As It Turns 10, the BlackStar Film Festival Continues to Be More Than Just ‘the Black Sundance’

The Philadelphia event has become an annual celebration of cinema arts not only of Africa and its diaspora, but also of global communities of color.
Maori Karmael Holmes, BlackStar Film Festival
Maori Karmael Holmes, CEO and artistic director, BlackStar Film Festival
Daniel Jackson

When Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival opens its doors — both in-person and for virtual events — later this week, the venerable annual event will be celebrating a major milestone: its tenth anniversary. It’s a major turning point for a festival that has come to be recognized as a significant celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora, as well as of global communities of color.

Over the past decade, the festival has enjoyed continued growth, both in the scope and reach of the festival itself and with new and ongoing year-round initiatives. As it passes into its next decade, there’s only more to come. Initially dubbed by members of its community as “the Black Sundance,” the nickname spoke to its ambitions. Since then, its scope has expanded significantly: In 2014, the decision to include submissions from brown and indigenous filmmakers all over the world was first made in 2014 and continues to impact the shape of the event.

The festival is named after early 20th century Black nationalist and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line shipping and passenger company, which was designed to create a link between North America and Africa. But there’s no evidence that the name, or the story that inspired it, has deterred non-Black filmmakers from submitting work for consideration, and there are no plans to change it. Mostly, the festival’s curatorial staff favor boundary-pushing work with social justice themes.

“There’s still a centering of Black narratives, even as we broaden, whether that’s Black filmmakers from Nigeria or Black filmmakers from Guadeloupe,” said Nehad Khader, an early BlackStar volunteer who rose to became festival director. “Also, there’s another component, which is that anti-Blackness is a global thing that we also want to continue to confront, and if you consider internationalism in the sixties, seventies and eighties, global Blackness also shaped a lot of the ways that people defined themselves, particularly as folks were coming out of colonialist processes and de-Europeanizing.”

Nehad Khader, BlackStar Film Festival
Nehad Khader, director, BlackStar Film FestivalVictoria Ford

The festival’s early references to Sundance has grown less relevant with time. “Sundance is shorthand for a serious indie film festival that’s going to have the kind of work you wouldn’t see anywhere else, so that was really affirming,” said CEO and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes. “But I wouldn’t use it at this stage. We want to not just tell Black stories, but also those of our allies, like a political Global South lens, and that’s happened organically throughout the festival. The BlackStar team has looked like that from the beginning and I think because of that, we started getting submissions from artists who were not Black but felt a kinship to what we were doing.”

Even after a decade of measurable impact, BlackStar continues to operate like an underdog. “We’re still fighting to get people to premiere with us — although we don’t necessarily need a world premiere — particularly with major narrative films, understandably, because we are not quite a marketplace yet, and we’re still dealing with corporations giving us the run around because they haven’t heard of us, so I don’t know that I feel rested being a must-attend festival,” Holmes said. “This is just how I’m built. I definitely am proud of the work that we’ve done. We work really hard to be consistent, to have some rigor, and we’re really excited for that.”

That ethos has led to BlackStar becoming an Oscar qualifier for narrative and documentary short films, among its other key accomplishments. Holmes is especially proud of in-person conversations with cinematographer Bradford Young and artist, filmmaker, and cinematographer Arthur Jafa as well as the world premiere of Terence Nance’s HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness” in 2018. “That was our first time having a world premiere event on that level, with a red carpet and everything,” Holmes said. “It was definitely validating and affirming that he chose to do that with us at that time.”

It’s not easy to point to a single moment that was instrumental in the organization’s forward movement or what it might look like in the years to come. Holmes spoke highly of their relationship with Stanley Nelson’s non-profit Firelight Media, which produces work from non-fiction filmmakers of color. “They’re so supportive of us, and we also look to them really as a model,” she said of the 23-year-old Firelight. “It’s interesting to think about how we can grow looking at an organization that has been committed to doing this work in a successful and rigorous way, but one that’s still grounded in social justice values.”

For Khader, it’s also about the kinship developed between the festival, its filmmakers, and attendees. “It’s years of consistency and trust-building, and as a result, a lot of things happen through people meeting each other at the festival, and engage in conversations that continue well beyond, and partnerships in some cases develop from those conversations,” she said. “I’ve experienced moments where I’ve been in the theater and an entire audience stands up in applause, because whatever happened on screen moved them that much. Those are highlight moments all the time, and I’m always hoping for them to repeat.”

BlackStar Projects, which was launched in January 2020, now serves as the festival’s parent organization. New initiatives announced since then include Seen, a print journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities globally which is published twice a year, plus the podcast “Many Lumens,” which finds Holmes in dialogue with artists and industry change-makers.

Other new initiatives include the William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar; an inaugural edition took place virtually back in March. Based on the success of the festival’s day-long filmmakers’ symposium, the three-day gathering for artists of color working in cinema featured a keynote address from Ghanaian filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo (“Afronauts”), a live Director’s Commentary event with Yance Ford (“Strong Island”), along with curated programs of short films, panel discussions with industry professionals, and much more.

There’s much more of that to come. The institute will launch the Philadelphia Filmmaker Lab later in 2021, and plans for a youth institute and a film distribution arm remain in the offing. Still, the festival remains its central effort, and this year’s lineup reflects an evolving organization and world. The festival is starting to see benefits from what has been referred to as a “renaissance” in BIPOC cinema, as new diversity initiatives are introduced across the film and television landscape. Despite a global pandemic that derailed production on Hollywood and independent film production, measurable advances include an uptick in the number of submissions, especially from previously untapped countries like Iran and Colombia.

Spike Lee, Tarana Burke, BlackStar 2019
Spike Lee in conversation with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke at BlackStar 2019Imran Siddiquee

“The number of submissions that we’ve gotten this year is definitely record-breaking, and all the program committees were surprised going into it because of the pandemic, and we just didn’t realize that there would be such an exponential increase,” Khader said.

However, this year’s event will screen fewer films, selected via a combination of hand-picked work, as well as those sourced from submissions. “We’ve been trying to figure out what our sweet spot is in terms of how many films to invite, taking into consideration what being of color means within the United States, but also who is indigenous outside of our borders as well,” said Khader.

The program will take place over five days this year, primarily online and with a handful of in-person events. Eighty films will be presented, representing 27 countries, including 18 world, two North American, and seven U.S. premieres. Twenty-nine additional films will be Philadelphia premieres.

Highlights include the world premiere of the feature documentary “Strength,” which chronicles an indigenous youth basketball team in Oaxaca, Mexico; the Philadelphia premiere of the feature narrative “Eyimofe” (“This Is My Desire”), which follows the stories of a pair of Lagosians on their quest for what they believe will be a better life on foreign shores; and the feature narrative “The Inheritance,” which weaves the history of the West Philadelphia-based MOVE Organization, the Black Arts Movement, and a narrative based on the filmmaker’s younger years when he was a member of a Black radical collective. The festival will also celebrate the Philadelphia premiere of Sundance hit documentary “Writing with Fire,” which profiles India’s only newspaper run by a group of women journalists who break traditions on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues and within the confines of their homes.

Holmes noted that she grew up in a Pan-African household, where she was inculcated with the belief that allyship with other people of color was the only way for all to survive. That mentality informs her ongoing approach to the festival’s purpose. “One of the things that I learned from having intimate relationships with non-Black people was how much Black cultural production and Black struggle in the U.S., and Black liberation politics shape their own understanding of themselves,” she said. “I’m Black and I will be Black, but it is very much about a Blackness that is inclusive. That’s the thing that Black people do, we always make room for everybody else. I think we should, but in doing that, we’re still centered.”

The BlackStar Film Festival runs August 4 — 8 with both in-person and virtual events.

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