BlackStar Film Festival is putting the focus on black cinema

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Entering its third year when it opens on Thursday, the festival is quickly building a national reputation for featuring the best in film from the African diaspora and beyond.

BlackStar's organizers meet at Inter­national House. Back row, l-r: Adrienne Kenton, Marla Campbell Harris, Kamilah Clarke, Michelle Gilliard Houston, Patrice Worthy and Eugene Haynes. Front row, l-r: Denise Beek, Maori Karmael Holmes and Lauren Holland.
Mark Stehle

A spark of visual insurrection hit the web last month.

In the video, a woman dances before a mural of menacing boxers, her similarly hard-hitting moves mixing one-twos and two-steps at a breakneck pace. The unsettling churn of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” pulses in the background. The woman’s expressions send you to an uncomfortable place where quiet discontent has been ripped open to reveal incendiary rage. What happens next doesn’t really matter as much as your quick move to action against archaic power structures that keep you — and, seemingly, this dancer — from moving forward.

This isn’t Do the Right Thing’s opening sequence stuck on repeat in your DVD player, but instead the North Philly-shot trailer for this year’s BlackStar Film Festival, which takes inspiration from Spike Lee’s iconic intro. Local dancer and choreographer Melanie Cotton plays the Rosie Perez role, dancing as text echoing the festival’s theme (“MUSIC IS THE WEAPON”) and the names of venue/financial partners (International House, Annenberg Center, Knight Foundation, among others) flash in the foreground. 

Tribute to a historic independent film aside, BlackStar has taken some serious steps toward fighting the power structures that characterize the contemporary American movie industry and provide limited opportunities for minorities. 

Entering its third year when it opens on Thursday, the festival is quickly building a national reputation for featuring the best in film from the African diaspora and beyond. By prioritizing this work, the event is helping to foster a unique community for independent black filmmakers and artists who otherwise struggle to attain the means to create and showcase their works. The fest is also connecting big-name talent with rising stars — this year’s lineup features appearances from Michael K. Williams, Bilal and others whose work has garnered international acclaim. But the flashing of sponsor names over BlackStar’s trailer is rather telling, for no matter how innovative a festival might be, it still works within a system that ties it to funding. So, how does a film festival change and play the game at the same time?

Revolutions are guided by people who evade the spotlight, working tirelessly behind the scenes to get something off the ground with the strength of their own vision. Maori Karmael Holmes, BlackStar’s founding artistic director, is one of these people. Her demeanor, calm and precise, belies the frantic work she and a committed group of colleagues have put into this festival — all for no pay. Sitting at OCF Fairmount a few weeks ago, she understates an impressive background that includes an M.F.A. from Temple’s film program, journalism work (including a few pieces written years ago for City Paper), managing The Roots’ Black Thought and nearly seven years in foundations. Her entry into film festival organization in Philadelphia started with 2007’s Black Lily Film & Music Festival, which Holmes produced alongside Mercedes Martinez and Tracey Moore of the R&B duo Jazzyfatnastees. Black Lily laid the groundwork for BlackStar, but the rubber hit the road in 2012, when Holmes partnered with current BlackStar board member Sara Zia Ebrahimi on the Asian Arts Initiative-hosted KinoWatt Film series. Around then, Holmes noticed an opportunity: Ebrahimi had taken a summer off, but some dates for events had already been booked. This coincided with a cultural change that she noticed most prominently in Brooklyn, where spaces that existed for transgressive art were being reinvented.

“There were all these things happening in Brooklyn, it felt like something African was happening every week in music and fashion,” says Holmes. “The way that we think about Africa is often essentialist and not at all modern, so a lot of this stuff [in Brooklyn] was looking at contemporary art from Africa.” She adds, “Film is my wheelhouse, and I was noticing just how many things hadn’t been showing in Philly. And that was kind of crazy.”

The first festival occupied the void left by these unfilled bookings, materializing within only a few months, but it wasn’t easy. Here, Holmes could count on one of her best assets — the rare ability to coordinate intelligent and critical minds into a stronger collective. A cursory look at festival advisors reads like a brain trust of Philadelphia’s black cultural zeitgeist. Questlove and Black Thought serve as honorary co-chairs, while Martinez is board vice president. Working to help promote the festival through various media channels is Michael Dennis, the founder of ReelBlack Films, which has spotlighted black cinema and art in the city for almost a decade. Lesser known but pivotally important are members of the consulting advisory board: among them, West Philadelphia native Akiba Solomon, editorial director of (an eminent voice in critical discourse around art and multiculturalism), and Tayyib Smith, the media entrepreneur best known as co-founder and publisher of magazine.

Although never directly involved with the festival, the late Richard Nichols was a role model. “Like most people he worked with, our relationship became very familial and went beyond just a professional one,” says Holmes of longtime Roots manager Nichols, whom she met through Black Lily. “He was a major influence on me as someone working in the music industry who maintained a high intellectual curiosity and a standard for artistic excellence that I still feel is like no other.”

Although focused on film, BlackStar has become an annual gathering of black intelligentsia and artists of all kinds. The inaugural festival featured Philadelphia native Marc Lamont Hill, a noted public intellectual, activist and journalist, and last year’s hosted Spike Lee. This year’s music-centric festival will feature Kahlil Joseph, an emerging filmmaker noted for his mesmerizing art-film-like music videos; Arthur Jafa, a filmmaker and cultural critic; Greg Tate, a writer, film producer and musician; and Terence Nance, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow whose first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at Sundance in 2012 to considerable acclaim.

“I just kind of heard the lore of it,” says Nance of BlackStar. “I heard Maori’s name a lot and she reached out to me about attending last year. I was blown away by the curatorial vision, and how valued filmmaking as art-making was. And I think that that stands in direct contrast to a lot of other film festivals.”

This is an idea Holmes takes very seriously, and it is one of the reasons this festival has become a center of gravity for artists like Nance. “There are a lot of black film festivals. I think many of them are more Hollywood-oriented than we are, and so to them black film means black people are in it,” says Holmes, referring to this as “Hollywood films in brown face.”  “I’m not knocking that, you need a diversity of representation. But we’re not that festival. We’re really trying to be independent in spirit and aesthetic.”

This is plain to see in the festival schedule, which is populated with shorts, experimental works and documentaries. Another emphasis of Holmes’ curatorial vision is internationalism. Lauren Holland, BlackStar’s Philly-bred and D.C.-based associate director, describes the intent as focusing “on the African diaspora and on black people who are native to different parts of the world. We really want to expand the definition of what that means, the global experience of different types of black people.”

Maori Karmael Holmes

BlackStar stands in opposition to a long-standing problem in filmmaking. Every year the Bunche Center at U.C.L.A. releases what it calls its “Hollywood Diversity Report,” which details statistics demonstrating a clear marginalization of minorities in the film industry. The 2014 report concludes that while “films and television shows with casts that reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to post high box-office figures or ratings during the study period, minorities and women were nonetheless woefully underrepresented among the corps of directors, show creators, writers and lead actors.”

In response to questions about the necessity of BlackStar, Tayyib Smith says, “Anyone who asks why this needs to exist is operating in a space of privileged ignorance. If you’re asking why does there need to be more complex images of people of color, that’s because you have a plethora of images in films that look like you … from buffoon to hero.”

“What we see is who we become,” says Holland. “Media is what shapes our culture.” What BlackStar is trying to do is make space for “something beautiful, something thought-provoking, something independent and something truly diverse. There’s value in that, because once we see different people’s experiences, it expands our compassion and humanity. That’s the value of this festival.”

The rigor of Holmes’ vision and the commitment to indie and international film that has solidified BlackStar’s reputation so quickly may also prove to be a problem in future funding. “A lot of our films are not going to do well [commercially],” Holmes admits. “They’re not meant to sell necessarily, and I think we struggle with that because people don’t know what the films are. So if I say Terence Nance and Arthur Jafa, the funders are like, who’s that?”

Holmes, Holland and the small, year-round volunteer staff are all essentially working remotely. If BlackStar can be said to have an office, it is Maori Holmes’ living room. “It’s hard, because I know the funding is out there, I know we can identify it, I know we have an event that’s worthy of it,” says Holland, “But, you know, I gotta eat, so unfortunately I can’t commit to this full-time. It’s bigger than just showing a few films.”

Sustaining the festival financially has become the principal difficulty. “What we really have to figure out is how to get more arts money,” says Holmes. “We met with Pew to see how to get into that kind of space. You know, people who are interested in unfundable things,” she laughs, “We’ve been trying to go the corporate sponsorship route [and have succeeded with PECO, which is sponsoring The Youth Program and Shorts: Coming of Age], but we don’t have enough gloss for that. And I’m not interested in pursuing that only for the money.”

That’s where an organization like the Knight Foundation, a philanthropic enterprise engaged with media and the arts nationwide, comes in. Dennis Scholl, the foundation’s vice president of the arts, credits BlackStar’s efforts to increase the visibility of independent filmmaking in Philadelphia as the reason why it won the competitive Knight Challenge Grant of a $25,000 matching award that allowed the festival’s budget to expand from $15,000 in 2012 to $75,000 in 2013 (the first year of the grant), and $100,000 this year.

“Supporting BlackStar was an easy choice for us given the level of effort that [Holmes has] put into it,” says Scholl. And he wasn’t deterred by Holmes’ internationalist ambitions and the fact that there weren’t any Philadelphia filmmakers in the festival this year. “The idea of expanding the festival into an internationally renowned festival fits perfectly with our vision of artistic excellence,” he responded. “Having it located in Philadelphia is still a big plus for the community, because it gives the community access to films they might not have seen otherwise.”

But the Knight Foundation’s grant expires this year, and since the Knight Challenge Grant is meant for new projects, BlackStar will have to move on, though maybe not too far. While declining to provide details about continuing a relationship with BlackStar, Scholl seems enthusiastic about the future. “I’ll put it to you this way: While we haven’t received a request for additional funding, she has certainly delivered the goods on her initial grant from us. And if you’ve ever done any grant seeking, you’ll know that’s a very favorable response.”

As for Holmes, her vision for the festival isn’t shrinking. She wants a permanent staff and eventually a screening space for year-round programming and community workshops, and enough funding to create a seminar environment by bringing the filmmakers to the festival. “We’re here,” she says, not needing to utter the rest — and they’re not going away.

Blackstar Film Festival, Thu.-Sun.,July 31-Aug. 3, free-$10 individual events, $125 festival passes, various locations, 877-435-9849,

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