Having escaped the Civil War in his home country, Nigerian Gabriel (Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam) is trying to navigate the African-American culture of 1968 America, where Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy have just been assassinated.  He joyously shares his language with a motorcyclist (Mike Slye)       who gives him a lift through the streets of San Francisco and is happy to identify himself as a “Bushman.”

Laura's Review: A

After playing at film festivals in 1971 and 1972 where it won accolades and prizes but not distribution, David Schickele’s film all but disappeared.  Now it has been restored and digitally remastered from the original 35mm b&w negatives by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and The Film Foundation for a whole new generation to discover and what a rediscovery it is!  The film is comedic, historic, and, in the end, painfully ironic.

Once Gabriel is dropped off in the Fillmore, San Francisco’s black neighborhood, we learn he has an American girlfriend, Alma (Elaine Featherstone) and their relationship underscores a black cultural disconnect.  When he tells her how he was stopped by a cop who became very friendly when informed Gabriel was an African chief, Alma responds that he’s not a ‘real n**gga.’  ‘You can’t talk Black,’ she charges, saying he can’t even converse with the brothers in the neighborhood leading to a humorous scene of the two walking as she tries to teach him the difference between ‘happening’ and ‘happenen’ and how to pronounce ‘shee-it.’

Alma takes Gabriel to a friend’s closed barroom where she dances, alluringly, to ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.’ while he still can’t get used to the pictures of black people on the walls who, to him, look just like white people but for the color of their skin.  His reminisces include the week long yam festivals celebrated in his childhood where they’d eat so much his mother would have to rub his belly at night to prepare him for more food the next day and getting lost in the bush, an experience which terrified him.  Alma’s recollections are quite different as she talks about the awed respect given a man who drove a Cadillac, his mistress wearing furs in 90 degree weather and we are struck by her materialism versus his sense of community.  But now Gabriel is afraid of being left alone in a strange land, as Alma is leaving for a job in Watts the next day.

Schickele alternates between his narrative and his subject’s who becomes a documentary style talking head, cinematographer David Myers ("THX 1138") framing him centered, sitting on a couch against a wall while Gabriel fills in gaps in his story.  We’ll learn he carries a letter from the mother of his child back in Nigeria, writing that she wants to come and find him so she can drive him mad for leaving them, a surprising revelation from this thoughtful man we’ve come to like.  Left to his own devices after Alma leaves, Gabriel will seduce a willing white woman, drawing anger from the black waitress serving them and the resentment of his very presence from his conquest the next morning, a turn of events which stuns him.  Trying to find work, Myers treats us to a hilarious pan of local classifieds, a situation that turns more serious when Gabriel realizes that his only qualification for the job he’s secured with Felix (“Eraserhead’s” Jack Nance!) is the mythological sexual prowess of a black man from Africa.

Then the film takes a shocking turn, one which I wondered was truth or diabolical fiction (it is the former).  Just as it appears Gabriel has met a nice girl on a camping trip, the screen goes black, the filmmaker interrupting the action to inform us that his film could not be completed because his star has been deported.  He wraps documenting just what happened to Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, arrested on false charges, jailed for a year, then sent back to Nigeria by the U.S. Immigration system.

“Bushman” is an eye-opening work about race, justice and democracy in America while also offering a profound contrast between a native black culture and one uprooted and transplanted.

Robin's Review: B+

Gabriel (Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam), a young Nigerian who fled the civil war gripping his country, has settled in California and is a student at San Francisco State College. He works hard to fit into his new home and is struck by how inept American culture can be for a “Bushman.”

There is a huge difference between being African, like Gabriel, and an African-American living in America. That is what director-writer David Schickele begins to explore in this thoughtful drama about immigration and assimilation into a very different, and often scary, culture.

We watch Gabriel as he braves American mores, getting a girlfriend, Alma (Elaine Featherstone), an education and the chance for a new life. Then, fact rears its ugly head and the fiction is replaced by reality when the actor playing Gabriel is arrested, facing deportation to his native Nigeria.

The abrupt change of gears from fiction to fact makes for two movies in one with the two inexorably linked together as the real world intrudes on the invented one. It did not go the way the filmmakers intended but, faced with lemons, they made lemonade in a culturally expressive way.

I am surprised that I never hear of “Bushman,” if just for its inventive way of rolling with the punches to make a film. Kudos to the filmmakers for making lemonade.

Kino Lorber releases "Bushman" in select theaters on 2/2/24.  Click here for local play dates.