BlackStar Film Festival kicks off its 10th year Wednesday.
This, says BlackStar founder, artistic director, and CEO Maori Karmael Holmes, is a big deal.
Hallowed Ground picks up where Henry Hampton’s 14-part, award-winning civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize left off more than three decades ago.
The eagerly anticipated Hallowed Ground, directed by the Oscar-nominated Sophia Nahli Allison, explores the Black liberation movement through the eyes of today’s civil rights leaders and taps into the spiritual components of activism.
In what can only be considered a nod to BlackStar’s greatness, Hallowed Ground will premiere at the Mann Center at 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, as part of this year’s festival, and will also be livestreamed. Allison, along with the film’s executive producer Mervyn Marcano, will participate in a live question-and-answer session moderated by poet Sonia Sanchez.
While much of this year’s festival is virtual, a little more than a dozen movies will be screened outdoors, at the Mann Center or Eakins Oval on the Parkway. Two outdoor parties are also a part of the mix.
Powered by a fierce desire to uplift and validate the work of Black storytellers, the BlackStar Film Festival has evolved from a loose gathering of film geeks to the go-to destination of entertainment insiders and network executives looking to discover talented Black writers and directors. BlackStar is a soft place to land for Black, brown and Indigenous artists, an artistic lifeline in a world that offers very few.
Over the years A-list filmmakers and actors like Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and Michael K. Williams (The Wire and Lovecraft Country) have participated in workshops. Series and movies released on cable and streaming services, including Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness, Shannon Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth, Philadelphian Shantrelle P. Lewis’ In Our Mothers’ Gardens, were seen first at BlackStar.
This year, BlackStar was selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a qualifying festival for both documentary and narrative short films. That means BlackStar winners will be able to enter their work for the 2022 Academy Awards. BlackStar has proved an indispensable platform for Black filmmakers in America and abroad, shutting down the myth that there isn’t enough available Black talent to go around.
This year’s schedule of 80 movies and 14 panels is a lot to choose from. And although Holmes was shy about putting together a must-see activity list, I plan to check out these: Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, the 113-minute feature documentary by Sacha Jenkins telling the story of funkmeister James; Dear Philadelphia, a 28-minute short documentary about three fathers living in North Philadelphia; and Madame Pipi, a 25-minute short documentary that follows the lives of Haitian bathroom attendants working the nightclubs in Miami.
Organizing a festival during a global pandemic has been challenging, Holmes said. And although the networking aspect of BlackStar has been curtailed because fewer people are traveling to Philadelphia this time around, virtual movie screenings are helping BlackStar reach wider audiences. During BlackStar’s all-virtual festival in 2020, 33,000 viewers streamed movies and 3.5 million watched the festival’s free live panels, compared to a little more than 10,000 total festival attendees in 2019.
I caught up with Holmes, who also serves as the curator-at-large for film at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, earlier this week. During our chat, she was at the salon getting her nails painted in popping shades of pink, red, green, blue, and yellow — some of the signature hues of BlackStar. We talked about BlackStar’s impact on the film world, COVID-19′s impact on BlackStar, and what it’s like being the focus of an exhibit at the Philadelphia International Airport (currently on display in Terminal A East).
These answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
What excites you most about this year’s lineup?
What I’m most excited about is that we are able to have in-person screenings. [There will be nightly screenings at Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 8 to 11 p.m. Aug. 4-7. And on Aug. 8 BlackStar moviegoers can attend a full day of outdoor screenings at the Mann Center.] And the record number of submissions. We had twice as many as last year.
How did BlackStar manage to lock down the world premiere of Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground? That’s not small potatoes.
Sophia previewed her Oscar-nominated [short] film A Love Song for Latasha at BlackStar Film Fest two years ago. She’s a big supporter of the festival. The film’s executive producers [Black Lives Matter cofounder] Patrisse Cullors and [racial justice advocate] Mervyn Marcano are connected to the work we do, too. It was as if everything was aligned to have the film debut at this year’s festival.
Is there a central theme to this year’s BlackStar?
To continue the mission of the festival, and that is to continue to illuminate the stories of communities that are marginalized. [We want viewers] to recognize themselves, ourselves in these stories as it relates to their everyday lives, fighting to right health disparities and searching for justice.
Why is championing social justice important?
No one else is going to champion it, and our stories deserve to be told. We need work that is bold and daring and that features Black and brown folks.
And this matters in filmmaking. Why?
There are so many different paths to storytelling, not just what the industry shows us. Unless you were fortunate enough to attend international festivals, you may not know all of the ways we can explore the medium of film. We haven’t begun to explore the medium in ways that Black folks split music wide open in jazz, hip-hop and punk.
What are some of the changes affecting Black filmmakers these last 10 years?
That’s a massive question. I’ve been amazed at the number of filmmakers of color who have entered the DGA [Directors Guild of America]. The power brokers are changing. It’s not just lip service. We have seen more voters of color in the academy. This makes it seem like the changes are going to be lasting.
What is it like to be one of these people who have helped usher in these changes?
It’s a tremendous feeling, you know? The word that comes to mind is burden. I don’t mean burden in a negative sense, but it’s a great responsibility. [That’s why I’m] careful and intentional with the kind of work we choose. I’m constantly working on sticking to our values and our mission and not being glamoured.
Speaking of glamoured, what’s it like to walk through Philadelphia International Airport and see a retrospective of BlackStar?
I’m really amazed at how it came out. It’s overwhelming to look at the last 10 years of your lifetime, in one space. It’s a huge, huge honor.
For more information, a schedule of events, a film guide, to buy a pass, or watch films online, log on to the BlackStar Film Fest website at festival.blackstarfest.org. All-access passes are $125, virtual passes are $100, and BlackStar at the Mann is $45. Ticket information available here.