When the 2019 edition of the BlackStar Film Festival wrapped up a year ago, the big question surrounding the Philadelphia-based annual festival was where it would take place going forward. BlackStar was formerly housed at the Lightbox Film Center at International House near the University of Pennsylvania, but that venue shut down last year when the building was sold.
BlackStar has since set up shop at Penn’s Annenberg Center, but this year, of course, it couldn’t take place at any venue. But the 2020 edition of the festival went ahead with a weeklong online program, which was punctuated with three in-person drive-in screenings, including one of Be Water, the recent ESPN documentary about Bruce Lee. There were also panels, Q&A events, and even “digital parties.”
The festival, founded nine years ago by Maori Karmael Holmes, is described as “an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global communities of color, showcasing films by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from around the world.”
There were more than 90 films that screened in total; here’s a look at four of the best features I saw:
An eye-opening documentary about how the rising category of facial recognition technology, which it convincingly argues is administered in a biased manner, and sometimes even one that enforces policies of mass incarceration.
The film, a Sundance debut directed by Shalini Kantayya, finds a compelling protagonist in Joy Buolamwini, an MIT researcher who created an organization to fight these biases called the Algorithmic Justice League. There’s also some fascinating stuff in the film about just how pervasive the surveillance state is.
There’s no word yet on a release date.
Here’s an astonishing cinema verite doc, about a population of homeless, mostly black, gay, and transgender kids who congregate on the piers on the West side of Manhattan, mostly on Christopher Street and in Chelsea, not far from where the Stonewall riot took place in 1969.
I used to see kids like this when I lived in New York, and remembering the tension between the people living in the West Village at the time – also gay, but older, whiter, and much richer – and the kids who came to the neighborhood at night.
Directed by Elegance Bratton, the film tells these kids’ stories, which are often dangerous and heartbreaking. The film was shot over the course of several years, and expertly tells the sort of story not often seen on screen.
This film is even longer in the making. Directed by William Greaves, it was shot at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, where 10,000 participants, including Black leaders of many ideologies and traditions, gathered to plot a way forward during the Nixon era.
Greaves’ film, at least in its original form, was lost for years, and only recently restored in 4K. It’s an amazing time capsule, for anyone who’s a student of that particular era of history.
We see long segments in which the likes of Jesse Jackson, Amiri Baraka, and Dick Gregory address the conference, with performances from the likes of Isaac Hayes. The main takeaway that many of the issues discussed nearly 50 years ago are still being argued about today.
The festival’s closing film is a lovely, very human family story, directed by the female Tanzanian filmmaker Ekwa Msangi. It’s the story of a man, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) who emigrated from Angola to the United States 17 years earlier, who’s finally reunited with his wife and daughter (Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson), who finally received permission to come to the U.S.
Like the amazing Portuguese filmVitalina Varela, which came out earlier this year, Farewell Amor is a family immigration story, but the story is told much differently.
We’re presented with the same scenes told from each of the main characters’ points of view, and it all ends up in a surprising and sweet place.
Farewell Amor is being released by IFC later this year.
And the winners are…
Miss Juneteenth was the winner for Best Feature Narrative, while Stateless was the pick for Best Feature Documentary. Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom and Daughters Of were the co-winners of the Shine Award, for local filmmakers.
The film Allumuah won the Vimeo Staff Pick award, much means that short film is now free to watch on Vimeo
BlackStar will return, hopefully in person, in 2021.