Veteran movie critic Wilson Morales, site editor for the popular Blackfilm.com, has seen his fair share of film festivals crop up over the years. BlackStar might be just the kind of shot in the arm Philadelphia’s scene needs, he says: “It’s good for Philly to finally have its own showcase for black talent—even better that it’s a focus on the indie scene.” He’s impressed, too, with the “familiar names” the festival has procured, among them Lee, Trotter, King Britt and Saul Williams. “The thing that works with film festivals, in general, is that a lot of money can be brought in to the city that hosts it, and temporary jobs are offered.”
BlackStar isn’t the first or only Philly film festival to highlight the African- American experience, but it is quite singular in its “all black, all indie” mission. Philly’s civic leaders have been quick to pick up on BlackStar’s potential cultural significance, and Holmes is more than appreciative of what seems like citywide support for her efforts. Still, she knows the difficulty of staging an event of this magnitude so close to the major entertainment hub that is New York City. “Our Film Office is really active,” she says, ”and they’re one of our partners in cultivating independent filmmakers, but there is a challenge—I won’t sugar-coat that—because we’re so close to New York, people can just go there.”
As Holmes works to market BlackStar, Ebony’s description of it last year as the “Black Sundance” certainly comes in handy; she appreciates the comparison, even as she understands the weighty burden it represents. “To be compared to one of the world’s most important film festivals at such an early stage for our festival feels good,” she admits, “because Sundance represents everything we are striving for: independent filmmakers, high-quality films, collegial atmosphere, networking. It also is a tad intimidating.”
Can BlackStar live up to a such a giant operation? Fingers crossed, Holmes thinks so. “I hope that we become a destination festival in that sense—a clearinghouse for films of a certain quality,” she says, “and a ‘must-attend’ stop on the festival circuit for black filmmakers.”
Though Sun., Aug. 4. Various times and locations. For films, showtimes and venues, visit blackstarfest.org.
Five Must-See Flicks at BlackStar
The second annual BlackStar Film Festival sails into town this week with a slate of films and panels offering a unique take on filmmaking across the African diaspora, and founder Maori Holmes has put together an impressive slate of films that will be difficult to find elsewhere. Though some films on the festival circuit wind up on Netflix, on a cable channel or via video-on-demand, many worthy projects by filmmakers of color face enormous challenges connecting to an audience. At BlackStar, audiences can view films the way the filmmakers intended: on the big screen.
This year, BSFF dedicates its first day to black men, while other films on its roster include a coming-of-age story in Africa, the tale of an immigrant couple faced with infertility woes and a fanciful look at the last day of a man who has plans to sacrifice himself for his family. Here are five premieres, all at International House, that are not to be missed during the four-day fest.
Question Bridge (USA, 2012): This unique documentary asks one group of black men to pose questions to another black man they are estranged from. Once that happens, a different black man answers the question, giving the film an innovative way to forge connections between brothers from varying life experiences. Two of the film’s makers, Hank Willis Thomas and Bayete Ross Smith, will be in attendance for the screening. Thurs., Aug 1, 6pm.
Tey (Alain Gomis, France and Senegal, 2012): Poet/actor Saul Williams plays a man in the last hours of his life in a film Holmes describes as fanciful and mysterious but visually arresting. “It’s kind of like a fantastic journey, and Saul Williams is in every frame,” Holmes says. “He’s chosen to sacrifice himself for his family, but you don’t really know why. It really feels like an art film, in an art sense.” Fri., Aug. 2, 8:30pm. With Merkato.
Nairobi Half Life (David Tosh Gitonga, Germany and Kenya, 2012): This coming-of-age story set in Nairobi, Kenya features a young man who yearns to leave his village for the big city to pursue an acting career, an unlikely choice in his native country. “It’s an upbeat, energetic film, and it’s nice to have an African person who made an African film,” says Holmes. “The main character has agency. And he’s finding his way,” Sat., Aug. 3, 7pm.
Things Never Said (Charles Murray, USA, 2012): This story of a spoken-word artist who finds new confidence through her art is not a particularly unique one, but the film’s lead actress, Shanola Hampton of Showtime’s Shameless, is a brown-skinned woman with locs, a look rarely seen in mainstream cinema. “This is the most “Hollywood–ish” of the films that we have,” according to Holmes. “It’s well done in the vein of the stuff that writer/director Ava DuVernay is doing.” Sat., Aug. 3, 9pm. With The Bluest Note.
Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, USA, 2013): Director of Photography Bradford Young, a graduate of Howard University whose film program will be honored at Black Star, won a cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival for this movie about a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn who finds they are unable to conceive. “It’s an immigrant story,” Holmes notes, “that’s not tragic.” Sun., Aug. 4, 6:15pm. With Boneshaker. (Tonya Pendleton)
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide