Smithsonian Film Festival Examines African-American Life Through Dozens of Distinct Lenses

The first of its kind, the late-October event brings together perspectives both historical and contemporary

Haile Gerima’s 1993 classic film Sankofa envisions an African-American model visiting present-day West Africa mystically thrust into the life of a slave. (YouTube)
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In the face of renewed nativist political sentiment and the reemergence of bald-faced white supremacy on a national scale, American moviegoers of 2018 have been more receptive than ever to films tackling the knotty themes of the African-American experience and racially motivated injustice. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman uncomfortably linked the America of the early 1970s to the America of today; Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You threw a surreal spotlight on the dissonances of contemporary black identity; Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting inspected the notion of Oakland authenticity both black and white; and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther used a comic book allegory to probe the complex relationship of African-Americans to Africa.

It is in this climate of national cinematic reflection that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture kicks off its inaugural African American Film Festival, a jam-packed four-day affair that runs from October 24 through 27 at the museum, the Freer|Sackler Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the works of 15 separate up-and-coming auteurs whose nuanced portrayals of race represent the very best of a submission pool of 225, the festival will be showcasing roughly 65 films from years past—many archival—to illuminate the numerous facets of the African-American experience and how they have been reshaped over time.

Some of these 65 films provide brief, ephemeral visions of day-to-day African-American life, such as Pearl Bowser’s The Guest, a five-minute movie of 1977 which gives the viewer access to the inner thoughts of a black woman attending to chores around her home.

Other offerings are downright epic in their ambition, like Haile Gerima’s 1993 classic Sankofa, which sees an African-American model visiting present-day West Africa mystically thrust into the life of a slave as a terrifying lesson on the necessity of remembering one’s history.

Certain films will transport viewers to settings weighty with violent history, such as Charles Burnett’s 1970 effort Killer of Sheep, which examines life in Watts, Los Angeles, by charting the intimate story of a single African-American man working hand over fist to provide for his family while losing hold of a sense of identity in the process.

Connoisseurs of unflinching documentary filmmaking are also sure to find enriching fare at the festival. Madeleine Anderson’s 1969 work I Am Somebody, for instance, immerses viewers in the real-life tension of a strike in Charlestown, South Carolina, where black hospital workers massed in protest in the year of the film’s release to demand reasonable workplace regulations.

Other films to consider among the 65 include:

  • The Fight (1991): A potent reminder of the centrality of African-Americans to American pop culture even as their most fundamental rights were under heated debate, William Greaves’s documentary breathes fresh life into Ali and Frazier’s historic March 1971 Madison Square Garden matchup.
  • I, Destini (2016): In this animated short from Nicholas Pilarski and Destiny Riley, the latter’s true story of living as a teenager with a brother behind bars provides a deeply personal take on the role of America’s prison system in warping African-American families.
  • No Vietnamese Ever… (1968): This stirring David Loeb Weiss documentary offers a vantage on African-American anti-war fervor at the height of the Vietnam conflict, tracking a group of black marchers en route from Harlem the United Nations to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.
  • Quincy (2018): Very recently released, Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks’s rich documentary profile of legendary African-American record producer Quincy Jones paints in vivid brushstrokes the story of an endlessly interesting and influential American filled to the brim with personality.
  • Rebirth is Necessary (2017): This avant-garde contemporary film from director Jenn Nkiru, while only ten minutes in length, compresses centuries of history into its runtime, surreally blurring the lines between past and present, here and there in a subversion of spacetime sure to raise many provocative questions about the essence of blackness in America.

As for the competition films, they range in runtime from 10 to 112 minutes, and inspect African-Americans’ intersection with subjects running the gamut from modern-day Brazilian slavery to sexual abuse in the church to the distinctive musical scene of roller rinks. The 15 finalists will be judged by nine festival jurors, who will ultimately name five winners—one each in the stylistic categories of Narrative Feature, Documentary Feature, Narrative Short, Documentary Short and Experimental & Animation.

Rhea Combs, head of the museum’s Stafford Center for Media Arts, is thrilled to have the opportunity to bring such a rich mixture of representations of African-American life before ticketholders from the general public. “By screening world premieres next to films that haven’t been shown in decades or have been restored and preserved by the museum,” she says of the autumn event, “we are honoring our past, our present and our future.”

The Smithsonian African American Film Festival takes place at the National Museum of African History and Culture, the Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery of Art, October 24 through October 27. Tickets and passes are available for purchase here.

About Ryan P. Smith
Ryan P. Smith

Ryan recently graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Science, Technology and Society. His avocations include moviegoing and crossword puzzle construction.

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