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New film explores ‘The Black Candle’ for Kwanzaa

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by Pamela D. Reed, Daily Voice

It is not often that the offspring of famous, highly accomplished parents are able to reach a point beyond the long shadows of their elders, but M. K. Asante, Jr.,  the son of the famed scholars Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh–both my professors at Temple University– has done just that with his most recent cinematic tour de force.

The Black Candle: A Kwanzaa Celebration is the groundbreaking, major new independent documentary narrated by Maya Angelou. It is the first full-length film on the Pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa; and, I suspect that it will be the definitive one for the foreseeable future.

Kwanzaa is celebrated annually from 26 December through 1 January.  Because of this timing, many mistakenly think that it is just an Africanized version of Christmas.

Kwanzaa is not Black Christmas

But, as the film makes clear, the concept of Kwanzaa, which is Swahili for “first fruits,” has nothing to do with Christmas.  It is a non-religious holiday based on the first fruits celebrations that date back to Nubia in North Africa, ancient Egypt.  And they continue up to now across the continent.

Much has been written about it, but given the immediacy and accessibility of the film genre, The Black Candle will make Kwanzaa that much more accessible to the masses of the African Diaspora.

To be sure, anyone wanting to know more about Kwanzaa should not even think of not viewing this film.

For it is a beautiful, sweeping production, from its opening scene with the foam of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, of Middle Passage infamy, washing over the African shore–and the senses–setting the scene for the gripping journey ahead–from Europe, to the Caribbean, to the Americas, to Canada, and beyond.

Although Kwanzaa, the world’s fastest growing holiday, is now celebrated around the world by over 40 million people of African descent, many, including some celebrants, do not grasp its full meaning–or the context out of which the week-long communitarian observance arose.

From Us to the World

Asante, Jr. takes us from the birth of Kwanzaa in 1966 in founder Maulana Karenga’s Organization Us–during the African American cultural eruption called the Black Power and Black Arts Movements of the 1960’s–to the point of the United States Postal Service issuing a Kwanzaa commemorative stamp in 1998, up and through the present.

And with all the profound images of the beautiful Black children–from beige to blue black–engaged in the celebrations, from Paris, to Philadelphia, to Chicago, to South Central L.A.,  one can’t help but look to our future, with hope, as the film meanders mightily through the Nguzo Sabo, The Seven Principles upon which Kwanzaa is based.

Indeed, each chapter of The Black Candle demonstrates one of the principles in action:  Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility),Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and last but not least, Imani (Faith).

With its all-star line-up of scholars and artists, coupled with the voices of activists–like Philadelphia’s Maisha Ongoza, one of the foremost experts on the subject–and “around-the-way” folk, I think it will be a mainstay of the season from now on.

Young and old will relate to the wide range of perspectives, ranging from hip artists Chuck D., and Dead Prez, to scholars Drs. Maulana Karenga, Kariamu Welsh, and the Sr. Asante, to artists like Baba Chuck Davis, creator of DanceAfrica, Synthia Saint James, creator of the Kwanzaa stamp, and Black Arts poetic legend, Amiri Baraka, to NFL legend and activist Jim Brown.

A Celebration of Creativity

And the music.

The music is at the same time mesmerizing and moving.   From the African drums, to the hip hop rhythms of Public Enemy and Arrested Development, to Dead Prez.

Grammy-nominated jazz legend Nnenna Freelon turns in a gut-wrenching performance of James Weldon Johnson’s Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which Asante meshes with gospel legend Shirley Caesar’s unforgettable rendition.  It is something special to see and to hear.  And all must hear Freelon’s jazzy, bluesy vocal rendition of Langston Hughes’ classic poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Really, all that is missing is a soundtrack.  And with The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP) legend Kenny Gamble as executive producer, could this be far off?

Lifting Up the Light

But what of the candles, particularly the black candle?

The viewer learns that the black candle is one of the Mishumaa Saba, Swahili for “seven candles” of the celebration, the others being red and green, three of each.  The red represents the struggle, and green is for the hope for the future, which drives the struggle.

And the black candle. .. It stands tall and centered–like the Black people who understand and celebrate Kwanzaa– in the kinara (candle holder).

As Karenga writes in the seminal work on the subject, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, the lighting of the candles “can be seen as …lifting up the light that lasts, i.e. the ancient and enduring moral and spiritual principles of the ancestors.”

When all is said and done, The Black Candle–and Kwanzaa–is all about African and African-descended peoples of the world celebrating our African past and shaping our present-day existence–and our future–based on the best that is Africa, the Motherland.

As poet and narrator Maya Angelou says, “It is a celebration of a people.”

And I strongly believe that people need to see it–especially Black people–which can be done in one of two ways.  There are local screening being held around the country, featuring Asante, and the film is available for purchase at

I predict that viewing The Black Candle will become an annual family tradition in homes around the globe.  Already, I am planning to screen it during my Kwanzaa karamu (feast) on New Year’s Eve–on the cusp of the principles for creativity and faith.

Kwanzaa in the White House?

Along these same lines, it was thrilling to hear President-Elect Barack Obama’s social secretary-designate Desiree Rogers hint that there will be Kwanzaa celebrations in the Presidential mansion.

Wouldn’t it be something if The Black Candle should be screened in the White House, which was built by enslaved Africans–and which will soon be inhabited, against all odds, by a Black First Family?

Talk about coming full circle.  And of the power of Imani–faith.

Written by Symphony

December 16, 2008 at 7:12 am

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