J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: An American Ascent

Whether you call it Mount McKinley or Denali, it still lacks the sort of mystique that surrounds Everest or K2, despite its status as the highest point in North America. However, real mountaineers respect anyone who makes a credible attempt at it. Unlike other storied peaks, Denali campaigns cannot rely on Sherpas to do all the heavy lifting. Those attacking it have to earn every step they take. It is therefore a fitting site for the expedition documented in Andrew Adkins & George Potter’s An American Ascent (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

On the 100th anniversary of Mount McKinley’s first summiting (we will use both names interchangeably out of respect for our friends in Ohio and Alaska), a party of nine African American climbers set out to repeat the feat. Aside from the obvious lure of adventure and Denali’s general being there, they also wanted to make a statement. There were frustrated many outdoors sporting and recreational activities were considered “white” things to do. In the long run, many fear support for environmental advocacy will waiver in the African American community, but in the short run, they hope to provide an example for younger, urban school children to consider national parks like Denali part of their heritage as well.

There is a bit of soap-boxing on these issues, but the daily drama of their campaign properly dominates the film. Adkins & Potter nicely establish the personalities of the individual climbers and capture some intense moments. Anyone who has seen any of the recent mountaineering docs (and there have been some good ones) knows you should not consider summiting the determination of success or failure. Nonetheless, there is a fair degree of suspense surrounding this question in Ascent.

Ascent combines a compelling story with good intentions, but it is bizarrely shy when it comes to capitalizing on the stunning vistas visible from Denali. Obviously, such shots look great on-screen, but they also heighten our sense of place. In this respect, Meru, K2, Beyond the Edge, and The Summit are all superior films.

Still, Ascent has its considerable merits, including taking the time to acknowledge trail-blazing African American alpinist Charles Crenchaw. It is solid mountaineering doc, but a bit on the short side at just under seventy minutes, so it is proceeded by the notable short film, King of Guangzhou about a Nigerian migrant worker trying to extend his stay in China. Recommended for outdoors sporting enthusiasts, An American Ascent screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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