The Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF) is a twenty-one year old celebration of independent black filmmaking. Held February 7-18th, the festival is the creation of award-winning actors Danny Glover, Janet Dubois (Good Times) and film enthusiast and activist, Ayuko Babu. The two visionaries created a non-profit corporation dedicated to the advancement of cultural diversity and education through the exhibition of positive and realistic media images.

The festival is a citywide production held in the predominately African American area of Los Angeles known as Baldwin Hills. Like any large-scale film festivals, PAFF begins with a prize-winning opening film, including a bustling red carpet, special guests who are dressed-to-impress and an open reception where the brightest impressionists of Hollywood independent filmmaking take notice of rising stars. Actress Sally Richardson-Whitfield, whose beauty graced the red carpet with husband Dondre Whitfield (Middle of Nowhere), arrived to serve as MC of the festival’s opening night.

This year’s opening film was “Vipaka,” starring Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Sanaa Lathan, Nicole Ari Parker and Mike Epps. Directed by Phillippe Caland, “Vipaka” is a hoodoo suspense thriller that delivers a message of redemption and revenge amongst two brothers and a stranger’s tortured soul. Whitaker stars as Angel Sanchez, a divorced father searching for peace beyond his mother’s sudden death. He is led and consequently misled by therapist Thomas Carter (Mackie) who lives with a dangerous secret that he had chosen to bury along with his fraternal relationship with his brother (Mike Epps). The film takes an unpredictable twist in the storyline leaving a questionable ending for the viewers who must build their own resolution. With all Hollywood premiers, a reception follows the invitation-only event screening. For attendees of the PAFF, this one included a soul food buffet, with a special focus on the cuisine of New Orleans. It was a salute to Mardi Gras, including a live band and open bar for guests.

This year, a special connection was made between two of black Hollywood’s long-standing organizations, the Pan-African Film Festival and the African-America Film Critics Association. The two groups that are known by many budding filmmakers of the west coast collaborated for one unique awards show experience on the second night of the PAFF. Guests convened at the Taglyn Complex in Hollywood to celebrate this year’s best in film award recipients. Among the who’s who of the big screen in attendance at this year’s event: Danny Glover, Reginald Hudlin, Omari Hardwick, Jordin Sparks, Nate Parker, Holly Robinson Peete, Sheryl Lee Ralph, R&B artist Kem and a host of film executives, cast and crew members. A special guest sat among the group, Emmy-Award winning actress Lynn Whitfield, who was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. I had the honor of speaking with Whitfield a few days prior to her big night. Although she is proud of her accomplishments as an actress who introduced new generations to the glamour and femininity of Josephine Baker, Whitfield was surprised that she had been chosen for the Lifetime Achievement Award, “I felt like it was an honor that I didn’t know if I really deserved…in my mind I have all of these things I have yet to do…I decided to look at it as an amazing honor of encouragement…to push for the things that I want to do…cause really, I want to be a Producer when I grow up.”  Click here to listen to an intimate conversation with Lynn Whitfield. Whitfield, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says that the project she’s been the most proud to do is that of Josephine Baker. “To carry the message of her life the right way, and out of that…I married the Director, I have an amazing daughter, I got the Emmy, a Golden-Globe Nomination and [sort of] the respect of the entire industry,” says Whitfield.

Along with Whitfield’s honorable mentions, the night belonged to the cast and crew of “Middle of Nowhere” by Sundance Award-Winning Director, Ava Duvernay. While Duvernay was unable to attend the ceremony because of an unexpected east coast blizzard, the cast, which included David Oyelowo, Emayatzy Corinealdi and Omari Hardwick were all in attendance to accept their special recognition as cast of the Best Independent Film. Cornealdi was this year’s pick for Best Actress. Upon receiving on Duvernay’s behalf, Oyelowo expressed his thoughts on building the indie creation of art by stating, “If you want to make a film for $200,000, write characters that aren’t caricatures or stereotypes, and we will be there. We will take $100 a day.” Point taken. A special pint-sized thank you was shown by video of the recipient for Best Breakout Performance, Miss Quvenzhane’ Wallis who is preparing for her Academy Awards debut this weekend. The stage was a revolving floor of thank yous and inspirational messages for aspiring actors and those who were thankful to be recognized for their years of perseverance. One of the highlights was the energetic and fun-loving Janet Dubois, who, like her well-known character Willona in the 70’s sitcom Good Times, was outspoken in front of the audience. The seasoned actress stated, “I’m a little nervous, but I’m cute” as a way to break the ice during a moment of presentation. The Pan-African Film Festival is an 11-day production of short films, panel discussions, an art and fashion show and galas. It presents 154 films from 34 countries: 23 documentaries, 13 short documentaries, 67 narrative features, and 51 narrative shorts. Short films such as Who Do You Know? Directed by Sade Oyinade, focuses on the seriousness of AIDS in our young black communities. Oyinade, who’s current production credits include the TV One documentary show Unsung, was proud to present a much anticipated film that shines a crucial light on the lack of knowledge amongst today’s black teens when it comes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Within a short 20 minutes, a high school teen learns how one’s life can change in the blink of an eye, just by failing to ask simple questions and making one small but crucial decision. The message: It can happen to anyone. After working on a conspiracy show about AIDS for BET, Oyinade partnered with the Women Alive Coalition and used her production talent to clear up the misconceptions in the black community about the life-altering disease.

This year’s closing night included a presentation of Free Angela & All Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch and Executive Producers Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z. The evening featured a very special guest, civil rights activist and revolutionary icon, Angela Davis. The film will release exclusively at AMC locations in select markets on April 5, 2013. Here’s a rundown of the AAFCA’s top ten picks of 2012:

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