REELYDOPE Recap: San Francisco International Film Festival 2017

Greetings y’all. This year was my first foray into the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM), the longest-running film festival in the U.S., which showed flicks day and night for a couple weeks last month. I used to cover the Seattle International Film Festival back in the day so I’m not a complete newbie, but can we talk about how daunting film festivals are for a sec? The way my life is set up, there’s just not enough time to see it all (full-time job, aspiring comedian, producer, writer, taker of naps), but a lot of desire to see it all. I do too much. This recap is barely making our press deadline! But that’s another story for another day.

I recommend all three films I managed to get a good seat for (not in one sitting). One rom-com, and two documentaries.

The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars in THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, screening at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 5-19, 2017.
Photo courtesy of The San Francisco International Film Festival.

Fans of Jessica Williams aka Miss J Willy in real life (The Daily Show, 2 Dope Queens) will certainly applaud the 85 minutes spent on this rom-com. At the film’s SFIFF premiere, director Jim Strouse revealed that it was specifically written with Williams in mind.

Jessica James (Williams) is a present-day NYC millennial trying to make it as a playwright while teaching at-risk youth the magic of theatre to pay the bills. She’s also navigating a recent breakup with Damon (cutie Lakeith Stanfield). This is evidenced on a Tinder date in an early scene with a guy whose proposition was, “wanna bone?” They ultimately did not. In that moment, the theatre nerd and online dater in me already loved this film.

An actress friend later sets her up on a blind date with newly-divorced Boone (an affable Chris O’Dowd). After a painfully awkward first date, they develop a conveniently believable rebound relationship. Who else can relate? A milestone where they agree to unfollow their respective exes on Instagram feels like something you’d read in the next Modern Love. Williams shines as a leading lady; she’s beautiful, hilarious, witty and immensely enjoyable as the quirky James. Her opening dance is worth the watch alone.

Jessica James is delightful with Willimas at the helm, but it is often in danger of feeling less like a story about Jessica the hilarious fictional character, and more like a few weeks in Williams’ hilarious real life. This rings true when she tells Boone, “Of course you like me! Everyone does. I’m friggin’ dope!”  Williams’ fans might begin to wonder if she actually wrote the film.

Fans of Netflix’s Master of None, Issa Rae and HBO’s Insecure, or even indie darling Frances Ha would enjoy this film, and newcomers to Williams as an actress will undoubtedly want to see her in more. The Incredible Jessica James is set to air on Netflix this month, and I could easily see a series being created for Williams (or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking).

Defender

A scene from Jeff Adachi and Jim Choi's DEFENDER, playing at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 5 - 19, 2017.
Photo courtesy of The San Francisco International Film Festival.

This local documentary co-directed by Jeff Adachi and Jim Choi made its world premiere at an SFFILM public screening last month. It follows Jeff Adachi, a San Francisco Public Defender, in his defense of Michael Smith. Smith is a young black man who, along with his then-pregnant girlfriend, was pulled off a BART train at Embarcadero Station and tackled to the ground by police officers. The entire incident was captured on the officers’ body cameras, although cell phone footage of the scene aired on the news. Smith was accused of battery and resisting arrest, but the officers never tell him why they pulled him to ground in the first place, or the reason for his arrest. We learn that a white man reported he had a weapon to BART police.

Adachi maintains Smith’s treatment and arrest were racially motivated as he sets out to prove our criminal justice system is rife with racial bias, and more specifically – black-crime bias – a stereotype that black people are more likely to commit crimes and possess weapons. In watching this film, it is impossible not to recall the case of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by BART police at Fruitvale Station in 2009, whose story was made into a film by the same name. These parallels play a part in the film too, to Adachi’s detriment: he says he was not allowed to say Oscar Grant’s name or Black Lives Matter in the courtroom during Smith’s defense. Adachi describes the judge who disallowed the language as a fire-breathing dragon and stressed that proving racial bias in one the country’s most liberal cities remains difficult.

Shot in cinéma vérité, we follow Adachi on the car ride with Smith on the way to his hearing, working at his office in City Hall, running into an old client at the gym, and even to his home in a scene with an apathetic teenage daughter. Adachi is one of few publicly elected public defenders, and Defender highlights the history and challenges facing the job. He also discusses his own motivations for becoming an activist, tracing his family’s history of internment during World War II. Defender is ultimately an inside look at the life of a public defender attempting criminal justice reform with every case. 

The second half of the film follows Adachi’s battle for funding to allow the Public Defender’s office to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings in the “sanctuary city” of San Francisco. As of March, his office was authorized to hire three new attorneys and a paralegal. Adachi said these new positions would help to represent about 200 to 250 immigrants each year.

Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

The world premiere secret screening of this documentary by renaissance director John Ridley also aired at SFFILM. April 2017 marked the 25th Anniversary of the LA Riots, and a slew of docs are coming out, or have come out already, on the topic.  An oral history that begins in the city and year I was born – Los Angeles, California, 1982 – Fall recounts the decade leading up to the incendiary day the Rodney King verdict was announced – April 29, 1992. Four white police officers were acquitted of beating King severely during a traffic stop. To this day, the footage is difficult to watch. My immediate family moved to the exurbs of Southern California for a better life about a year before the King verdict, but our extended family still lived in LA at the time. It’s fuzzy, but I recall my mother watching the news that evening and being upset. I was 9 years old.

Interviews with a diverse range of individuals and communities are given room to share personal stories about their involvement in the events that led to the powder keg that night in Fall. Spoiler: it wasn’t just the King verdict. The LAPD was run like a paramilitary organization, helmed by a racist, prideful police chief. The force condoned the use of deadly chokeholds and excessive force to subdue what they perceived as superhumans believed to be high on PCP (see: black people). There was also the death of Karen Toshima, an innocent bystander caught in gang crossfire. And Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old accused of stealing juice before she was fatally shot in the back of the head by a Korean shop owner.

The theatrical version of Let It Fall runs 2 hrs and 30 minutes (ABC aired an 88 minute version), but it could have been another O.J. Made in America mini-series, length-wise. You simply want to hear more from the people on the screen (which Ridley himself never appears), especially after the revelation of how they all come into play. For something that happened 25 years ago, Fall is reminiscent of more recent events in America and the racial tensions still plaguing our communities. However, the film excels in creating a robust narrative about the myriad of events leading up to the riots, or the “uprising” as Ridley calls it, and shows the viewer that Rodney King was just a piece of the puzzle.


Maia Jannele tells people she’s a writer, thinker and funny lady, in no particular order. A “retired” arts blogger, she now prefers Twitter for live commentary on everything from operas to Insecure. She’s currently easing into standup comedy. Twitter