You need a fair bit of stamina to keep up with the BlackStar Film Festival. As festival goer, Alexis Walker confessed during a break between screenings, “I didn’t realize how much it was standing in line, get your seat, go back on line, get your seat again, and on and on.” We laughingly added in the trips across the street to get drinks and snacks at the Wawa.
“The BlackStar Film Festival is an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global indigenous communities, showcasing films by black people from around the world.”
BlackStar was created by filmmaker and prolific cultural worker, Maori Karmael Holmes because she wanted to create a micro festival to combat the dearth of films helmed by Black directors that were readily accessible in Philadelphia. At the time she wasn’t aware she was building a major institution that 6 years later would include over 60 films from 17 different countries as well as a full roster of panels and discussions catering to both cinephiles and industry professionals alike.
The Films & the Ambiance @ BlackStar
This was my second time at the BlackStar, but it had been a few years. The energy this year was as electric as I remember it being in the past. Even then, there was an admirable level of polish. This year, I was never too far away from a smiling volunteer ready to offer assistance. Artists of many different stripes came out to share their work and enjoy the work of others. Most of the shorts programs had brief talk-backs where the filmmakers answered questions, provided context, and spilled some behind the scenes tea for the audience.
I was struck by how we often think of “diversity” in terms of being the extra spice in a majority White pot, but Black people by ourselves are extremely diverse, with a score of divergent aesthetics, mores, experiences, and visions. Days before Whose Streets started its limited release in theaters, it screened at BlackStar. A steamy spin-off movie to popular web series Hello Cupid made its debut at BlackStar. French film, Tourments D’Amour made its Philadelphia debut at BlackStar.
Shirikiana Gerima‘s Footprints of Pan-Africanism told of the jubilation felt all over the Diaspora that accompanied the independence of several African countries, how African people in the West were returning Home and Continental Africans were rising as sovereign rulers. What they didn’t know is that the West, led by the CIA had no intention of actually letting go, so they went on a crusade of murders and manipulations to regain control from democratically elected, unity-minded leaders.
While it was wonderful getting several first-person accounts of this time that spanned years, the film heavily skewed toward centering maleness. No, seriously, there are two separate times when women are used as silent props while men speak about the movement. Afterward, I felt a little devastated by how forcefully and thoroughly Western forces disrupted and destroyed everything they built.
The numerous shorts programs were even more diverse. There were some clear standouts, however. Carrie Hawks’ brought their vibrant animated mini-doc, Black Enuf to BlackStar. It explores their identity and the long, winding journey it took to arrive at a comfortable place with it. Their tongue-in-cheek humor and honesty made this film resonate.
A crowd favorite was Tales From Shaolin. While it took me a bit of time to warm to the concept, it wound up being quite entertaining. J Michael Neal and Louis A. Moore cleverly took the song “Shakey Dog” by Ghost Face Killa and made a Shakespearean action film out of it. It also co-starred Ninja N. Devoe of Queen Sugar and Luke Cage fame playing a truly unforgettable character.
M. Asli Dukan gave the BlackStar audience a little taste of her Afrofuturistic dystopia, Resistance that made the audience thirsty for more.
Mtume Gant offered up White Face about an actor who wants to embody whiteness to the point he whitens his skin, bleaches his hair, and does his best to emulate ‘great Americans’ like Donald Trump. While it probably went on about 5 minutes too long and was left unresolved, there are some lovely acting moments and cinematography. In the talkback, Gant spoke eruditely about the white gaze and how even luminaries like Kanye or Charles Barkley can be so beholden to it for their sense of identity.
Dear Mr. Shakespeare is an eye popping, thematically rich 5 minutes based on Othello.
Lazercism is another 5-minute masterpiece starring the talented LaKeith Stanfield and Da’Vine Joy Randolph that had us cracking up, but also made some razor-sharp points. If I had a critique it would be that something this short doesn’t quite have the room to go from knee slapping laughter to a precise indictment of real brutality without having an icky half minute of inappropriate laughter mucking things up.
The Philadelphia Bicycle Vignette Story by Bryan Oliver Green was a 5-year labor of love that’s part Cosmic Slop part Monty Pythons and all Philly. Everything from street harassment to the interracial hostility of our ‘city of neighborhoods’ was sent up. The fourth wall was shattered in a sketch that had some hinky politics and resulted in the actress berating the sketch from within, then just leaving it altogether.
Cooperative Economics @ BlackStar
On Saturday there was an Artisan Market curated by festival partners, The ARTisan Cafe. This is but a sampling of the booths. If you see something you like please patronize these Black owned businesses. There are links in the captions.
The Haul After BlackStar
My sister, Kelli went in, but I couldn’t blame her. This is only half the haul as we had to go back outside again to leave and… well, let’s just say more apparel was procured. It’s been a while since an event fed me on so many levels that after three straight days I honestly didn’t feel tired, I felt energized. I’m looking forward to attending BlackStar next year!
Pictures courtesy of Dr. Kelli Mickens w/ contributions from CR Sparrow for BGN