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Your guide to 4 films unspooling at National Black Arts Festival

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

“Besouro” is a heady telling of a distinctly Brazilian legend, but the South American action film doesn’t stop there for cinematic kicks, both literal and figurative.

The opener and highlight of the National Black Arts Festival’s movie slate, it also features gravity-defying martial arts straight out of the China-set smash “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and even some taking-it-to-the-Man-style revenge from 1970s American blacksploitation films.

The film, which showed at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and screens here Thursday, is set in 1920s at a Bahia sugarcane plantation — unchanged despite slavery’s abolition four decades earlier.

Starting as a boy, the hero of the title learns capoeira – a discipline of acrobatic movement and fighting – from Master Alipio. Later, the revered teacher is murdered on orders of Col. Venancio, the scruffy plantation owner who fears the seeding of rebellion.

Besouro (chiseled capoeira ace Ailton Carmo) plots revenge from a jungle refuge, a place of magic where he is given powers of flight and virtual invincibility by the goddess Orixa. The scenes of magical realism in which he transforms into a flying beetle and frog elevates amid the storytelling’s more conventional turns.

Our hero sets the sugarcane fields ablaze and KOs the factory grinding wheel. He even finds time to seduce his love Dinora, on his way to the inevitable showdown. The fight choreography by Hong Kong vet Huen Chiu Ku (“Matrix,” “Kill Bill’) is graceful.

“Besouro’s” punch is nonetheless powerful, even if it’s clear all along just who will prevail.

Noon Thursday, Woodruff Arts Center.

“Soundtrack for a Revolution”

“It was the music that created a sense of solidarity,” says John Lewis, interviewed in the civil rights documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.” “Even after we were thrown in jail, someone would sing a song.”

“Soundtrack” aims to tell the story of the movement through the freedom songs for which protesters raised their voice during marches, organizing meetings, church services and, yes, in jail. But the film spends so much time in a CliffsNotes retelling of the Birmingham bus boycott, Montgomery fire hoses and Selma police nightstick poundings that it meanders away often from its central thread of song.

Still, it’s a fine primer for middle and high school students who mainly know of the movement through text books. The familiar footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and the growing nonviolent army that carried the cause moves, and the expected talking heads (including Lewis, Julian Bond and Andrew Young) are utterly inspirational.

Though there’s not much historic footage of the movement’s great songbook, some of the legends break out into a cappella during interviews. One of the film’s sweeter moments finds Dorothy Cotton intoning a verse of “Wade in the Water” before the film cuts to Atlanta singer Angie Stone absolutely tearing up the song.

Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean and the Roots appear as well, providing a lesson for the iPod generation that the movement’s music remains soul-stirring some 40 years on.

6 p.m. Friday, Rialto Center for the Arts.

“Ghetto Ballet”

“Ghetto Ballet,” a family-friendly documentary from HBO, follows hopefuls from outside Cape Town, South Africa, as they prepare for the annual Dance for All audition — and a hoped-for ticket out of poverty.

6 p.m. Saturday (reception 5 p.m.), Rialto Center for the Arts.

“41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers”

Across the country, Martin Luther King’s message of nonviolence only went so far with certain members of the Black Power movement, as detailed in “41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers.” The SoCal Black Panthers were ready, willing and able to fight the power. Filmmaker Gregory Everett, the son of a Panther, delivers some unblinking goods.

Atlanta audiences may take exception to the way an early discussion of the migration of Southern blacks fleeing racism to southern California is illustrated, in extreme heavy-handed fashion, by screen-filling visuals of African-American hangings.

7:30 (followed by panel discussion) and 11 p.m. Saturday, Rialto Center for the Arts.

FILM PREVIEW

National Black Arts Festival

Tickets, $12 (except “Ghetto Ballet,” free). 404-733-5000, www.nbaf.org .

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