20 Years Of Chicago’s Black Film Festival

July 30, 2014
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From August 1 through 28, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents the 20th anniversary edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival, celebrating the stories, images, heritage, and history of the Black experience in the U.S. and around the world.

Black Harvest is Chicago’s largest- and longest- running Black film festival. This year, Black Harvest features Chicago premieres, over 30 filmmaker appearances, panel discussions, and special events. Presented will be a combined total of over 40 features, documentaries, and shorts, including a number connected to Chicago.

All screenings and events are at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, located at 164 N. State St.

Many of the early discoveries at the festival have gone on to become established career filmmakers, while new, emerging filmmakers are just now making their mark. This 20th anniversary festival is bigger and more diverse than ever, with personal appearances by filmmakers at almost every show.

Special Opening, Closing Nights

The kick-off is opening night, Friday, August 1, when NBC5’s LeeAnn Trotter emcees “A Black Harvest Feast.” Included is the presentation of this year’s Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership to Chaz Ebert and (posthumously) Roger Ebert for their work in advancing minority and independent filmmaking efforts, which Chaz tirelessly continues through RogerEbert.com.

Opening night offers a sneak preview of the 2014 “harvest” through six short films. In Delmar Washington’s CHRIS’S BRISS (2013, 12 min.), a recently engaged man discovers that love cuts both ways. Schizophrenia results in a wildly imaginative ride on a London bus in Oliver Azis’s FRAYED (2013, 9 min.).

In Elizabeth Myer’s STRANGE FRUIT (2014, 12 min.), a 1930 Indiana lynching is rousingly repurposed. Two beauties spar over opposing views of love in THE WAY YOU LOVE by Lydia Darly (2014, 10 min.). A schoolboy’s vision of the future gives his teacher a colorful lesson in reality in VIVRE by Maharaki (2013, 13 min.). Derrick Sanders’s PERFECT DAY (2013, 17 min.) takes a charming high school romance to another level.

Directors Delmar Washington (CHRIS’S BRISS), and, tentatively, Derrick Sanders (PERFECT DAY) will be present. Special admission prices for this program are general admission $25; students $20; members $15.

After the show, Siskel Center neighbors and partners The Joffrey Ballet and Chicago Sinfonietta will help throw an unforgettable 20th anniversary party at Joffrey Tower.

Closing night August 28 will be equally memorable with the premiere of Norry Niven’s FROM ABOVE (aka CHASING SHAKESPEARE), starring Danny Glover, and a closing night party sponsored by Whole Foods Market.

In FROM ABOVE, the love of a lifetime strikes with the force of lightning in this magic realist tale steeped in Native American myth and the poetic power of Shakespeare. The story unreels in flashback as William Ward (Glover in one of his best roles in years) and his cherished wife Venus face a climactic meeting of the heavens and the earth one stormy night.

Young William long ago fell for Native American Venus, would-be star of a small-town “Romeo and Juliet,” but her Lightning Clan ancestors set a course of trials for the impulsive African-American suitor, not least of which is coming to terms with her Broadway ambitions. Tentatively, Danny Glover will be present for audience discussion.

So far, more than 30 filmmakers are confirmed to be present for discussion at screenings. Appearances range from famed director/actor Bill Duke with a screening of a 35mm print of his 1991 classic A RAGE IN HARLEM to current and former Chicago-based directors including: Josh MacNeal (THE 4TH MEETING), Daniel Nearing (HOGTOWN), Deri Tyton (FINDING FOREVER IN LOVE), and Derek Dow (CONDOMS).

Kevin Willmott, director of last year’s hit DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO!, returns with the basketball-themed JAYHAWKERS. Director Rob Underhill, another Black Harvest alum, appears with DAR HE: THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, which features a tour-de-force performance by actor Mike Wiley in 36 roles.

Elzbieta Szoka discusses THAT DAUGHTER’S CRAZY, her profile of Rain Pryor, while Maia Weschler appears with her political documentary MELVIN & JEAN: AN AMERICAN STORY, and Lacey Schwartz drops in via Skype to discuss her very personal documentary LITTLE WHITE LIE.

Chicago Connection

Five short films were made in Chicago and/or feature Chicago talent: In Derek Dow’s tense and twisty CONDOMS (2014, 11 min.), the title item sparks discord between a couple. In Lonnie Edwards’s impressionistic PARIETAL GUIDANCE (2014, 14 min.), a young girl’s daily journey to and from school exposes her to both threat and kindness. In Marion McMillan’s heartfelt CROSSING JORDAN (2014, 19 min.), a female pastor’s unholy past threatens her future.

In Jessica Murphy and Elissa Nadwerny’s effective documentary TAKING OVER, TAKING BACK (2013, 16 min.), an anti-eviction movement fights to save a neighborhood. Derrick Sanders’s PERFECT DAY (2013, 17 min.) takes a charming high school romance to another level. Directors Derek Dow (CONDOMS) and Lonnie Edwards (PARIETAL GUIDANCE) will be present for audience discussion at both screenings; Derrick Sanders (PERFECT DAY) on Saturday only.

On Thursday, August 7 at 8 p.m., Chicago Film Archives has restored two remarkable “lost” films that shed new light on an overlooked chapter of Chicago history: the role of gangs in West Side neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the organization known as the Vice Lords and, later, the Conservative Vice Lords.

LORD THING in particular qualifies as a major rediscovery, not only for its eye-opening subject matter, but also for its dynamic style – an urgent mosaic of speeches, recollections, on-the-spot footage, and vigorously staged rumbles.

Spawned by poverty and police harassment, the Lords eventually turned from destructive street violence to constructive social activism, only to be targeted by the Daley administration as a political and economic threat.

LORD THING is preceded by THE CORNER, which uses a collage of voices to accompany evocative images of gang-dominated life at the corner of Lake and Holman. Both films are in 16mm.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring youth violence expert Dr. Lance Williams of Northeastern Illinois University; street gang prevention specialist Benneth Lee of the National Alliance For The Empowerment of The Formerly Incarcerated; and prison reform advocate Cynthia Kobel of Second Chance Initiative.

Two special events are designed with the aspiring or beginning filmmaker in mind. The August 10 free workshop “The Realities of Screenwriting” will provide valuable tips. On August 16, “Action! The Real Deal About Filmmaking: Money, Casting, Production, and Distribution,” this year’s edition of the free, ever-popular Black Harvest panel and workshop, will cover every aspect of production and feature down-to-earth advice and practical information from guest producers and directors.


Ticket Information

Tickets to each screening – unless stated otherwise – are $11/general admission, $7/students, $6/Film Center members, and $5/Art Institute faculty, staff, and students. All tickets may be purchased at the Film Center box office.

Black Harvest festival passes are available at the Gene Siskel Film Center for $50 per pass (a $92 value), which includes six movies for the price of five plus a free small popcorn with each film. Pass holders who purchase a Gene Siskel Film Center membership at the end of Black Harvest receive a $5 discount when they turn in their passes.

A Gene Siskel Film Center membership is a year-round ticket to great movies for only $6 per screening. Memberships are $50 (individual) and $80 (dual). For more information, call 312/846-2600, or visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org.


(For more information, movie schedules, descriptions and updates on the Black Harvest Festival, visit: http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest_2014.)

David Smallwood

David Smallwood

Editor of N'DIGO Magapaper
David Smallwood

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