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Documentaries

Documentary highlights from this year’s Roxbury International Film Festival

‘Exposure,’ ‘Ubuntu,’ ‘Fighting for Respect: African American Soldiers in WWI,’ and ‘It’s Different in Chicago’ are among the films screening this year, some of them in person and some online

A still from David Weathersby’s "It's Different in Chicago."City Vanguard/David Weathersby

From the Arctic to South Africa and a stop in Chicago, the eclectic and wide-ranging documentaries in this year’s Roxbury International Film Festival (June 23-July 2) celebrate stories about people of color.

Holly Morris and an all-female film crew trek to the frozen North for “Exposure” (2021), an account of a 2018 skiing expedition to the North Pole by a diverse team of women. Some of the participants, like Misba Khan, a jovial Pakistani-British mother and Muslim chaplain, have zero experience in such endeavors; but her compassion and sense of humor prove a key to the mission’s success.

And they need all the breaks they can get. Polar bears roam the snowscapes (luckily a member of the team is a crack shot), hidden fissures lace the ice sheets, temperatures of minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit threaten frostbite and hypothermia, and nagging self-doubts linger as they pursue their goal of reaching the pole before the spring thaw. Their achievement is a credit to their solidarity and spirit; and given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the ongoing toll of climate change, it is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

“Exposure” screens June 29 at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre (along with the short “Mardi & the Whites”) and includes a live Q&A with the filmmakers.

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The title of Adam Pertofsky’s “Ubuntu” (2022) means “humanity,” a word that sums up the spirit of the Mamas of Cape Town the film celebrates. They are the Black women who during the period of apartheid in South Africa organized day care centers, schools, and other facilities for children who were orphaned or left on their own by parents who had to work. The state did nothing for these children but instead imposed restrictions worsening their situation, and only the volunteer Mamas, despite their own poverty, offered any hope or assistance. The Mamas persevered in their service to humanity undaunted.

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“Ubuntu” screens June 25 at 11:30 a.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts preceded by the short films “Soul Intact” and “The Panola Project.”

A still from "Fighting for Respect: African American Soldiers in WWI." Artmattan Films

As seen in Joanne Burke’s solidly researched “Fighting for Respect: African American Soldiers in WWI” (2021), 200,000 Black patriots who had answered President Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy left their segregated homeland for the trench warfare in France.

US Army leadership didn’t want Black soldiers to mix with white troops. But 40,000 were attached to French frontline units, earning the admiration and gratitude of the French military and people.

Once back home, Black veterans proved unwilling to put up with the usual injustices and drew on their military training to resist oppression. This newfound assertiveness helped forward the cause of civil rights but also stirred a bloody backlash. The “Red Summer” of 1919 saw a grotesque upsurge in lynchings and racist violence, reaching a crescendo in 1921 with the looting and burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., by white vigilantes.

“Fighting for Respect: African American Soldiers in WWI” can be streamed from 10 a.m. June 27 to 10 a.m. on July 2 with the shorts “Strike for Freedom” (2020) and “When I Get Grown — Reflections of a Freedom Rider” (2022) and a prerecorded Q&A (participants TBA).

The battles in David Weathersby’s “It’s Different in Chicago” (2021) are waged mostly on the field of musical taste between aficionados and practitioners of house music (which originated in Chicago) and of hip-hop. Some of those who embrace hip-hop reject house because they associate it with disco and gay culture. House fans resent the ascendency of rap music. In short, you loved one or the other and the preference was often determined, as Weathersby explains in a Chicago Sun-Times interview, by “the culture around the music, whether it was sexuality, gender, and whatever neighborhood you lived in.”

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And then there are those who find in both genres a vibrant art form that speaks to and empowers the Black community. Weathersby interviews spokespeople from all sides, includes a generous helping of both genres of music, and concludes that the differences between the two aren’t irreconcilable but complementary.

“It’s Different in Chicago” can be streamed with the short “Soul Intact” (2021) and a prerecorded Q&A (participants TBA) from 10 a.m. June 27 to 10 a.m. July 2.

Go to www.roxfilmfest.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.