Pan-African Film Festival: The disappearing Black farmers of America
For anyone interested in all the details of Black-owned farms, this is the movie for them.

The 32nd Pan African Film & Arts Festival, America’s largest Black-themed filmfest, took place Feb. 7 – Feb. 19 in Los Angeles. During Black History Month, PAFF annually screens movies ranging from Hollywood studio productions to indies, foreign films, documentaries, low budget productions, shorts, etc. Films span the spectrum from Oscar nominees to hard-to-find gems from Africa, the Caribbean, America, and beyond that L.A. viewers are unlikely to be able to see at any other venue. People’s World culture correspondent Ed Rampell reviews just a few of the films audiences had an opportunity to see this year. 

Co-executive produced by TV weatherman Al Roker and Eternal Polk, Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land provides an in-depth look at African Americans and agriculture, from urban gardens to family farms and beyond.

The Polk-directed documentary’s cast of commentators includes row crop farmers, academics, landowners, attorneys, and more who have direct ties to tilling the soil and feeding us. Ground includes some refreshing perspectives and astonishing facts.

We have been conditioned to think that Black people provided the brawn to work on America’s plantations, but author/screenwriter Natalie Baszile, who has written for the Queen Sugar TV series directed by Ava DuVernay, asserts that Black Africans were enslaved and brought here to work the land because of their brains, filled with agricultural knowhow.

Row crop farmer Phillip Haynie III of Virginia’s legacy Hayne Farms and chairman of the board of the National Black Growers Council is a fount of fascinating stats. In 1920, there were one million Black farmers (who presumably owned land), but today, there are only 10,000. In 75 years, the number of acres owned by Black Americans dropped from 16 million to 2 million. The loss of generational wealth is calculated to be more than a third-of-a-trillion dollars for Black America.

What accounts for this dramatic decline? According to some of Ground’s interview subjects, including Shirley Sherrod (whose husband, Charles Sherrod, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer and Civil Rights hero, who is glimpsed in archival footage), racism by white supremacists and government bureaucracies are among the culprits.

One interviewee asserts that prominent African Americans such as successful farmers were more likely to be lynched than Black men accused of acting “inappropriately” towards white women, as a way of keeping the you-know-who down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, too, is criticized for double standards and practices biased against farmers of color, which resulted in class action lawsuits and more. Heirs’ Property is also one of the perpetrators this doc points at.

Gaining Ground is an award-winning, exhaustive chronicle of the history, plight, and current circumstances of Black farmers—to be sure, this is an important topic, which Raoul Peck also tackled in his latest documentary, Silver Dollar Road. But this lengthy film could have been titled Everything You Want to Know About Black Farmers (But Were Afraid to Ask), and those not particularly interested in the topic are likely to find this nonfiction film to be exhausting.

Polk seems like one of those directors who never heard of the word “Cut!”, as the same talking heads repetitively reappear to make the same or similar points, over and over again, and it becomes boring. For the general public, Ground grinds on and on, and this nonfiction film could stand to lose footage. A Dede Allen-like skilled editor should cut this 96-minute extravaganza down to about 45 minutes or so for the layman. Sometimes less is more.

A production of Al Roker Entertainment (the meteorologist has produced 40-plus movies—who knew?) and John Deere, the ag machinery manufacturer, have co-made what feels like a made-to-order, commissioned industrial film (albeit about an agricultural subject!) that doesn’t have any of the poetic grandeur of the Depression era, New Deal-produced 1936 and 1938 black and white classics helmed by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River.

On the other hand, anyone who is really interested in the issue of African Americans and agriculture will find Ground to be a thorough, essential primer on a subject which, as an interviewee states, is threatened with becoming extinct. Citing one of the film’s startling facts, Phillip Haynie III notes there are more bald eagles—a species threatened with extinction—than Black farmers owning 1,000 or more acres of land in the USA.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.