Maori Karmael Holmes, Founder Of The BlackStar Film Festival, Explains Why We Should Support Black Filmmaking
Maori Karmael Holmes says that when she conceived the idea of the BlackStar Film Festival, she wasn’t thinking about black films, but rather, showcasing the work of black filmmakers.
“I’m not sure if I believe in a separate land of black film,” she said, noting how Hollywood tends to define “black films” as just movies having black people in them or even working on them.
“There is just film, and there are makers, who represent different backgrounds. And their stories are often marginalized because the people who tell them are often marginalized. So I am doing this festival because I want everyone to have access to these filmmakers just like we have access to the mainstream media.”
And access is a huge deal, particularly for black filmmakers. During her (and her committee of other festival organizers’) own search for films by black filmmakers to showcase in the festival, Holmes said that she was never short on productions which fit the bill. However, what does come as a surprise is how many films have not even been shown in Philadelphia, which is the fifth largest city in the country.
More depressing is thinking about how many of these films will likely never have an opportunity to be seen or appreciated.
But now in its third year, the BlackStar Film Festival, which will run from July 31 to August 3 in Philadelphia, will host more than 40 feature and short films by black filmmakers hailing from four different continents. The theme for this year’s festival is “Music is The Weapon,” and will highlight the “intersections of the two creative industries.” Documentaries featured include Time is Illmatic, which is about the making of Nas’ 1994 classic debut album, Illmatic, and Til Infinity: Souls of Mischief, which highlights the 20th anniversary of the critically acclaimed Souls of Mischief album, 93 ’til Infinity.
However, Holmes says that the festival’s main message has always been to support black creatives telling a wide range of stories. Diverse stories like the experimental documentary Dreams are Colder than Death, which is directed by Arthur Jafa and revolves around the philosophical questions of what it means to be Black in America today. And there is They Die by Dawn, directed by Jeymes Samuel and stars Erykah Badu, Nate Parker, Michael K. Williams, Rosario Dawson and many other notable black actors. The film tells the story of a showdown between real life black cowboys and outlaws.
There are also films, which grapple with identities outside of stereotypical blackness like the documentary film Little White Lie, which shares the story of Lacey Schwartz’s upbringing in a typical middle-class Jewish family, harboring a secret about her biological father (here’s a hint: he’s black). And then there is Black and Cuba, another documentary film by Robin Hayes, which follows three street-smart Ivy League students as they run off to Cuba in search of revolution.
There’s also the tale of two Nigerian sisters finding love and trying to survive the Biafran War in Half of a Yellow Sun, which is directed by Biyi Bandele and based off the book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Despite this film receiving critical praise for its acting work (specifically Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and screening at film festivals internationally (the film’s original release date was May 16, 2014), this will be the first time audiences in Philadelphia will have a chance to see it on the big screen before it’s released on DVD.
As Holmes notes, it is those kind of opportunities for support and exposure, which she hopes the BlackStar Film Festival will create for both audiences and filmmakers.
“Independent filmmaking has definitely made the filmmaking process more accessible for more people. But that doesn’t mean the distribution has expanded that much. In some ways, there is so much in the market place and people don’t know where to get it. So the festival for us is a way to provide a targeted platform. You know you can come to the festival and you trust our vision. You can definitely see these films in this place and on the big screen,” she says.
Holmes hopes that in addition to supporting black films, and more specifically black filmmakers, people will come and support talented artists in general. And by supporting these projects, Holmes says that we are bypassing the tastemakers and creative powers, who are charged with green-lighting projects but don’t always find stories told from marginalized groups to be relevant.
“There are certain stereotypes and tropes that get play. And if you don’t fit into those, then the gatekeepers will say, ‘I’m not interested,’ rather than seeing that there is incredible diversity in everyone’s story. And that is what I feel like we are trying to do, is to share that diversity because it doesn’t always make it in the mainstream.”
BlackStar Film Festival screenings will take place at various locations in Philadelphia, and the full schedule of events is available here. Passes available until July 30th. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit: blackstarfest.org