The 21st edition of the annual Pan African Film Festival opens tonight with Vipaka (its LA premiere) – the southern, gothic, psychological thriller that stars Forest WhitakerAnthony MackieSanaa LathanNicole Ari Parker and Mike Epps – the Opening Night Film at this year's festival.

Directed by French/Lebanese helmer Philippe Calandthe film centers on an earnest life-coach/author who is mysteriously abducted by a deranged client, who uses the author's spiritual messages of Karma – action and reaction (Vipaka) – against him to terrorize him and his family for their past sins.

Whitaker, who stars in the film, also produced it.

This year, PAFF will screen a total of 154 films, representing 34 countries – 23 documentaries, 13 short documentaries, 67 narrative features, and 51 narrative shorts. At the close of the festival, which runs from February 7 – 18, prizes for Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short, Best Narrative Short, Best Narrative Feature, and Best First Feature Film, as well as audience favorite awards, will be handed out.

154 films is a lot, so, in order to assist with your scheduling, I thought I'd highlight a few films that I think you should have on your to-see list, ahead of tonight's opening. I obviously can't include every single film, so these aren't necessarily the only films worth seeing.These are just a few suggestions, based on those films screening at the festival that we HAVE seen and feel confident in recommending. I obviously can't recommend films that none of us here at S&A HQ have seen.

You can take a look at the full line-up by visiting the festival's website HERE

1 – Philippe Niang's much-buzzed about 3-hour epic drama, Toussaint L'Ouverture, that got the black blogosphere uber-excited when we first wrote about it over a year ago. It actually screened at PAFF last year, but they're bringing it back, because, well, a lot of you still haven't seen it. So, if you're going to be in LA, here's another opportunity. The film doesn't have distribution in the USA. So you may not get another chance anytime soon. Take advantage! 

It's split into two 90-minute halves, and I suspect there'll be an intermission between each.

As a recap Jimmy Jean-Louis stars as the title character, and he's joined by French actresses Aïssa Maïga (Paris, Je T'Aime, Bamako) as Toussaint's wife, Suzanne, and Sonia Rolland (Moloch TropicalMidnight In Paris) as Marie-Eugénie Sonthonax, wife of abolitionist L.F. Sonthonax.

2 – Moussa Touré's La Pirogue, which tells the story of a group of Senegalese men who set off for Europe on a simple fishing boat, hoping for a better life. ArtMattan picked up US theatrical rights to the film, giving it a 2-week theatrical run right here in New York City at the Film Forum. I believe this will be its LA premiere, so see it!

Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Laïty Fall, Malaminé ‘Yalenguen’ Dramé, and Balla Diarra star in this dramatic tale of survival and the immigrant's struggle.

3 – Nairobi Half Life, from director David Tosh Gitonga, which centers on an aspiring actor from upcountry Kenya, who dreams of becoming a success. In pursuit of this, he makes his way to Nairobi, supposedly the city of opportunity, and faces a different reality when he arrives, and instead falls into a life of crime.

Nairobi Half Life is director Gitonga's feature film debut, and stars Joseph K WairimuOlwenya Maina, and Nancy Wanjiku Karanja. Earlier this morning, I announced that it'll be coming to 100 theaters in the USA in March. So, if you didn't see it when it screened at the AFI Film Festival last October, here's another opportunity, before March.

4 – Juan Andrés Arango's La Playa D.C., which centers on Tomas, an Afro-Colombian teenager struggling with the difficulties of growing up in a city (Bogota) of exclusion and racism against those who look like him; When his younger brother disappears, Tomas is forced to leave his home to look for him. With the help from his older brother Chaco, Tomas roams the city's streets, as his search becomes more of a journey in which he's forced to face his past, and to leave aside the influence of his brothers in order to find his own identity.

It's a quiet, contemplative coming-of-age drama that was also acquired by ArtMattan; Luis Carlos Guevara stars as Tomas, Andrés Murillo plays younger brother Jairo, and Jairo James Solis plays older brother Chaco.

5 – Writer/director/executive producer Charles Murray's feature debut, Things Never Said, which stars Shanola Hampton (Shameless), Omari HardwickElimu NelsonTamala JonesDorian Missick and Michael BeachThis is a project we first alerted you two summers ago, and it's now making its world premiere at the PAFF.

A drama/romance, the micro-budgeted film "explores a young woman’s quest for self worth and purpose as she struggles to find the meaning behind her choices and her voice through spoken-word poetry."

Director Murray's credits include mostly TV, writing for crime dramas like Criminal Minds, Day BreakThird Watch, and others – all acclaimed series; so this romantic drama is an intriguing departure for him.

6 – Stones In The Sun (or Woch Nan Soley), the USA/Haiti production, written and directed by Patricia Benoit, set in the 1980s, in the midst of increasing political violence, as a young couple, two sisters, and a father and son are driven from Haiti to New York, where they must confront the truths of their interlocked pasts.

A gripping drama, skillfully directed and acted, and worth your money and time.

The film's cast includes Edwidge Danticat (yes, that Edwidge Danticat, the author, although she has appeared in other films), Michele Marcelin, Carlo MittonJames Noel, Patricia Rhinvil, and Thierry SaintineI.

7 – Kim Nguyen's harrowing yet hypnotic Congo-set drama War Witch or Rebelle. Several of us loved it, and its star, Rachel Mwanza, captivates. She won the prestigious Golden Bear award for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival last year. 

The film centers on 14-year-old Komona (Mwanza), who has lived through horrors worse than any adult could fathom. She confides to the baby growing inside of her the harrowing story of her life since rebel warlords stormed her village. Fortified by eerily mystical powers and the friendship of an albino boy, Komona fights through this dire, war-ravaged environment, prisoner as a child soldier.

The film is also an Academy Award nominee (for Best Foreign Language Film) this year.

8 – Shola Lynch's Angela Davis documentary, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, which will be the closing night film at this year's PAFFIt's worth noting that this will be the film's first public screening since its Toronto International Film Festival debut last Septmber, so those of you who'll be attending the PAFF should consider yourselves lucky! 

The feature-length documentary focuses on Angela Davis and the high stakes crime, political movement, and trial that catapults a 26 year-old newly appointed philosophy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles into a seventies revolutionary political icon. Nearly forty years later, and for the first time, Angela Davis speaks candidly about the actions that branded her as a terrorist and simultaneously spurred a worldwide political movement for her freedom.

9 –  Ya'Ke Smith's Wolf, his feature film debut and a film that, if I put together a list of 2012 films not playing at a theater near you that really should be (it's still without distribution) it would most certainly be on that list.

The film stars Irma P. HallMikala GibsonJordan Cooper, Shelton Jolivette, and Eugene Lee in a story about a family shaken to the core when they discover their son has been sexually molested. It's a solid drama that you should see if you haven't yet.

10 – And last, but certainly not least, the South African coming of age story Otelo Burning, which we've been raving about for some time now. Filmed on location in Durban, written by Sara Blecher (she also directed it) James Whyle and The Cast Workshop, Otelo Burning centers on a group of township surfer kids, set in the late 1980s, against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

It stars some familiar South African actors attached to previous films we've covered, like Kenneth Nkosi (Paradise Stop and White Wedding  – South Africa's entry in the 2009 Oscars in the foreign film category). Meanwhile, newcomers in Sihle XabaThomas Gumede, and Jafta Mamabolo (as Otelo) star as the young ones.

That's it! 

Like I said, just some suggestions, based on those films in the festival's 154-film lineup that we've seen and recommend. There are a few others, but I capped it at 10.

This year's PAFF boasts Salli Richardson-Whitfield as its Celebrity Host for the festival's 21st Annual edition, and also will fete actors Omari Hardwick and Nicole Beharie, who will both be honored with the festival's annual Rising Stars award.

Omari Hardwick has been tapped for the Canada Lee Award and Nicole Beharie for the Beah Richards Award. Obviously PAFF’s Rising Star awards are named after actors Canada Lee and Oscar-nominee Beah Richards, who pioneered roles for African Americans in cinema, television and stage, and sparked civil rights activism in their work, respectively.

Reginald Hudlin is this year's keynote speaker. And Lynn Whitfield will be honored with the Pan African Film Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award.

PAFF 2013 is set to take place at the new Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles, and will kick off festivities with a star-studded Opening Night Gala on Thursday, February 7, 2013 at the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 theatre.

The Pan African Film & Arts Festival is an official event of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa's Celebration of African American Heritage Month.

In addition, the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) will receive the first ever Special Achievement Award in the Film Festival Category by African American Film Critics Association(AAFCA).

The festival will be recognized for its contribution to cinematic arts, and will be presented with the award during the AAFCA’s private awards ceremony on Friday, February 8, 2013 at the Taglyan Complex in Hollywood, Calif.

This year's edition runs from February 7 – 18.

For more info, visit