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‘Kunta Kinteh Island’ film tour begins in New Orleans

4th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

An international heritage tour featuring the new film “Kunta Kinteh Island” premiered at Loyola University New Orleans’ Nunemaker Hall on Monday night.

The film, which received a standing ovation at Monday’s screening, was directed by Hahnville native Elvin Ross. Ross, a composer with credits on films like Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea Goes to Jail, makes his directing debut with this film tracing the life of Kunta Kinteh. Kinteh was first introduced to Americans via Alex Haley’s book Roots and the blockbuster 1977 miniseries of the same name.

“Kunta Kinteh Island” includes interviews with surviving descendants of Kinteh still living in the village of Juffereh in Gambia, as well as footage of the ceremony renaming James Island “Kunta Kinteh Island.” Kinteh was imprisoned on James Island before his arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Surrounding the interviews is a fictional frame story of a grandfather (played by Ben Vereen, who portrayed Chicken George in “Roots”) telling the story of Kinteh to his grandson. Vereen said that the Internet era has provided an information overload for children. Because of the glut of available information, it is all too easy for children to be unaware of Kinteh. Keeping the story alive for future generations of African-Americans is as critical as keeping the narrative of the Holocaust alive for Jewish Americans. “If you don’t remember where you come from, you’re apt to repeat your mistakes,” Vereen said.

Ross feels the Kinteh narrative has eluded young African-Americans because the media favors coverage of celebrities like Chris Brown and Lil Wayne instead of positive role models. “The media celebrates sin,” Ross said.

Ross, who has a five-year-old son and a nine-year-old son, inserted the frame story of the grandson into the film in an effort to make it more accessible to children. He also created a curriculum companion to the film to help students learn more about Kinteh at both the secondary and university levels. For smaller children, Ross is working on a children’s book companion to the film.

Monday’s screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring Ross, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, actor Nicoye Banks, and businessman Winston Burns. After the discussion, there was a Q&A session with the audience.

After Monday’s premiere at Loyola, Tuesday screenings took place at St. Augustine High School and the Audubon Tea Room. At the Audubon Tea Room screening, a humanitarian award was presented to Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson by National Urban League CEO and President Marc Morial.

While Ross wants to continue showing the film at universities, he doesn’t want his work to end with the movie itself. When visiting Gambia to interview Kinteh’s relatives, something he called a life-changing experience, he was struck with how many basic needs like running water and electricity they were lacking. Ross formed the Elvin Ross Foundation to help the Kinteh family receive the necessities that Americans take for granted.

In addition, Ross wanted to help the children of the village of Juffereh. He was impressed by how intelligent many of the children were despite their circumstances. Many spoke multiple languages at a young age. The foundation will help provide the Albreda Juffereh Primary School with books, supplies, and solar-powered laptops to connect the children with the rest of the world.

“We want to build better lives one village at a time,” Ross said.

This article originally published in the March 4, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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