In the new documentary The United States of Hoodoo, Darius James, an African-American writer and expat, journeys from his home in Berlin back to the U.S. His father, a sculptor and painter interested in African spirituality, has died, and his passing inspires James to wander the country, looking for manifestations of African roots throughout the country.
He finds it everywhere: in music, in art, in dance, in food. Sometimes the connection is obvious. Sometimes the original intent has been obscured or forgotten, as is the case with African masks: created for spiritual power, now treated as mere art on museum walls. Sometimes the work has been creatively modified, as with a Seattle artist who took certain African fabrics, including soundsuits, and co-opted them for dance pieces.
As it happens, Hoodoo’s trek for African roots succinctly encapsulates the intent of the BlackStar Film Festival, a new pan-African program in which the film will be making its U.S. premiere. The festival takes its name from the Black Star Line, the shipping line created in the early 20th century by Jamaican political leader and black nationalist Marcus Garvey to facilitate the transporting of goods throughout the global African community.
For Maori Karmael Holmes, artistic director of BlackStar, it’s not just a name-check: Garvey’s basic hope—to unite the African diaspora, at least in a figurative sense—is the same as the festival’s curatorial and thematic backbone.
“I’m interested in global black independent cinema. What I’m not interested in is a conversation about black Hollywood,” Holmes says. “Politically, the stuff I want to see is not what would be interesting to Hollywood. They want to make money, and I want to see art.”
The inaugural BlackStar, which runs from Thursday through Sunday in venues around the city, was only supposed to be a handful of films, but Holmes says it quickly ballooned. She didn’t accept submissions (at least this year) and found films by reading about them on blogs and/or through the connections she’s made through school and the festival circuit, which she once rode along with her 2005 film Scene Not Heard.
True to its global bent, BlackStar boasts films from or about Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hoodoo is an American/German co-production, and both countries are represented in Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, an intimate doc on the African-American lesbian poet. Brazil is represented by the docs Chamber of Echoes, in which local Raphael Xavier covers hip-hop dance in Rio’s favelas, and Capoeira: Fly Away Beetle, on the country’s art form. Adopted ID arguably covers the most ground, with a British filmmaker following a Canadian adoptee on the hunt for her family in Haiti.
But even the American work exhibits a great diversity. “Sometimes I think what happens with people of color in the U.S. is, one person gets to win. And then everyone needs to represent that person,” says Holmes. “It’s not that you don’t want that person to win, but there are other voices. With black Hollywood, there are these assumptions about black American life. If you think about Tyler Perry, everyone’s Christian, everyone’s heterosexual, everyone’s working class.” The BlackStar seeks to prove otherwise. “It will be nice to see the diversity of black life, not only globally, but even in films from the United States.”
Soul Food Junkies, the closing night film, is an energetic and incisive documentary on Southern cooking that celebrates its history and deliciousness while stressing that it’s best consumed in moderation. Less represented on screens is the lead in the short A Lover’s Call: a devout D.C. Muslim who falls for a woman he mistakenly IDs as one of his own. And some ultra-talented Philadelphia artists get play too; among them, singers Res and Bilal are the respective centerpieces of The Res Documentary, of which a 15-minute preview will be shown (followed by a Q&A with the lady herself and the film’s director, Steve Zegans), and the short film Being Bilal.
Holmes is particularly enthusiastic about Andrew Dosonmu’s Restless City, a story of a young musician (pictured above) that distinguishes itself through gorgeous cinematography, for which it was feted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. For Holmes, it’s the kind of low-budget film black filmmakers should make more often. “I always hate to speak for all black people, but I often think we’re not exploiting what exists,” she says. “We’re trying to do Hollywood rather than thinking, ‘I have five dollars. I’m going to make a five-dollar film.’ There’s no black mumblecore.”
But a movement of such films is swelling. That includes Restless City which, like about half of BlackStar’s wares, has already played at least near Philadelphia: It screened in Cherry Hill as part of AFFRM, a collective that releases black indies into national theater chains. Ava DuVernay, who runs AFFRM and whose I Will Follow was its first release, will be at BlackStar to screen 20 minutes from her latest, Middle of Nowhere, a drama for which she became the first African-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance.
Holmes wanted to include another Sundance film, Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, but it was instead snatched up by the upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival, which requires premieres. She describes it as “an experimental love story” that’s only “black” because Terence is and his subjects are. “Why do black filmmakers always have to deal in blackness?” she asks. “Why can’t we just tell beautiful stories? Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and sometimes I just want to ape his style and put faces of color in his scenes.”
BlackStar isn’t Philadelphia’s first specifically black film festival, but it is the first in ages. Mike Dennis, who runs the longtime screening series Reelblack Presents—and whose doc Leaked Night at the Five Spot, on the now-defunct Black Lily and its players, will screen at BlackStar—says it’s the first of its kind since Darrell K. Henderson launched the International Black Film and Media Conference, which ran in 2006 and 2007. “Before then,” he says, “Philly was the largest city in the U.S. without its own annual African-American film festival.”
As for future iterations of BlackStar, Holmes says, “I don’t want it to get bigger. I want it to get deeper.” But even as she seeks more money and even more visiting filmmakers, though this year features plenty, she wants to keep it small and intimate. “I’d like it to have this small boutique feeling, where you remember everyone at the festival. Where you make relationships. And you keep going.”
BlackStar Film Festival: Thurs., Aug. 2-Sun., Aug. 5. $5-$75. For venues and times, visit blackstarfest.org.
Tomorrow night, the inaugural BlackStar Film Festival presents the first look at "The Res Documentary," a forthcoming feature film profiling rock and soul singer Res, a Philly homegirl.