BlackStar Film Festival...And Why Black Art Matters
BlackStar Film Festival...And Why Black Art Matters

BlackStar Film Festival...And Why Black Art Matters

BlackStar Film Festival...And Why Black Art Matters

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...

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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?


MKH: I think people make those images or stereotypes become their reality as well. Which is hard for me, because I feel like I fight everyday to combat that. Even in my personal relationships. I’ve been around groups of black women that will say “There’s no black men out there” or they’ll repeat things that make me feel like I’m in an episode of Love & Hip-Hop. I’ve had to say sometimes, “That’s not true. Those aren’t the black men that I know. I know it’s not the black men that you know.” But when we repeat these kinds of things they become true. When the N.W.A. film was out – I have not seen it – but commenting on the comments, I’ve seen what people are saying about the misogyny and the difficulties of loving hip-hop as a woman. About the complications that come with it. Realizing it’s misogynist but accepting that this is also a huge part of your cultural history is a precarious thing. I think we do that dance a lot. I definitely see a shift post-Diddy in how we relate to each other. Even that era and the way people partied was not based on reality. It was based on music videos. We definitely take that sort of fantasy and apply it to our lives. And some of that is normal. That’s how social change happens. It is because of things people read or other media. But the sad parts for me are the flawed expectations we have for our partners or our families. Or this accepted idea that we should take the statistics and headlines and sensationalized information being fed to us and take them on as truths, when they are not true.

OKP: Looking back on the festival from its inception until now, how does it feel to be going into your 5th year and what are your expectations?

MKH:  I’m really proud of the growth that we’ve had in our audience. It’s a sustained growth. We continue to draw more and more people to the festival and have them come back. I’m really happy that our audience is incredibly diverse, at which we work really hard. My point in doing the festival was to highlight black filmmakers. It wasn’t to make something specifically for black audiences, because the issue for me is that these black folks’ films don’t get out there. So, I want everyone to see this work. I’m happy that we’ve had age diversity. There are babies and elders in the room. Everybody is showing up. We’ve gotten critique that we could have more “around the way” folks, but I’m happy for the diversity that we do have. On our staff we also have people with a bunch of different backgrounds, which also lends itself to bringing those people in the door. I’m proud of being part of the vanguard. We have premiered some films and those films have gone on to do well in some other spaces. The artists that have shown with us – even in a short time – have gone on to win awards and do other cool things. We’ve been early adopters in terms of recognizing people’s work and being able to provide a platform for it, and that feels really good.

OKP: How much of a fight do you envision having in order to make that happen for the festival?

MKH: I don’t want to fight. I’m really hoping that there’s someone out there or some organization that will feel confident in what we are doing enough to invest. If I had it, I would put the money up myself. Part of the reason we would want to find an institutional partner is to share the load of some of the fundraising and the marketing, because even that would be helpful and then I could focus on the artists and the curatorial piece. So some sort of relationship is necessary. I think it could work a number of ways. We could be a program of a museum. We could be housed at a university. Another festival might be interested in having us be a sub-festival. A conglomeration of organizations could come together and say they’d like to bolster BlackStar. Because we’re not operating in the realm of Hollywood films, we’re not going to get the attention of corporate sponsors. That arena is not where our interest is and we’re not going to change that. I’m really, really passionate about folks who are pushing the envelope, who have something to say artistically. In many cases it’s unabashed black brilliance.

I’m not anti-Hollywood, but there are festivals for that. It’s wonderful that they exist. I feel like our space is a more artistic space. I think we’re going to move into less of a traditional festival model and more of an artistic venue. I feel like we’re in an era where everything is shifting. The platforms are shifting and someone’s goal as it existed 10 years ago doesn’t exist in the same way now. Sesame Streetmoved to HBO! The models have been upended and everything is much more open. I used to say “Oh I hope that BlackStar doesn’t have to exist in the future. That this work is part of the mainstream.” Now, in this moment where we’re seeing that these social justice and civil rights issues have not really improved, I just want to maintain the space for recognition. Also, the thing that I think we do really well is this family reunion piece that people keep bringing up. I like that. One of my favorite things to do when I was growing up was to go to festivals – the Malcolm X Festival or the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta or the African Street Festival in Brooklyn – and those spaces were always so warm. I saw my future in seeing the generations and I would always feel so affirmed and beautiful in those moments. So, I think that it is really important for us to have and protect those cultural spaces.

OKP: Does the inter-generational and artistic exchange that occurs at the festival ever blossom into partnerships during the off-season?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

The Face Of BlackStar 2013

MKH: I’ve heard of people working together after the festival. One of the hallmarks has been that, particularly for people of our generation – late Gen X and the millennials, people only know each other online. So filmmakers will meet and realize they follow each other on a platform or that they’re Facebook friends but they’ve never met. Then they actually get to know each other at BlackStar. I’ve definitely heard people say things like “Oh, I’m going to score so and so’s film” or “I’m acting in someone’s film.” There’s been that kind of sharing, so that’s wonderful. And I’m sure there are things that I just don’t know about where the seed was germinated or the relationship fomented at BlackStar. The inter-generational piece is something we’re still working out but what I like about it is that on both sides there are heroes that people are able to have access to. What I see are things like people meeting Michelle Parkerson and getting the chance – without her being their professor – to connect at some of the offline events. I don’t know that I am as articulate about that sort of exchange as I am excited about it.

OKP: What are some of the items on your wish list for the fest going into the future?

MKH: I would love for us to be able to curate channels on something like a Netflix or Hulu in order to put that stuff there. I know a lot of people are quick to say “Create your own!” but to me there’s no point in starting from the ground up in that respect. It’s smarter to go where it’s already working, where the bugs are worked out and the platform is easily accessible. The model is there and it would make more money for the filmmakers in the long run to go with an existing model. I would love to be in a situation where maybe an IFC or Sundance Channel says, “What were the best 10 films of the year?” and then we’re able to screen there with that network and/or move those things to Netflix or something like that.

OKP: As a filmmaker concerned with diversity, what do you think is missing from the characters and films that you see – indie or major?

MKH: At this moment in the popular space there is more representation (Blackish, Fresh Off The Boat, Jane The Virgin, etc.) With all of those programs we’re beginning to have normalized families again and that’s great. So I’m not sure that I feel “hungry” in the popular space.  Where I feel our absence most is in the high art things.  Like Mad Men or a lot of the – I don’t know what you’d call it – maybe hipster existential comedies? Like Married on FX or Togetherness on HBO (may they both rest in peace). And then films in a similar space – like any by Noam Baumbach – we’re never in them. And that’s okay. My thing, even with the criticism of Girls is like “If that’s her story, that’s her story. I don’t need to be in her story,” but where is the space for you or me to come up with a series with that tone and get the same kind of backing? What I’d like is just to see more opportunity in that space. I would also like to be able to make work for people of color, to that end. To date I haven’t made the space in my schedule to do that. All of my free time is spent on BlackStar, but I notice that that space is one we’re not in as much and I feel like people who have the money aren’t interested in the risk because they don’t see that it would be profitable. So it’s a situation where someone would have to have an overwhelming presence online or elsewhere in order to shift that.

At the end of the day it’s about money and you can’t argue with that. So we have to support people like Nefertite (Nguvu) or Terence (Nance) who are making stuff and then hopefully that will push it, because they are not going to ignore money. It’s not racist like that. The racism is less obvious. I’ve had friends of different cultural backgrounds – Arab friends, Latinx friends, Asian friends – have people say to them, “No one’s interested in that story.” And you’re like “How do you know? You don’t know that, you’re just saying that.” So that approach means these studios and major investors are going to repeat their way to Boyz In Tha Hood 6 because that’s all they know. That’s dangerous and that’s the problem.

OKP: Is the work that BlackStar is doing as much about creating a space for filmmakers of color and their work as it is advocating change for them re: access and attention within the industry?

Trailer for the Syl Johnson documentary Any Way The Wind Blows Screening at BlackStar 2016

MKH: I don’t personally have a lot of access to the Hollywood industry so I don’t know how that would happen.  I would love to have that kind of access. I’ve definitely at times thought about going into being an executive or something like that. I haven’t pursued it because I’m afraid of losing my soul. Interestingly enough, a major Hollywood producer had their assistant email me. I don’t know how they found out about BlackStar but they were like “We’re interested in these films. Can you send us their links?” So I sent the filmmakers this person’s contact because I was not comfortable giving out their respective info. But the fact that they identified BlackStar themselves was really fascinating to me. It might have been the Huffington Post article, I don’t know. But that led to the realization of, “Oh! So we might be getting to a place where we will be some sort of channel to making that connection between Hollywood and independent filmmakers of color.”  

That said, I don’t have a plan. But the festival’s role has evolved. Getting that email from that producer was not something that I was anticipating. At the same time, I’ve always been a connector, even though I hate networking and I’m not interested in doing the kind of political finessing that people say you should do.

OKP: How does that change your vision for the way you put the festival together?

MKH:One reason we did the program guide the way that we did this year, was because having the catalog creates a document and makes it less of a festival in the way that festivals traditionally have been. But again, we’re also in this moment where we can do whatever we want so let’s just take whatever we like and put it together. But until I got that email from that producer’s office, I thought we were just going to be under the radar of Hollywood. It’s wonderful for them to be paying attention. I really hope that some filmmakers get some work out of that. People have been saying, “This is one of the most well-curated festivals I’ve been to,” which is great for the event, but I also love it because it dips into my personal goals. What I would like for the festival is for it to get to a sustainable place. We’ve been able to raise the money for the program for 3 of the 4 years. I feel really good about that. We’ve got to get to a place where we can raise operating funds because we have not had a situation where anyone is able to work on this full time. Last year was the first year I’ve been paid even quarter time.  I was able to pay some of the people working year-round a very nominal stipend. Then we paid festival staff for the first time this year. We noticed that what we got out of their time was a deeper commitment, so we have to keep compensating folks. One of the interesting things about social justice and non-profit work is that we have all of this language and we’re like “Yes, we have to get folks at McDonalds their $15 an hour…but can you volunteer?” Part of that is real, but some of it isn’t necessarily equitable.

Not to be "Kanye" about it, but we put on this world-class event that I think is run pretty well, working with a ton of people and doing the work that other festivals do with way more resources. I might say that we’re doing a better job, so for us not to be able to pay our rent is not cool. I don’t want to continue in that space. I grew up in non-profit arts and culture. My first job was at an arts and culture center at 13, so this has been my world for over 20 years and I’m not going to martyr myself for this. If we don’t get to a place where we can make this profitable, I don’t know what happens. So, my personal goal is to find an institutional or even a corporate partner or some angel investor that can help us. We really need that. If for nothing else than to put a few staff on salary, which would change the game. At this moment, more than 75% of the fundraising is my labor.  I have done the majority of the website updating in the past although this summer we brought on help. I have also been doing the program guide layout.  We’re doing all of the booking, curating, bookkeeping — and it’s not my only job. I was freelancing for a while and now I’m working full-time (as Director of Public Engagement at the Institute of Contemporary Art).  Everybody else has full-time jobs, partners, dogs and children. So the festival model is not sustainable as it stands. I’ve been feeling that way for some time, but last year it became really clear.

OKP: When you look at the relationship between art and activism, do you feel that there’s been an obvious overlap in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and related events?

MKH: Any activist moment that we’ve had in probably the past 100 years and even before that has had art at the center of it. It’s the way to express the information. Whether it is Emory Douglas’ posters or Billie Holiday’s music, we often need this to spread the word beyond the people who are right at the core of the activism. So it acts as a way to spread the message into the mainstream but also as an archive. So, photography especially, but also documentary and even narrative film can be very revolutionary. I often feel that more truth can be told in fiction because you can’t be sued. So you can tell these truths in ways that you cannot in an article. So the focus for us last year was social justice broadly and this year it’s migration, so there’s definitely were clear overlays. But I think that that can be said of any year. There are two things at this moment that BlackStar is doing in relation to #BlackLivesMatter. One is a celebration of black life. So even just by existing, it is a celebration, so hopefully that is adding to some kind of sea change regarding how people see themselves or how other people see us. We can’t deny the power of motion pictures because they assault us on all levels: it’s aural, visual, emotional – all of those things at once. Everything is happening and just about all of your senses are shifted.

It’s also a way that your brain sees it as truth and then this picture gets locked in your head. And so we definitely see that for say LGBT issues, Will and Grace or something else that’s funny and doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily revolutionary – just seeing them as people – shifts 10 years later how the nation feels about same sex marriage. Or The Cosby Show. So many people our age decided they wanted their lives built a certain way based off of that show. Just seeing two equal partners with successful careers and family. And it was not a phenomenon that affected just black people. A whole generation was like “That’s what I’m going to do!” I think that the nice concept of that – people were comfortable with the idea of having the family and the career and a lot of that is The Huxtables.  What makes BlackStar different from many other festivals is our clear political agenda. There could be a film about a political issue that could be made by a black person. But if I didn’t think that their message was politically progressive, I would not show it. If a white person made a film about that issue that I thought was progressive, I would show it. Particularly if the issue was about black people. So there’s something in that balance that I think we’ve been grappling with. There are some films that maybe have not been as artistically challenging or genre-defying but by putting a dark-skinned woman at the center or putting some kind of religious experience at the center that we don’t get to see all the time – that to me is an act of resistance. Just because we don’t see that stuff. So there have been times when I have made that decision programmatically. To have that at the center is really important. Without othering them also. Something that I’ve really worked to do with each program is make sure that films relate to each other. So it isn’t just a collection of random items. They all have a relationship to each other.

OKP: What are you looking to do with your own work down the line outside of the festival?

MKH: Right now this is all I have the room for, but I have a film that’s been sitting on my heart for a couple of years that I would like to make. A narrative that’s situated in my particular set of experiences. I don’t want to say too much but I come from a situation, which is not unique but is not necessarily well explored. That combination of post-’60s black arts movement mixed with majority-white schooling and hip-hop in the early ‘90s. That space, I don’t think, has really been touched. And then there are so many documentary ideas that I think about all the time.  There’s also this running joke that my friends call me “Mai-Oprah.” So there’s the potential for the talk show we had planned to fold into the festival to turn into something bigger. Growing up I always wanted to be Allison Stewart from MTV News and now there may be room to combine that with my curatorial work. So we’ll see.