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Franklin documentary to open Pan African Film Festival

LOS ANGELES – “Amazing Grace,” a 1972 documentary featuring Aretha Franklin and her L.A.-based recording of a gospel album, will be screened Feb. 7 as the kickoff film for the 27th annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival.

Franklin, an iconic talent who defined a musical era, inspired a generation of activists and blazed a trail of opportunity for scores of singers to follow, died last August of pancreatic cancer.

“Aretha Franklin is a rare treasure. To be graced with this film is an honor and a testament to the perseverance and long-standing prominence of the festival’s impact,” festival co-founder and actor Danny Glover said in a statement.

The documentary, recorded in Watts, is among more than 170 films from 40 countries in 26 languages that will be screened Feb. 7-18 at the Cinemark Rave 15 Theatres, organizers said. Creative works by hundreds of artists also will be displayed at the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

The festival, which attracts thousands of visitors from throughout the African diaspora, is the largest event of its kind dedicated to film, art, music and creative expression by black people, organizers said.

“As a result of the slave trade, we are spread all over the planet,” said Ayuko Babu, the festival’s co-founder and executive director. “We need a way, a vehicle, that brings us to an understanding that we have something in common with African descendants all over the world.”

The festival opens with the previously shelved documentary on Franklin, directed by renowned filmmaker Sydney Pollack. Unseen for decades due to legal and technical issues, the documentary was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, with Rev. James Cleveland, Rev. C.L. Franklin [Aretha’s father] and Mick Jagger making appearances.

“It was a two-day gospel extravaganza,” Babu said of the recording sessions. “You had the makings of a great concert and a great cultural and spiritual experience that would last through the ages.”

The way Franklin’s voice combined soul, gospel, pop and R&B embodies the spirit and diversity of the annual festival, Babu said.

“What we try to do is bring all of our voices together,” he said. “If you want to understand who we are as a people, you have to listen to all of us.”

Babu said he is thrilled for audiences to see stories told from different perspectives — stories like “Where Hands Touch,” a romance film about a black teenager played by Amandla Stenberg in Nazi Germany, and “Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story,” which reveals behind-the-scenes efforts to get Muhammad Ali reinstated into boxing after he refused induction into the U.S. Army.

Other films audiences can expect to see at the festival include: “Little Woods,” starring Tessa Thompson; “Buffalo Soldiers: A Quest for Freedom,” directed by The Isabelle Brothers; and “Rafiki,” directed by Wanuri Kahiu.

“There is diverse storytelling within our people,” Babu said, adding that the high quality of these films will keep distributors coming back for more of the same.

Babu said he expects “Amazing Grace” to not only tell a unique story about spirituality and music, but also to keep the legacy of the “Queen of Soul” alive.

“People would say when you listen to Aretha, you can hear all the way back to the ancestors in Africa,” Babu said. “To bring her manifestation back one more time through film is an honor and a privilege.”

For more information, visit the festival’s website at www.paff.org.

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