Maori Karmael Holmes is a woman on a mission. By day, she’s associate director of the nonprofit Leeway Foundation; by night, an adjunct professor at the University of the Arts. In between? She’s an up-and-coming filmmaker with a fiercely independent spirit—and the founder and artistic director of the BlackStar Film Festival, Philly’s summertime summit celebrating independent black cinema. Nicknamed the “Black Sundance’” by Ebony magazine, the four-day event, kicking off its second year on Thurs., Aug. 1, is quickly becoming a hotbed of black filmmaking talent in and beyond the City of Brotherly Love.
With the help of an 18-member, all-volunteer staff, the BlackStar Film Festival will present features, narratives, documentaries, music videos, shorts and experimental films—a total of 75, whittled down from a pool of 300. Holmes and her team pored over countless hours of film submitted from around the world, with a specific focus on finding indie movies by and about black people. “I think a lot of the festivals include independent work, but they also have a lot of mainstream work,” Holmes tells PW. “We’re definitely focused on independent black films.”
Last year, BlackStar’s inaugural lineup featured two world premieres, including Byron Hurt’s critically acclaimed Soul Food Junkies, an exploration of African-Americans’ love of the addictive, artery-clogging cuisine. Hurt’s eye-opening documentary went on to air on PBS stations around the country and is now available on DVD.
This year, films made in locations as far away as Guadeloupe and Senegal will be screened. Rising Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s animated short film The End of Eating Everything, featuring Philly-born singer Santigold, is set to make its festival premiere. The Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter co-stars in another BlackStar feature, 2011’s Yelling to the Sky, alongside Zoe Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe.
The festival runs through Sun., Aug. 4 at various venues around the city—most notably International House (3701 Chestnut Street), Drexel University (33rd and Chestnut streets) and the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway). And while it’s far from the only film fest in town—most visibly, last month’s Philadelphia International Film Festival has been running since the 1970s—the city has welcomed this latest addition to the scene with open arms.
“There is a renaissance happening right now,” says Nicole Giles, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office’s marketing and multicultural affairs director. “The talented pool of African-American filmmakers in the region is riveting. The BlackStar Film Festival not only provides a platform to showcase work by local filmmakers ... this is also an international festival, illuminating stories told from the black perspective from every continent. It is a refreshing and necessary addition to the vast landscape of local film festivals.”
There are lots of annual film fests worldwide—an ever-growing number, in fact—but only a handful have become anything like household names: Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah; the Robert De Niro-co-founded Tribeca Film Festival in New York City; the Toronto International Film Festival, and, of course, their French granddaddy, Cannes, founded in 1946. Among all the rest, three major black film festivals stand out: New York’s Urbanworld Film Festival, Miami’s American Black Film Festival (previously known as the Acapulco Film Festival) and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Black Film Festival.
And, now, BlackStar.
Its founder, Holmes, a transplant from Los Angeles, has indie film cred of her own: She directed the 2005 documentary Scene Not Heard, examining the oft-forgotten contributions of female rappers from Philadelphia, featuring Lady B, Bahamadia and Monie Love. Since then, Holmes has shot a number of music videos and film shorts. But filmmaking wasn’t her first career of choice; she’s worked with numerous arts organizations in town, including jaunts at the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association, the Painted Bride Art Center and the Black Lily Film and Music Festival, which she co-founded with the Jazzyfatnastees and ran for four years. Meanwhile, she held down odd jobs at Gap, Banana Republic and J Crew.
“I’ve done a lot of different things,” she says. “I’ve worked in theater, and I do graphic design, costume design and things like that. I ended up studying film and got my MFA at Temple because I was really interested in merging all these things—and film felt like a really dynamic medium to incorporate digital art, history and journalism and taking all of these things I loved and putting them in one medium.”
The idea for BlackStar, named after historical political leader Marcus Garvey’s infamous, ill-fated shipping line, emerged after Holmes noticed that Afrocentric events were booming in Brooklyn—so why not here in Philly, a similar cultural melting pot? “I had thought about doing a continental African celebration ... mostly around fashion, but also around hip-hop and things like that,” she explains. “But when I started looking for films, then I realized it was just going to be about films.
“One thing about the audience last year that I was really proud of,” she adds, “is it was really so incredibly diverse and of so many different minds. We didn’t just want the festival to just look like us and just be hipster, black people in their late 20s and early 30s who are running the festival. It was definitely a spread of age, race, neighborhood, discipline and people’s perceptions.”
Soul Food Junkies director Byron Hurt says last year’s BlackStar screening of his film as the festival’s closing-night event was momentously important: “It was just great the way the audience responded ... I know for me, it reaffirmed that the film had an audience and that there were people—black people in particular—interested in the topic that my film addresses. I was very happy and honored to be a part of the festival.”
Traditionally, for independent filmmakers like Hurt, premiering their movie at festivals offers the chance to showcase the work to potential distributors, so that, if received strongly by the festival audience, the film might get picked up for widespread ciculation on the big screen or television. Over the years, filmmakers such as Jerry Lamothe (Blackout), Lee Daniels (Precious) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvaile Station) have enjoyed the spoils of success via various festivals. Even Spike Lee—who’ll be taking part in Friday’s “By Any Means Necessary: Producing Independent Film” panel—got his first taste of acclaim at the New Directors, New Films Festival in 1983, where his thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first-ever student film to be showcased.
Entertainment journalist Tanya Kersey founded the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 1998. Like Maori Holmes, she’s one of a handful of black women who’ve spearheaded a film festival; as such, she’s well versed in the many hardships that come with the territory.
“The mainstream film festival marketplace is overly saturated,” Kersey suggests. “There are well over 1,000 film festivals [in America]—and more forming daily. But I think there are opportunities in the black film festival marketplace in parts of the country with dense African-American communities. These communities are typically under-served by the mainstream theatrical market, and the audience is ripe to see indie black films. Black film festivals, if managed and produced correctly, are typically well-received.
“The biggest pitfall is the lack of financial support from within the entertainment industry, and how they lump all black film festivals together and then divvy up that small pie,” she explains. “When you ask for support, they mention the other black film festival they’ve supported, as if their support of one black film festival represents their support of the genre. It is very unfair. Money is the major problem for black film festival organizers. If we had our fair share, we could produce even more amazing events that we do on limited funds.”
Fortunately for Holmes, her BlackStar endeavor, still in its infancy, has received major support from the Knight Foundation and a number of corporate sponsors, including Heineken and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.
“I don’t know if there’s a handbook or any kind of guide,” she says. “I think each festival is its own organic entity. Some people have huge corporate sponsors, and I think that makes things work in a different way. And some festivals show 10 films, and they just kind of show two a day. They’re all really different. I don’t know if there’s just one way to do it.”