instantly have more possibility in terms of distribution. Without any, it becomes either a film that Art House distributors think that white folks will come out for or a film that black distributors think will appeal to our mainstream demographic.  I believe it has both those potentials, but it’s been hard to appeal to the gateholders of both those avenues of distribution. It isn’t until they come to a screening and see the overwhelmingly positive reaction of an audience that folks seem to think the film has any potential in reaching folks.”

Should any such gatekeepers be reading this, let it be known that the New Parkway showing resulted in heartfelt ovations and an engaged Q&A following the screening.

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Pimps of Joytime show the New Parish how to party

Pimps of Joytime show the New Parish how to party

The Pimps of Joytime show at the New Parish last Friday was pretty interesting. If the goal of a live show is to create a party atmosphere, POJ did just that, with a high-energy set which kept the capacity crowd engaged all evening long, with a tremendous amount of flow and very little (if any) ebb. According to the band’s website, POJ are equal parts New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, a combination which pretty much ensures maximum grooves. Led by vocalist/guitarist Brian J, the POJ funk onslaught involves a lot of guitar/bass interplay, aided by two percussionists and a drummer, with occasional keyboards. It went over well with the Oakland crowd.

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SambaFunk at Skin

SambaFunk at Skin

There’s a new monthly party in town, one that aims to be not just a party, but an experience. On Saturday, “Skin” debuted on two of Venue’s three floors – the third floor was hosting another event which may have been named “Rachet World,” though I couldn’t be sure. The contrast couldn’t have been more apparent; where “Skin” was at home working up a sweat, the other party seemed more about teasing than pleasing. There was no actual nakedness at “Skin,” but the goal of the event was to get to a naked state of mind, a soulful intimacy in which dancing all night seems both appropriate and comfortable.

"Skin" was tight

“Skin” was tight

To that end, many in the crowd showed up with painted faces a la Fela dancers, the better to channel the vibes with. Oakulture arrived in the middle of a live set by SambaFunk, who may be Oakland’s premiere party-starters, and stayed long enough to check out the festive mood on the second floor. The DJ lineup included all-stars like Cecil, Orfeu Nego, Emancipacion, Nina Sol, Diaztek, and Son of Son, and the beats ranged from baile funk to Afrobeat to house, to bhangra, to salsa, to hip-hop. Grown and sexy, indeed, and a welcome addition to Oakland’s nightlife/groove scene. The next party is Dec. 14, so you’ve been notified.

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Sterling James with Erica Blount Danois

Sterling James with Erica Blount Danois

Winding down the weekend, Sunday afternoon found Oakulture nursing a Bloody Mary at the new Jack London spot Lungomare for a book release party for Erica Blount Danois’s “Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes at Soul Train.” It was a pretty chill affair, highlighted by DJ Davey-D, who kept the engine running with some killer 60s, 70s, and 80s grooves.

Davey-D spins at Lungomare

Davey-D spins at Lungomare

Meanwhile, KBLX on-air personality Sterling James shared her own behind-the-scenes Soul Train stories, including how, as an underage 17 year-old, she used to drive down to LA every weekend to be one of the show’s shimmy-shaking audience members. It was probably inevitable after hearing Davey-D throw down jam after jam, but by the middle of the afternoon, a Soul Train dance line spontaneously manifested right there on Lungomare’s floor. And a good time was had by all.

A Sunday Soul Train line

A Sunday Soul Train line

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This week’s picks:

Goapele, 11/14-11/18, $30-$34, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero

 

Oaktown Music Fest, 11/15-11/16, 6pm, Awaken Café, 1429 Broadway

 

Native Tongues Appreciation Night, 11/15, 9pm, $10, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

 

Masters at Work (Kenny Dope and Little Louie Vega), 11/15, $20-$25 Presale, Mighty, 119 Utah, SF

 

“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth”  11/18, 7pm, $20-$45, Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave.

 

 

 

 

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