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'Strange Fruit' launches film series


Tonight, the Maryland Film Festival and the Walters Art Museum kick off their Black History Month Film Series with the documentary Strange Fruit, Joel Katz's stirring exploration of a late-1930s song with a back story as potent as its angry sardonic poetry. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit," begins this soul-haunting depiction of lynching, "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root ... "

The song's most celebrated interpreter, Baltimore-bred Billie Holiday, took credit for creating it. And she did "make it her own" with her tense, slow-burning lyricism.

But the actual writer and composer was a progressive Jewish teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. This prolific topical songsmith, Abel Meeropol, took credit under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan." Lewis and Allan were the names of Meeropol's stillborn sons. Later, Meeropol and his wife adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed amid worldwide controversy for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Katz gives equal weight to Holiday's performance and Meeropol's feat of empathy - to the history of black artists and to the legacy of socially conscious Jewish entertainers who came of age during the Depression. Without diluting either tradition, Strange Fruit illustrates that when our melting pot is bubbling, subcultures inform and enrich each other and create an authentic American culture.

Filmmaker Katz will attend the program at the Walters (600 N. Charles St.). It begins at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for individual screenings ($8 for Walters Art Museum members, students and seniors), and $27 for the three-program series. Friends of the Maryland Film Festival get in free. To reserve tickets, call 410-547-9000.

Beatles at AFI Silver

AFI Silver's weeklong celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' first trip to America commences tonight with 7 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. screenings of the restored A Hard Day's Night. Before the 8:50 screening come Beatles highlights from The Ed Sullivan Show; and after that screening the theater holds a discussion with Martin Lewis, producer of the superb A Hard Day's Night DVD, Bruce Spizer, author of The Beatles Are Coming! and Washington Post music critic Richard Harrington.

Of course, A Hard Day's Night is simply one of the glories of the 20th century. Hailed in 1964 for the realism of its locations and its gritty irreverence, it now plays like a modern fairy tale - an exalting look at anarchic youths turning old authorities on their heads. Director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen pepper the film with potshots at Establishment archetypes like the entrepreneur (Kenneth Haigh) who vainly wants to make teen-age high spirits marketable (he's searching for "an early clue to the next direction"). When the Beatles first sported their shaggy hairstyle (which in 2004 looks clean-cut), adults viewed them as mutants. This movie says that everybody's a mutant - like the group's assistant manager, who shaves only with an electric razor because he "comes from a long line of electricians."

Writing of the group's Sullivan Show debut, Martin Goldsmith in The Beatles Come to America notes that "the shot of the joyful crowd" dissolving into the Beatles themselves caused TV-watchers to experience "a direct identification between the audience, surrogates for all of us, and the musicians whom they, and we, had waited to hear." Goldsmith will sign books at the 7 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. screenings of A Hard Day's Night on Wednesday, the anniversary of the Beatles' first Washington Coliseum Concert.

Check for updates; call 301-495-6720 for general information or 301-495-6700 for pre-recorded program information. Tickets: $8.50, $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors.

Cinema Sundays

In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates conquered the forbidding west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, only to confront catastrophe on their descent, when Joe fell and shattered his right leg. Academy Award-winning documentary-maker Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) has turned out an acclaimed factual movie, Touching the Void, based on Simpson's book of the same name. It combines re-creations of their saga with recollections from Simpson and Yates, and it's this weekend's entry in Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Coffee and bagels are served at 9:45 a.m.; show time is 10:30 a.m.; tickets are $15. Info: 410-727-FILM or go to www.cine

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