FESTIVALS: Hollywood Back in Black; 2nd HBFF Shows Vision
by LaTrice A. Dixon
Culver City, California, known to southern Californians for its film studios and free parking, recently played host to hundreds of eager filmgoers at the 2nd Annual Hollywood Black Film Festival. Black Talent News, a monthly trade publication that focuses on Blacks in the film and television industry, presented the five-day festival, which took place February 24-28.
In an industry still grappling with the representation of people of color in its ranks and limited opportunities for the exhibition of films of color, the Hollywood Black Film Festival has shown real vision. From over 200 entries, this young and lively festival showcased the work of 48 emerging and established Black directors, ran 20 industry panels and managed to throw three spirited receptions and an awards ceremony sponsored by the likes of Sony, HBO, Kodak and Showtime.
Housed across the street from the formidable Sony Studios, festival screenings were held at the Mann Culver Theatres where independent films shared the marquee with such Indiewood fare as "Pitch Black" and "Scream." Additional screenings were offered at Culver Studios, which was sometimes difficult to trek out to. Festival attendees included agents, distributors, actors, and a couple of Kodak representatives.
Festival Founder and publisher of Black Talent News, Tanya Kersey-Henley, along with Jackie Blaylock, the festival organizer/programmer, and a host of volunteers created a filmmaker-friendly atmosphere where, for example, filmmakers got their prints hand delivered to them immediately after the screenings. They also made sure there were plenty of networking opportunities including open bars, music and hors d'oeuvres at the Culver City Hotel, and important panels where industry executives shared their expertise.
Seasoned film and television directors like Julie Dash ("Daughters of the Dust") and Neema Barnett ("A Different World," "The Cosby Show") lead a Director's Workshop, sponsored by the DGA, while fearless filmmakers were able to show off their stuff in Pitching: Guts & Grace. Pearlena Igbokwe, Vice President of Original Programming at Showtime, Mel Johnson of Alchemy Entertainment and others offered constructive criticism to eager filmmakers. All of the seminars were small, usually between 15-20 participants, which provided for intimate discussion.
Then there were, of course, the films. "The work [being shown] this year is a lot stronger," said Robert Wheaton, a story editor from Spirit Dance (Forest Whitaker's production company), who also attended the festival last year. People sat in the aisles to see filmmaker Donahue Tuitt's feature and audience award winner, "Marriage Prep," about four couples that embark on a marriage retreat.
Picking up the student award in the Women in Film section was Kelsey Scott's imaginative comedic short, "The Buse," about a spirit who tires of harassing mortals and tries to defect to the muses instead.
Some of the strongest work played in the short film category by East Coast filmmakers. Seth Mann's stirring film, "The Apology," a reflection on a woman's last encounter with her boyfriend, by whom she contracted HIV, was awarded top honors. Jono Oliver's "The Window," a hilarious comedic observation of a community that gets distracted by a mysterious image that appears in an apartment window, shared an award with Rod Gailes' "Twin Cousins."
The festival jury paid homage to the folks Down Under by bestowing honors to Australian filmmakers in the international section. Activist/director Richard Frankland brought "Harry's War," a short about the racism of the Australian government against Black soldiers and their families during its war against the Japanese. The mystical, "Radiance" by Rachel Perkins studied the relationships between three sisters who come together to bury their mother. Also worth mentioning in the international section was the heart-warming "Another Planet," by Christene Brown, which portrays a young woman who searches for her identity during a stay on a pig farm in Quebec.
Though the documentaries were scarce, Elizabeth Jackson's "Surviving Abyssinia" and W. Stinson McClendon and Rodney Thompson's "Through the Eyes of A Child" garnered honors by the festival.
As a special presentation and after a fresh stint at Sundance, veteran director Zeinabu Irene Davis' "Compensation" which shows two parallel love stories involving a deaf woman and a hearing man, brought together both deaf and hearing audiences here in southern Cal.
And what would a Hollywood festival be without its stars? Sightings included Isaiah Washington ("Get on the Bus"), Loretta Devine ("Waiting to Exhale"), Cynda Williams ("One False Move"), Lisa Raye ("Player's Club") and veteran actor Robert Hooks who jokingly introduced himself as Sidney Poitier.
In the able hands of Kersey-Henley and Blaylock, the Hollywood Black Film Festival will only get better, but it doesn't have too far to go. Not only providing a forum for the work of Black independents, the festival also provides a much-needed and hugely vital service to a too-often exclusionary film industry.
[LaTrice A. Dixon is a Brooklyn-based writer/director whose short film "The Book of Ezekiel" screened at this year's Hollywood Black Film Festival.]