By Meredith Sellers
It’s been called the “Black Sundance.” It’s a clarion call for black filmmakers across the world, a bastion of intellectual filmmakers from the African diaspora. The importance of Philadelphia’s Blackstar Film Festival can’t be understated. Organized by Maori Holmes and juried by luminaries as diverse as musician King Britt, artist Cauleen Smith, and curator Anthony Elms, among many others, the festival has evolved over the years to serve a need for more voices of color in film. Now in its sixth year, the festival, which took place this year on August 3 – 6, offered up a bevy of powerful, piercing films, interrogating the meaning of blackness around the globe through its theme of “Resistance.”
Still from For Paradise
The festival was filled with fantastic short films such as For Paradise, by Elizabeth Webb. The film offers a fascinating, poetic, painful, and at times humorous look into the filmmaker’s family and her father’s closeted biracial identity, which he had hidden from his children, believing they would have easier lives thinking they were white. Another standout was Ibrahim, a film by Terron Jones which tells a fictionalized tale of an undocumented African immigrant struggling to raise money to bring his family to the United States by busking on the New York City subway. Or Dear Mr. Shakespeare, directed by Shola Amoo, which interrogates Shakespeare’s Othello, and begs the question of Shakespeare’s intention in creating the play’s titular tortured man of color.
Still from Dear Mr. Shakespeare
Short films abound, question, and delight, but Blackstar’s main strength was its documentaries. Whose Streets? by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis gives a searing insight into the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown. It follows a group of activists, including a man who lived in the apartment complex where Brown was shot, and whose witnessing of the murder transformed him into an advocate for police accountability. Whose Streets? also tells the story of Brittany and Alexis, a queer couple who met during the protests that followed, and whose love for each other is cemented by their commitment to the cause of justice. The film offers a counter-narrative of purposeful community resistance to the story of uncontrolled rioting, looting, and destruction of property that was largely told by the mainstream media. Whose Streets? is currently playing at the Ritz at the Bourse and at United Artists King of Prussia.
Still from Whose Streets?
Another documentary feature, Action Kommandant, directed by South African filmmaker Nadine Cloete, provides a powerful narrative of the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980’s by one Cape Town teen, Ashley Kriel. Kriel was a liberation fighter, known as “the Che Guevara of Cape Town”, singularly dedicated to the cause from the time he was a middle schooler until his death at the hands of police at the age of 21. Largely unknown outside his township of Bonteheuwel, he was an empowered symbol of youth resistance and an important force for organizing inside Cape Town’s notoriously poverty-stricken Cape Flats. These documentaries offer a mirror to our troubled times, drawing clear lines to a not-so-distant past where people of color were openly and systematically oppressed, degraded, beaten, and killed for the color of their skin.
Still from Action Kommandant
Writing this in the wake of the recent white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, it is imperative that black voices be heard and stories of identity, struggle, power, and yes, resistance, are more pertinent than ever. Blackstar is an environment of overwhelming support, where audiences engage, laugh, cry, and cheer, and where filmmakers’ stories aren’t reduced to a category or quota, but encompass the festival itself. As seen in films like Action Kommandant, and, in the present moment, Whose Streets?, we as a society are at an impasse – white supremacy, always systemic, is burgeoning into more mainstream American culture – but these filmmakers, each in their own way, are meeting that tide, holding their heads high, and rising to that challenge.
Meredith Sellers is an artist and writer living and working in Philadelphia. She is an editor for Title Magazine, writes regularly for Hyperallergic, and has had her writing appear in ArtsJournal, Pelican Bomb, The Artblog, The St. Claire, and Daily Serving. She has exhibited her work at ICA Philadelphia, Lord Ludd, the Icebox Project Space, and Delaware County Community College, and Vox Populi.