Film fest focuses on African American artistry

The African American artists profiled at the Sacramento International Film Festival established themselves in different eras. Yet each – from the San Francisco photographer who studied with Ansel Adams to an L.A. band of punk rockers – was a forerunner.

"They were jumping into genres that heretofore were only considered the domain of white artists," Sacramento Film Festival executive director Martin Anaya said of photographer David Johnson, who was Adams' first African American student, and Fishbone, the punk-ska-everything band that first mesmerized music fans in the 1980s.

The 35-minute film "Positive Negative," which showcases Johnson's photography of San Francisco's Fillmore District, plays at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Crocker Art Museum theater, followed at 4:30 p.m. by "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone."

The nine-day festival's emphasis on African American artistry continues through its "Cine Soul" program April 13 and 14 at the Artisan Theatre. Highlighting the program are "Mr. Dial Has Something To Say," a feature-length profile of Southern painter Thornton Dial, and.

"Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of 'The Spook Who Sat by The Door,' " an hourlong documentary on the making – and suppression – of the 1973 movie based on Sam Greenlee's groundbreaking novel. "Infiltrating Hollywood" co-director Christine Acham, an associate professor of African and African American Studies at UC Davis, first encountered the film version of Greenlee's novel while attending USC film school.

"At that time, (the film) was out of print, and we passed around these bootleg VHS copies," Acham said. "It was a completely captivating story – that sense of empowerment and taking control of your own destiny."

The title of Greenlee's 1969 novel and subsequent film plays on both a racial slur and a nickname for CIA operatives. The story's protagonist enters the CIA, quits the agency, then teaches the guerrilla tactics he learned – and ideas of nationalism drawn from Third World countries – to a group of Chicago revolutionaries.

"The idea that you are a colonized nation, and that you need to throw off those colonial ties" was new when the book was published, Acham said. That the film was made by an African American screenwriter (Greenlee, now 80) and director (the late Ivan Dixon, one-time "Hogan's Heroes" actor, civil rights activist, and later, a successful television director) also was unusual for the early '70s, Acham said.

Picked up by United Artists, the film was marketed as part of the "blaxploitation" subgenre despite its serious intellectual ideas. It did good business at first but eventually was squashed by the FBI, Greenlee and others associated with the film contend. After FBI agents reportedly visited theaters showing the film, the studio pulled the picture from theaters. It remained out of the public eye until its DVD release in 2004. Acham and co-director Cliff Ward obtained FBI files as part of their research. "There were six available pages on the film and Sam Greenlee, and they gave us three, and they were completely redacted (had sections of type lined out),"

Acham said. For example, a line that read "Sam Greenlee met with two black nationalists" was followed by a redacted passage.