At the BlackStar Film Festival, a Revelatory Understanding of Cinema
Don’t call it the Black Sundance.
Though it was dubbed that by Ebony magazine, the BlackStar Film Festival, now in its 11th year, is a cultural institution all its own. Sharing a similar focus on independent cinema with its Park City counterpart, BlackStar — kicking off on Wednesday in Philadelphia with a slate of 77 features and shorts from all over the world — partly distinguishes itself from other festivals with its emphasis on work made exclusively by “Black, brown and Indigenous artists.” But as a regular of the festival, I’ve always been struck by its ambitious bridging of cultural specificity, social justice and the avant-garde, making it an exciting, expansive and revelatory cinematic experience.
Founded by Maori Karmael Holmes in 2012, it was conceived as a one-off event to showcase Black films that hadn’t been screened in the Philadelphia area. “I had just moved back from Los Angeles and felt like there was a gap in Philly for these particular works,” Holmes told me. “And I started collecting films that hadn’t been shown in the area that had been made in 2011 or 2012, and very quickly had a list of 30 films, so I pivoted to making this a film festival.”
Holmes, who now serves as artistic director and chief executive of BlackStar Projects, the organization behind the festival, explained, “It was just meant to be this one-time celebration.” But more than 1,500 people showed up, and after the festival was mentioned by Ebony as well as the director Ava DuVernay, in a New York Times interview, “suddenly, we had outsized attention, and people asked, ‘When’s the next one?’”
The gathering quickly earned a reputation as the go-to festival for emerging and established Black experimental filmmakers. Terence Nance, perhaps more than any other director, knows this. The creator of the genre-bending TV series “Random Acts of Flyness,” his features and shorts have been shown at the festival every year since its start.
“I would say BlackStar has been foundational for me,” Nance told me. “Before the pandemic, it was that yearly summer touch point in Philly for those of us interested in the project of Black cinema to get together, kick it and watch things that are pursuing a Black cinema language, ethos and way of being. That just doesn’t exist anywhere else and on this scale.”
But it is also an opportunity to share new works and receive critical feedback, making it a rare space for filmmakers of color, especially those pushing the boundaries of their form. An experimental short by Nance and the director Rikki Wright, titled “Vortex,” will have its debut at the festival this year. “People will tell you your film was amazing but also what did not work,” Nance explained. “There, I think that it is possible to enter those conversations safely, or maybe an even better word is with love. I think that’s how communities refine and stick to each other.”
The festival, named for thePan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s international shipping line, offers audiences unique access to deeply political and highly experimental films from all over the African diaspora. “Something that I’m really proud of is the global outlook that BlackStar has,” the festival’s director, Nehad Khader, said. “We’re interested in Black American stories, but we’re also really interested in Black stories from the continent and the Caribbean, Latin America and Canada.” And though the festival has always featured filmmakers of color (Khader is a Palestinian American director herself), their inclusion is now an explicit part of the selection process. (The organization received 1,200 submissions this year alone.)
“BlackStar started with a focus on Black cinema and then expanded into brown and Indigenous cinema as well,” Khader noted. “Now we don’t just have Black stories from Asia and the Arab world, but also Indigenous stories from Australia and Peru. This comes from an ethos that we are the global majority. We think about ourselves in this way.”
This year’s program includes films that are both socially relevant and fantastic, futuristic and familial.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds,” for instance, is a tender, intimate Chadian drama about a single mother, Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), and her struggle to help her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), get a safe abortion in a country where it is illegal. While the film speaks to a larger battle over reproductive rights, it is also a warm, tightly woven narrative that transports us to the outskirts of Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and shows us the vibrancy and vulnerability of female life in this majority Muslim country. “Haroun has a gift for distilling volumes of meaning in his direct, lucid, balanced visuals,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her review in February, “which he uses to complement and illuminate the minimalist, naturalistic dialogue.”
In many ways, the documentary “Rewind & Play” by the French filmmaker Alain Gomis seems like it would be all dialogue. That’s because of its premise: In 1969, the great bebop pianist Thelonious Monk was interviewed for hours under the hot lights at a Paris television studio by a fellow musician, Henri Renaud. But rather than reproduce the false sense of camaraderie that Renaud strove for, Gomis blends the original footage with outtakes from the archives to both expand our appreciation of Monk’s genius as well as critique how the white Renaud (and thus mass media) sought to shape and create stereotypical representations of the Black avant-garde. Gomis reveals how Monk’s silence (the one time he shares his opinion, Renaud tells the producer, “I think it’s best if we erase it”) functioned as a strategy to circumvent Renaud’s racialized gaze and assert Monk’s agency and artistry beyond it.
Experimentation dominates “One Take Grace,” the documentary debut from the South African actor and director Lindiwe Matshikiza. The film is the outgrowth of a decade-long collaboration with a 58-year-old Black South African domestic worker, Mothiba Grace Bapela. Following Bapela’s daily labor, uncovering her past trauma, and exploring her aspirations to be an actor herself, the film uses different lenses, including a fisheye, to reveal the rituals and rules that govern Bapela’s life. The result: a dynamic, curious and insightful portrait of a charismatic figure who might ordinarily be overlooked. Similar themes of visibility and gender inform the “Locomote” shorts program, which includes the trans activist Elle Moxley’s political coming-of-age story, “Black Beauty,” and Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s experimental “Conspiracy,” set in Leigh’s studio on the eve of her landmark exhibition in the United States Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Such diversity in geography, genre and narrative style is one of the main reasons the Nigerian British filmmaker Jenn Nkiru, best known for directing Beyoncé’s Grammy Award-winning video “Brown Skin Girl,” routinely makes the pilgrimage to BlackStar. Another is the sense of community it fosters, rendering it more of what she calls “a big, beautiful family reunion.” She said, “Even though it’s a festival, there’s such a level of concern for people’s work and welfare, and that’s very indicative to me of what I imagine Black filmmaking is.”
This will be the festival premiere of her “Out / Side of Time,” a short about a fictional Black family in the 19th-century community of Seneca Village in New York City. Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” it stands out for its format as a five-channel black-and-white video playing on what looks like a 1950s television set. At BlackStar, Nkiru’s nonlinear, intergenerational story will be part of a larger conversation about form, temporality and the visual language of contemporary Black cinema.
“I find that BlackStar is very experimental in what it showcases and what it celebrates,” she said, adding later, that’s “important because it serves as a reminder of the potentiality of Black cinema and of what we can do, not just in our art making but also in our nation-building as well.”
The BlackStar Film Festival runs Wednesday through Sunday in Philadelphia. For more information, go to blackstarfest.org.