Ex-Slave's Voice Amplified in SF State Film Premiering at SF Black Film Festival

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Graphic illustration of Abina Mansah saying Freedom!

Young, enslaved, African, female and poor, Abina Mansah was the type of person rarely studied in history class. More than 150 years later, SF State has transformed her true story into an award-winning illustrated book, animated documentary and app used in classrooms nationwide. The film Abina and the Important Men makes its world premiere at the San Francisco Black Film Festival on June 16 at the de Young Museum.

“This campuswide animated project closely reflects the values at the heart of San Francisco State as a university,” says History Professor and Chair Trevor Getz, the book’s author. “It is a story about the courage to speak truth to power and about the struggle for justice and equity.”

Produced by SF State’s Documentary Film Institute, Abina and the Important Men is a dramatization of the brave and incredible testimony of a young woman who took her enslavers to court in 19th-century West Africa.

Faculty and staff from the School of Theatre & Dance, School of Cinema and History Department are all involved in the film’s production. The voice cast includes Art major Toni Harry, Africana Studies major Richard Polote and Drama major Kirk Cunningham, Professors Dee Spencer and Rhonnie Washington and staff members Michael Behrens and Muata Kenyatta. The Documentary Film Institute’s Soumyaa Behrens directed the film with lead animation by Master of Fine Arts candidate Daewon Kim.

Soumyaa Behrens discovered Harry when teaching a Cinema class, offering the then freshman the lead role of Abina even though she had no acting experience.

“I really appreciated the story. It is really inspirational for me as a black woman, relating to the history,” says Harry, now entering her senior year. “It hit home for me.”

The book, published by Oxford University Press, won the Africana Children’s Book Award and the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson Prize. It has sold more than 50,000 copies and is used in more than 300 colleges and universities, including Harvard.The educational app is offered by eBuukuu.com and available on Android and Apple devices and the ActivelyLearn platform.

Abina and the Important Men screens at the San Francisco Black Film Festival at 6pm June 16 at the deYoung Museum. A Q&A will follow the screening. Admission is free.

The 20th San Francisco Black Film Festival takes place June 15 – June 18 at several venues. It celebrates African American cinema and the African cultural diaspora, presenting works that reinforce positive images, dispel negative stereotypes and provide film artists from the Bay Area and beyond a forum for their work to be viewed and discussed.

— Matt Itelson


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