BlackStar organizer Maori Karmael Holmes, photo by Zakee Kuduro for Okayplayer.
As Philadelphia recovers from the sound and fury of the Democratic National Convention next week, another–perhaps more meaningful–convergence of ideas and spectacle will just be kicking off: BlackStar Film Festival. Combining the collegial warmth of a family reunion and the cool of Tribeca’s red carpet, BlackStar has had a 5-year winning streak, fueled by a fierce allegiance to progressive politics, artistry and diversity as told annually by a selection of rising and established filmmakers of color who are willing to push back against the status quo and produce in spite of sometimes paltry funding for their stories.
At a time when the value of black life is a hot button issue, the most lauded actors of color are speaking out against a lack of diversity at the top and Hollywood’s investment in the monolith persists, the question could very well be asked: How much does black film and safe spaces for filmmakers of color truly matter? And whether this trove of brilliance maintained by black and brown people can, in the end, lend a bit more humanity to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. A growing platform for world-class talent and cinema, the BlackStar Film Festival has garnered accolades that belie its diminutive size and led many to wonder why it took so long for a venue like this to flourish — thirsty film buffs and casual viewers flocking to the 4-day fest like it was a port in a storm. Just as compelling, is the story of how BlackStar has managed to thrive in times of economic scarcity. While infinite possibilities hover above the horizon for the little festival that could, founder and chief organizer, Maori Karmael Holmes, is probably the only person that can truly drop science or say for certain what’s next. OKP took the time to build with her about the future of BlackStar and Black Film as a whole…
Okayplayer: At its inception, where did the BlackStar Film Festival come from? What drives it?
Maori Karmael Holmes: The festival comes out of a void. I was initially looking to program a couple of films and then realized how many had not screened in Philly or not screened widely enough in the festivals that existed or the available streaming venues. Some of that is that our town doesn’t have a lot of repertory film work. We don’t have what New York or LA or even D.C. or Chicago have in terms of repertory access. Some of it is also the common problem of the gatekeepers not seeing things as important or vital. So a great deal of my work involves connecting these films and filmmakers to audiences that – once they know about the work – would be appreciative. Or to those interested in the films that didn’t know where they could find them. I feel like I’m dealing in vintage clothes or something. It’s like life before the Internet, when people would be looking for a certain label and it could only be found in a particular place? I feel like part of my job has been to link these rare opportunities with people that want them, whether they know it or not. Black people have more visibility as compared to other communities of color. We can’t deny that you see more black people than you do Latinos or Asians or Indigenous folks, so we can’t say, “Oh, we’re invisible.” What is invisible is our diversity. You get to see one kind of black person. But it’s also this idea that isn’t necessarily real. It’s a stereotype. I think we’ve talked about those old school tropes of the mulatto, the mammy, the coon, the buck, and how they still persist today, although they look a little different. I remember Spike Lee talking about the phenomenon of the “Magical Negro.” We get to be this superhuman, magical, happy person always in service of some white central character. Rarely are we the central character. When we are, it’s these pathological tropes. Some single mother, dope dealer or pimp. And not that those stories aren’t important. But if you keep repeating them, that is going to be what viewers decide black people – particularly black Americans – truly are.
OKP: How do you think that affects people’s perceptions of themselves? Particularly people of color?