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'Harambee!' Dramatizes the Meaning of Kwanzaa

TV REVIEW

December 28, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Harambee" is the Swahili word for unity. It's also the title of a touching drama about African American cultural identity and one family's struggle to deal with neighborhood violence.

This unequivocally instructional work (which airs tonight on KCET and KOCE) aims to teach viewers about the principles surrounding Kwanzaa, the African American celebration that is observed annually between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. "Harambee!" is divided into seven sections. Though the film tells one linear story, each of its segments encompasses a different Kwanzaa tenet whether it be Kujichagulia (self-determination) or Ujamaa (cooperative economics).

The drama's rather formal construction can't help but create a certain classroom-like ambience that some might find off-putting. But for the most part, writer-director Fracaswell Hyman manages to circumvent this problem by creating very human characters who are forced to confront the all too real troubles of the inner city.

"Harambee!" is very much a tribute to the power of the African American woman. Yvonne Barnes (Brenda Pressley) is a loving mother whose husband's death has left her with the difficult task of raising her 11-year-old son JoJo (Aaron Beener) and teen-age daughter Shanora (China Jesusita Shavers) by herself. She fights valiantly to keep her kids from being consumed by the destructive gang elements that stalk the streets of her low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. Yvonne, her endearingly spunky mother Queenesther (Novella Nelson) and sister Maxine (Paula Newsome) make up the film's trio of caring women. All seem to gain great strength from one another.

But "Harambee!'s" unmistakable message is that familial love isn't enough to solve the drug and violence problems that plague many black urban communities. Faced with a largely ineffective city government and police force, a number of the law-abiding folks in Yvonne's neighborhood decide to unite at the local Kwanzaa celebration. The noble ideals surrounding the weeklong observance--from universal brotherhood to collective work and responsibility--are firmly presented in the film as ways in which to uplift African American communities. They are messages well worth heeding.

Initially, it is the bright JoJo who is the most enthusiastic member of his family when it comes to exploring these new ideas. With the help of Chimbuko (the late Howard Rollins), a former drug addict-turned-community activist, Yvonne, Queenesther and Maxine all eventually become Kwanzaa supporters.

*

There's an engaging sweetness at the heart of "Harambee!" In a way, this is very much an old-fashioned movie espousing traditional ideas about love, forgiveness, courage and perseverance. But director Hyman also has one foot firmly planted in a more complex reality. For instance, Shanora's delinquent boyfriend Flex is presented as a negative symbol; yet he's also portrayed as a product of a larger social system that's often weighted against people of color.

Call "Harambee!" a thought-provoking and educational drama for the whole family.

* "Harambee!" airs tonight at 6 on KOCE and at 7 on KCET.

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