For more than a decade, Leora Bryant of North Philadelphia has looked forward to the second Friday of the month. That’s when the Philly-based film and production company ReelBlack has hosted its long-running showcase of independent black films.
But that’s about to end. After 15 years and more than 150 screenings — including projects from indie talents Matthew Cherry, Tanya Hamilton, and Charles Murray — ReelBlack is ending the monthly event. The final screening will be Friday at United Bank of Philadelphia in West Philadelphia, home to ReelBlack Presents since 2013. The focus will be local filmmakers.
“It’s a total loss for me,” Bryant said. “I appreciated that with ReelBlack, I got to see films that I wouldn’t have any idea about. It was great for the community.”
ReelBlack’s founder, Michael Dennis, a filmmaker himself, said that finding spaces to host the screenings has become a challenge and that independent film series like ReelBlack now face competition from streaming services like Netflix, which might “pick up independent films before they even play their first screening."
Throughout its history, the monthly series had dedicated itself to helping people discover — or rediscover — black films. Its first screening event, on a frosty Friday in December 2003, took place on the second floor of what was then the Prince Theater (now Philadelphia Film Center) and featured the 1974 romantic-drama Claudine, starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll.
Dennis said the turnout exceeded his expectations. “Over 150 people were in the room when the lights came up.”
ReelBlack Presents hit its peak in 2012, with several sellout shows. Its 2016 tribute to Prince was so popular that the United Bank of Philadelphia hosted two sold-out screenings with more than 150 patrons apiece. A Teddy Pendergrass tribute that screened at the African American Museum of Philadelphia was also a big hit. Recently, fewer than 50 people have been showing up to the monthly events.
One secret to ReelBlack’s longevity, Dennis said, was forging partnerships with other supporters of independent black films. In 2008, he met filmmaker Ava DuVernay at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle — both had films in the festival.
DuVernay reached out to him a few years later, he said, to invite ReelBlack to be one of seven organizations in Array, a collaborative effort to distribute and promote films by women and people of color. He worked with DuVernay on 18 projects over five years, he said, including 2012′s Middle of Nowhere with Omari Hardwick and David Oyelowo.
“Mike championed my ideas to create a collective of like-minded arts advocates to further and foster black film,” DuVernay said. "He was a tremendous accomplice to my early efforts of disruptive film distribution. I salute him and ReelBlack on the spectacular work and the legacy of beautiful movies he delivered to us all.”
Like Bryant, Philly radio personality Lady B called the end of ReelBlack Presents a loss for the region.
In 2011, Dennis filmed A Salute to Lady B, a documentary celebrating her 30th anniversary on the air. It traced how her career helped shape both hip-hop music and the radio culture of Philly, with interviews and appearances by Russell Simmons, Will Smith, Jill Scott, and others.
“The thing I love most about Mike is his desire to get real stories out there," Lady B said. “His desire to tell the truth is steadfast. I’ll never forget what he did for me.”
While ReelBlack Presents is ending, the company will continue its ReelBlack YouTube channel, which has nearly 400,000 subscribers. The channel includes interviews with celebrities like Mo’Nique and Marlon Wayans, and original documentaries that explore the history of hip-hop.
Dennis said that ReelBlack will continue to serve its existing audience there. “My hope for the next 15 years is to focus on my creativity and make films in collaboration with so many of the talented black folks who are out there, or on their way."