In this, its sixth year, Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival has become the go-to gathering for African-American cinema makers and cineastes in the movie marketplace.
Not just because BlackStar’s founding CEO Maori Karmael Holmes hosts the illustrious likes of director-activist Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) Aug. 5; but because the Philly fest welcomes local, national and international auteurs of color whose independently-produced work is often ignored outside BlackStar’s screens (or walls of the ICA, Lightbox Film Center, Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery and World Cafe Live where BS17 takes place). And stories like documentarian Stanley Nelson’s Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, director Gabourey Sidibe’s Nina Simone-inspired The Tale of Four, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Ferguson flick, Whose Streets?, and BlackStar’s 60 additional films cannot be ignored.
Ask Holmes – the founder of the festival, previously co-founder of the Black Lily Film & Music Fest – what she sees as the biggest changes and challenges to black film, and she’s pragmatic.
“I’d be hesitant to speak generally about films directed by black people locally or internationally,” said Holmes. “I can say that for independent film in general, the prevalence of streaming on-demand services and the ubiquity of web series have opened up avenues of opportunity for a few folks that hadn't been opened before. I also think that with the data of what people are actually watching in their homes and on their devices – versus an aggregate based on what some are watching – opened up revenue so to make new content like Insecure and Brown Girls. Ava DuVernay's success is also hopefully indicative of a shift.”
Beyond generalization, Holmes stated she and BlackStar are interested in connecting independent filmmakers to audiences, “because such work is only seen in prestige festivals, and then often never gets in front of regular folks. We hope we’re providing a trusted platform that people will look to in order to find new voices...and support them.”
New York auteur Nefertite Nguvu screened her coolly, complex tale of friends and interpersonal relationships, In the Morning, at BlackStar in 2014, and has been an active fan and participant since.
“Partnerships like BlackStar are vital to independent filmmakers like me; an incredible organization and an outstanding champion of global Black Cinema,” says Nguvu, whose short poetic films, The Last Two Lovers at the End of the World and Myself When I Am Real will be released before year’s end. This year, Nguvu hosts a panel, (R)epresentation: Designing the Black Body that examines the intricacies of designing and styling for moving images and exploring special considerations when designing for black actors and for black stories. (R)epresentation plays exquisitely into BlackStar’s overall theme of resistance.
“They are cognizant of the political climate we are in and in the particular way that Black folks are affected and have made the selections about resistance in response,” notes Nguvu. “Art is a weapon, culture is a weapon. BlackStar is showcasing art that elevates us with a message of resistance. This is necessary; this is vital.”
This year in particular (and certainly a worthwhile theme going forward), BlackStar’s frank focus is, as Nguvu states, “Resistance,” the examination of social, political, personal and mass uprisings, from the 60s to the present, from South African liberation fighter Ashley Kriel, to rebel slaves battling with the British, to Black lesbian couples in Bed-Stuy practicing polyamorously.
“Hands down that’s our most prevalent theme,” said Holmes. “Our senior program manager, Nehad Khader, noticed this as we were finalizing the program. There are a lot of films about police/vigilante violence against black bodies and there are also quite a few romantic comedies with unconventional leads which is great.”
Beyond social justice, Holmes noted the first time inclusion of a “geek” section with films celebrating geek culture, with most of its films primarily from Philadelphia. “We have more films from Philly than we've had in recent years,” she said.
Louis A. Moore, the director and executive producer of Tales from Shaolin (and its various chapters like Pt 1: Shakey Dog) is but one of those Philly filmmakers, hailing as he does from Kevin Hart’s North Philly.
“Coming from this area, getting into filmmaking – it was a passion of wanting to tell stories, be it verbal, written, acting,” Moore said.
After working on shorts, features and such in LA and NYC, Moore brought his nuts-and-bolts knowledge to The Wu, RZA, GZA, ODB, et al.
“Cinematically Wu-Tang has always had this underlying mythology surrounding them. Their sound and style is a mixture of films and music that inspired them to craft this Asian influenced/hip hop/inner city world of spectacle and wonder. I mean where else can you find samurais, ninjas, dope boy’s, stick up kids, and hustlers?” Moore said.
In creating Tales from Shoalin Pt 1: Shakey Dog, Moore stayed inspired by Tarantino, anime, vid games, mob films (Goodfellas, Scarface, Godfather) and such to explore, this, and eventually other areas of the Wu catalogue. With that, Moore has come to BlackStar looking for family and support, as well as a screening space.
“The love and appreciation they have for filmmakers is something I’ve yet to experience at other fests,” says Moore. “Doesn’t matter how accomplished you might be in this industry. Everyone at BlackStar goes out of their way to make you feel a part of the family. If it’s your first time or your 100th time there, you’ll just feel at place.”
That familial feel – an air of openness and non-exclusivity – is exactly what makes BlackStar necessary in Maori Karmael Holmes’ eyes.
“In Philadelphia, there’s no other way to see these films – it's how the festival began. In a national/international sense, we've found ourselves becoming a place where artists who follow each other online get a chance to connect in person and deepen existing connections with each other and with audiences. We’re invested in building upon the legacy of previous generations and also working with emerging makers and that cross-generational atmosphere is super special,” Holmes said.
BlackStar Film Festival | Aug. 3-6. Venues vary. For tickets, visit: blackstarfest.org