Seu Jorge plays left-wing, Afro-Brazilian Carlos Marighella in “Marighella,” which is featured in the new virtual Afro-Latino film series beginning April 30 and ending May 3. (Courtesy Photo)

By Lenore T. Adkins
Special to the AFRO

The same New York-based couple behind the annual African Diaspora International Film Festival, is launching a virtual film series next week that shines a light on Afro-Latinos and, in some cases, their unique struggle with racism.

The Afro-Latino series features 17 films from 14 countries and Puerto Rico. Those countries are: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Mali, Mexico, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. The series is produced in collaboration with the Office of Diversity and Community Affairs at Teachers College at Columbia University. The series begins April 30 and ends May 3.

In 1993, Diarah N’Daw-Spech and her husband, Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, founded their international film festival and ArtMattan Films, the film distribution arm of their company, to educate viewers about Black people all over the world. They amplify content that captures the richness and diversity of the Black experience, while countering racist stereotypes.

The couple know the subject intimately. She is an Afro European of French and Malian descent, while he is an Afro Cuban of Jamaican and Haitian descent.

“We’ve focused on the Afro-Latino experience since we started doing the work,” N’Daw-Spech said. “But what’s interesting is today, there are many more people who are aware of the Afro-Latino experience and it’s more in the public discourse than it used to be.”

Between 1525 and 1866, Trans-Atlantic slave traders exported 12.5 million Africans to the Americas against their will to work various plantations and serve the White colonizers and settlers. Of the 10.7 million surviving the brutal Middle Passage, more than 90 percent of the enslaved wound up in the Caribbean and South America, where they often experienced harsher conditions and higher death rates than the ones who were routed to the United States.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery. Its imperial government did not abolish it until 1888. That came 23 years after the Civil War officially ended slavery in the United States.

While millions of Afro Latinos live in those parts of the world, there aren’t that many films by and for that population, which, according to N’Daw-Spech, is just one example of the racism Afro Latinos face today. Originally, the couple was set to release two Afro-Latino films this month — “Marighella” and “The Mali-Cuba Connection” in dozens of virtual theaters all over the country. They decided to produce an Afro-Latino series while they were at it to amplify those films from many different angles.

“It’s a way to give a voice to that segment of the population,” N’Daw-Spech said.

Tickets cost $7 per film or you can purchase an all-access pass for $65. Here are N’Daw-Spech’s favorite films from the lineup:

  1. Councilwoman (2019)

This documentary centers on Carmen Castillo, a first-term city councilwoman in Providence, Rhode Island who maintains her job as a hotel housekeeper because she can’t support herself in politics alone. This prompts the Dominican Republic-native to push for unions and a $15 minimum wage for the low-income workers in her ward. “The film follows her first becoming a councilmember, then she’s elected and then toward the end of the film, she has to run against people who want her seat,” N’Daw-Spech said.

  1. The Mali-Cuba Connection (2019)

Back when Mali was as a socialist country that aligned itself with the communist bloc, it fielded rich cultural exchanges with Cuba, which is still a communist country. This musical documentary begins during the Cold War when 10 musicians from Mali were sent to Cuba to study music and strengthen ties between the two countries. These musicians became the ensemble Las Maravillas de Mali, fusing Afro-Cuban music with Malian music to produce a revolutionary new sound. Decades later, a French music producer attempts to put the band back together, with varying success. 

  1. Marighella (2019)

Marighella dives into the life and times of Carlos Marighella, an Afro-Brazilian, Marxist guerilla fighter who supported violence against police officers and leaders of a military dictatorship that eroded human rights. The controversial, left-wing dissident led the most important group that fought the dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former military captain who praised the dictatorship, has slammed the film, and its premiere in the country was ultimately canceled. “Up to this day, the film has not been released in Brazil,” N’Daw-Spech said.

  1. Angélica (2016)

The title character was born in Puerto Rico to an Afro-Latino father and white Latina mother and lives in New York City where she’s trying to become fashion designer. But she returns to Puerto Rico when her father gets sick, and she’s confronted with her mother’s casual colorism. Will she sweep it under the rug or call out her mother and other racist family members?  

  1. La Playa DC (2012)

Afro-Colombian teenager Tomás faces the cruel realities of racism, poverty and being marginalized in Bogota, then takes to the rough streets after his younger brother, Jairo, disappears. He encounters many obstacles during the search, attempts to leave the past behind him and create a new identity. “It’s really a portrait of the city and of Black life in that city,” N’Daw-Spech said. “They’re almost like immigrants in their own country.”

  1. Black Mexicans (2018)

This movie is about the Afro-Mexican community. It’s filmed entirely with people from the Costa Chica region in Oaxaca and explores their encounters with racism. In one example, police pull over a woman named Magdalena and force her to sing the Mexican national anthem to prove she is indeed Mexican. “It’s humiliation after humiliation,” N’Daw-Spech said.