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The 19th Annual Pan African Film Festival's 'Gang Girl'

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By Lea Michelle Cash –

The ultimate cinematic experience in Black films was recently celebrated at the 19th Annual Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) at the Culver Plaza Theatre. In his opening welcome letter, Ayuko Babu, the film festival’s executive director reminds attendees that Black cultural institutions are in dismay and imperil.

He writes: “The African Market Place is gone, the Watts Summer Festival/Watts Stax is a shadow of its glorious self, the Black Expo has faded and Leimert Park staggers on. If we do not maintain our cultural institutions, we as a people will be spiritually, economically and culturally poor. Only with a strong, viable and dynamic culture controlled by us can we create the energy, develop the mental clarity and vitality that will continue to produce generations that will advance our interest within the context of the world. This is absolutely important because the nature of life is that we go forward, develop and die.”

I was unable to view many of the films presented at the festival this year, however, I did attend one screening, directed by a very special friend, I have had the pleasure of standing on red carpets with for nearly a decade. Her name is Valerie Goodloe. She is an award winning photojournalist and a very private person, which is why I know what to expect from this film.

Valerie along with her husband Lemonde produced and directed “Gang Girl: A Mother’s Journey to Save her Daughter”.

At the San Diego Black Film Festival, the film took top honors. The 86 minute, personal documentary about Goodloe’s touching journey to save her youngest daughter Nafeesa Toney from gang life is absolutely beautiful.

Nafessa is a splendor in the grass. The film is a straightup, heartfelt tearjerker. It explores the subculture of Black female street gangs, uniquely rendered from the perspective of a mother and her family—a very touching tribute to a mother’s love with the compelling theme of parental domination.

Nefeesa whose name in Arabic means “precious” is a member of the infamous LA Bloods Gang. Nafeesa went to a private school and was raised as a Muslim in a middle class family. Her parents divorced when she was young and from time to time, Nafeesa lived with her father.

Valerie remarried and both families struggled with coming to terms with their daughter’s gang affiliation. The film digs deep and majestically has you glued to the screen, as truth unfolds and both families insightfully and painfully displays their family dynamics, and how that dynamic can contribute to a life of violence and crime. “After watching this film I want people to walk away feeling uncomfortable. We are not focused on girls enough. There are many programs working on gangs, but they are for boys and we water it down to include girls,” said Goodloe who is also an antigang activist.

Over a period of three years, the project evolved to include Congresswoman, Maxine Waters who is Goodloe’s personal friend.

One time when Nafeesa had run away from home, and no one could find her, after shooting pictures at a black-tie event for Waters, the congresswoman asked: “Valerie how is the family and kids? “

Valerie tells Waters that Nafeesa is missing and has run away. The following day, the congresswoman loads up a truck with food and turkeys. She and Valerie go into gang infested LA areas, doing a food giveaway and knocked on doors to find information on Nafeesa’s whereabouts.

Former police chief Bernard Parks, whose own granddaughter was killed by gang violence in 2000, is also involved in the film. There are thousands and thousands of street gangs in California with hundreds of members.

Many female gang members were interviewed in the film and present for questions after the documentary screening. Several had tears in their eyes as their lives unfolded on the big screen. However, what was particularly very compelling in the film is Nafeesa herself, and the conflict that she has towards being loyal to her birth family and gang family as well. She loves them both. She also has conflicts about her sense of self, being strictly raised Muslim, and her sexual orientation.

Her mother would not let her go, and was determined to get answers on how her daughter ended up on a path of gang life.

The drama unveils up-close and the impact of gang activities and its negative societal impacts. I could not stop crying.

The documentary is really moving on multiple levels.

“I did not come to make this film as a film maker, producer, executive producer, or anything like that. Those things just all of a sudden kind of happened. And finding funding and loyal people who believed in this project was difficult,” said Goodloe.

“I hope that this film will help all parents understand how the gang life is taking our loving and promising children, and we can come to terms with ways to address it and take our children back.”

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