The Pan African Film Festival, which will showcase 40 films from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Great Britain and the U.S., kicks off tonight at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 Theatres.

Joining the festival’s co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover at a gala opening will be celebrities, entertainment industry leaders and public officials , including Sidney Poitier, Wesley Snipes, Damon Wayans and Congressman Mervyn Dymally.

The festival’s guest of honor is Madame Chantal Compaore, first lady of Burkina Faso, the location of FESPACO, the largest black film festival in the world.

According to the festival’s organizer, Ayuko Babu, it’s taken more than two years to get the event off the ground.

“We had to figure out what was the best way to present new exciting black films from around the world and that took a while,” said Babu, who traveled to numerous festivals looking for product.

Another stumbling block was money. Babu credits two important patrons, Glover and actress Janet Dubois, for their help in launching the festival.

“They gave us money and used their clout and influence to open doors for us,” Babu said. “Danny and Janet are both longtime fans of independent films from around the world and that really helped.”

As for what kind of pix Babu wanted, he said, “We were looking for films that depicted the African personality and that depicted aspects of the African experience or the Black experience that are not normally seen on a regular basis in North America. We tried to get films that illuminated different dimensions and aspects of black experiences.”

The festival, which runs through Oct. 22, has received an L.A. Arts recovery grant from the the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and is officially associated with the Rebuild L.A. efforts.

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