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Film speaks to slavery's bitter legacy

S. Pearl Sharp laughs before the questioner even finishes: What about African-Americans who've gotten the good education, good job and have no connection to slavery and . . .

"That famous phrase, 'Why don't we just move on?' " she says.

Sharp's film "The Healing Passage: Voices From the Water," which she'll screen here Friday night, abandons the economic and legalistic analyses and provides the answer to that question in a language everyone can feel: art.

It's an answer as important for Buffalo -- too often riven by black-on-black crime and white-on-black indifference -- as for any city in the nation.

The answer comes, perhaps most clearly, near the end of the 90-minute documentary, when Sharp uses one of her poems to speak to "undressed divas dancing on the graves of your great-grandmothers, without understanding the cost of the casket."

It would be hard for any young African-American to watch the stereotypical music video after contemplating that line. More important, it would be hard for any African-American to produce one.

That's the power of art -- to make the connections that others try to obliterate, and to educate and elevate in the process. It's an education both blacks and whites can use in an era in which we resort to the simplistic "get over it" without understanding what "it" is.

"It's a process to help people begin to think," Sharp said of the film. "And art can do that; that's the function of art."

With black community leaders demanding an end to the killing, and last week's court verdicts stemming from racial confrontations in the Lovejoy neighborhood of Buffalo, Sharp -- a Los Angeles author, poet, actress and National Public Radio commentator -- couldn't have come at a more appropriate time.

The documentary addresses such lingering vestiges of slavery through the works of poets, sculptors, musicians, film makers, African doll makers and others. It grew out of Sharp's interest in Riua Akinshegun's interactive installation on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, "The Most Mutinous Leapt Overboard."

In the film, Akinshegun recalls asking participants at one exhibit if they lost anyone during the Middle Passage. All initially said no. But after some exploration, one woman began pointing to everyone in the room as people she had "lost."

It's impossible to watch that without thinking of the residual impact of having families ripped apart back then -- and the criticism today that blacks won't come together and won't trust one another. It puts into perspective the lament that African-Americans constitute a nearly $700 billion economy, but recirculate little of that money among themselves.

The documentary is full of such moments, tapping the emotions to make connections between then and now in ways cerebral arguments often can't.

Nonblacks may get as much as blacks from the free screening at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Canisius College's Student Center, or the free workshops Sharp will present Saturday at 2 p.m. in the student center and at 6:30 p.m. in the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. In fact, a descendent of slave traders talks in the film about the legacy white Americans have inherited. Sharp hopes the documentary will "reshape their thinking a little bit."

For some, that's a tall order. But Sharp recounts a screening in Boston, after which an Asian-American approached to confess that she had never liked African-Americans. But after seeing the documentary, she had a new appreciation of what the race had endured and a better understanding of the implications.

"So little healings begin to happen," Sharp said, alluding to the film's title.

Canisius and its co-sponsors have brought her to the right place.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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