Short films dominated the 2015 Blackstar Film Festival. Over 60 short films (expertly programmed into blocks devoted to music, Black boys and men, coming-of-age, experimental, social justice, love stories, fatherhood, satire and films from the diaspora), were screened this year, uniformly of good quality and reflecting facets of the black experience that seldom get expressed in mainstream cinema.
Among the best that I saw (I caught 20 films) were "Black Card" by Pete Chatmon; "The Bravest, The Boldest" by Moon Molson; "The Youth" by Dehanza Rogers; "Dream" by Nijla Mu’min and "Swimming In Your Skin Again" by Terence Nance.
In "Black Card," real-life husband-and-wife Dorian Missick and Simone Missick play a couple whose relationship is tested when one of them loses their “Black Card.” To what extent will they go to reclaim it? Can they stay together as a couple once their “blackness” is questioned? "Black Card" played to a full house and delivered consistent laughs throughout its 14 minute run time.
"The Bravest, The Boldest" has been cleaning up at fests since its premiere in last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Featuring a standout performance by Saameerah Luuqmaan-Harris as a Harlem mother who realizes the arrival of two uniformed soldiers to her housing project brings news she can’t bring herself to accept. Expertly written and directed, it paints a picture in a very nuanced, understated way. All taking place in one day, in one location, Molson maintains a perfect balance of exposition and tension that, when it finally is let loose, makes a powerful statement against war and its physical and emotional costs.
(It is interesting to note that "The Bravest, The Boldest" and "Black And Blue" — a well rendered short about a young man who receives news that he has been drafted into the Vietnam War – both won prizes in this year’s festival.)
"The Youth" is a portrait of a young man who is struggling to make a living, despite a college degree, in Los Angeles. Upon learning a friend has left the states to become a freedom fighter in their native homeland of Somalia, he is put in the position where he must make the same choice when he meets an old friend. "The Youth" serves as a companion to Roger’s previous short, "Sweet Sweet Country" (2013), which explored similar themes surrounding Kenyan immigrants.
"Dream" is a beautifully rendered story about a 12 year old girl who hopes that a return to the local carnival will help rekindle her parents fractured relationship. Set in a quiet southwestern town, where many of the fathers are away for long stretches as truck drivers, director Nijla Mu’min gets all the details right, from the shot of the girl singing a Rhianna song into a fan while alone in her room, to sucking on ring pops with her BFF, Dream has a nostalgic intimacy that stays in your mind long after the credits have rolled.
From its opening frame, Terence Nance’s latest, "Swimming In Your Skin Again," makes it clear that it does not exist to reinforce any pre-existing dogma. After a hyper-fast montage absolving itself of previous mythology, then proceeds to create a new myth where “Paradise is ones own place, one’s own world. Yet each child is cast from paradise,” incorporating dance, ritual, music and stellar cinematography. Starring Nance’s own brother Norvis Jr. (who gets to perform the title song) and his mother as a priestess, SIYSA is even more audacious and inventive than his feature debut, "An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty." While he is a two-time recipient of Tribeca’s All Access grant, during his Q&A, Nance re-iterated his cry for Black wealth to invest in Black Creativity. In a later panel he screened two short films he made in support of last years “Blackout Black Friday” campaign. Nance has been a regular presence at BlackStar since its inception and his work best represents the type of left-of-center vision for Black Cinema that BlackStar has earned a reputation for championing.
There was also space in the festival for more experimental work, including "Bus Nut" (dir. Akousa Adoma Owusu) which blended found footage from an early 80s educational film, a recording of Rosa Parks describing her refusal to move to the back of the bus in 1955, and new footage shot where an actress re-creates scenes from the found footage, to make a statement about racial segregation and progress. "An Ecstatic Experience" (dir. Ja’Tovia Gary) was inspired by a line in Kathleen Collins’ "Losing Ground" (1982) and consisted of animation over found footage of Ruby Dee reciting a slave narrative in a 1960s TV broadcast, documentary footage of Blacks in a rural church during the 1950s and a quote from Assata Shakur thrown in for good measure, to explore our connection to the church, slavery and rebellion.
Philadelphia musicians were showcased in two pieces: "A Couple Friends" starring Kindred The Family Soul was a collection of music videos shot for their most recent CD, tied together by a loose storyline written and directed by Jamal Hill ("Brotherly Love"). Hezekiah starred in "Dreams Don’t Chase Themselves," a trio of videos from his album of the same name.
BlackStar favorite Michael K. Williams starred in "The Devil Goes Down." As the title character, he transforms into a b-ball wizard (played by Trikz) to take on Stefan Baird in a game of one-on-one. Its always fun to see Michael K., but this might have been a waste of his talent as the basketball scenes went on way too long and the ending was trite. That being said, Williams does look good in a red suit.
"Spit" was written, directed and starred Mtume Gant as a young MC who is torn between his true vision for himself (as reinforced by this father’s words for him as a child) and calling it quits. This 16 minute film uses the device of being shot from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, giving it a unique flavor and opportunities for great camera work. Gant is a seasoned actor ("Carlito’s Way: Rise To Power") who is proving to be a great talent on the other side of the lens.
The audience award for favorite short was "Tap Shoes & Violins," directed by Dax Brooks. The most conventional of the films I viewed, it is a traditional rom-com set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles dating scene, it was buoyed by winning performances by its leads (Jessica Williams and Michael McKusker) and a smart script by Aireka Muse. It’s a story I’ve seen dozens of times, but not with this casting.
Other notable films were "Take 5" (dir. Jasmine Callis) about a filmmaker who discovers a secret about her subject, a top high school athlete; Joy (dir. Solomon Onita, Jr.), a drama revolving around female circumcision; "The Adventures of Jamel" (Jayson Musson), about a time travelling b-boy and director Shaka King’s "Mulignans," which does a role-reversal on Italian-American/African-American relations.
– Best Documentary Short – "Of Slaves and Saints" by Marcio de Abreu
– Audience Award, Documentary Short – "El Naza: The Black Christ of Portobelo" by Ayabo Kwyana
– Best Narrative Short – "The Bravest The Boldest" by Moon Molson
– Audience Award, Best Narrative Short – "Black and Blue" by Ciara Allen
– Audience Award Comedy Short – "Tap Shoes And Violins" by Dax Brooks