As I walk into the historic Hattie McDaniel Theatre in Brooklyn, I felt strange. Rarely in my life have I had the privilege to enter a building named after a black woman. Black women helped build this country, but we are so often cast to the side. Rarely are we given the accolades that we deserve. This is glaringly true in the entertainment industry. Black women are often under-recognized at industry ceremonies such as the Academy Awards, Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. Many black actresses are only recognized later in life or after their passing. Hattie MacDaniel was a black actress who was fortunate enough to to be recognized for the humor, strength and the magnetic nature of her performances while she was still alive to accept the honor. When she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940 she was the first black woman to receive that honor. But, for every Mcdaniel, there is a powerful black actress who went unrewarded in her time. The truth is, these awards institutions are not made to nurture the artistry of women of color.
Enter Reel Sisters of the Diaspora: A film festival that was made to showcase the artistry of women of color from around the world in acting, direction, production and all aspects of film. This year is their 20th anniversary, and tonight I am nervously making my way to my seat. It takes a while for me to sit down, because I’m craning my neck to look at every woman of color in the vicinity. I’m nervous and excited, perspiring profusely. It’s a small gathering, but it feels gigantic to me, getting bigger by the second in my mind.
The awards ceremony begins with spoken word poet and artist D. Cross performing a dedication piece to women. He tells us that we are “infinity”, beginning the evening with gravity. Directly following his performance, Toni Yates introduces herself as the Mistress of Ceremonies, and the awards celebration begins in earnest. Actress and singer Nicole Beharie is the first honoree of the evening, accepting the Reel Sisters Trailblazer Award. We are shown clips of her breakout performance in the 2008’s American Violet. By the time she reaches the stage, I’m overwhelmed. I, like many Beharie fans, am still upset about the way FOX and the Sleepy Hollow show runners mistreated her. As I listen to her speak, I can see she is nervous and humbled. She mentions Lena Waithe’s historic Emmy win and wonders aloud if she can even call herself a trailblazer. She is shy, but her presence is magnetic.
Next, we are treated to reel looking back on the work that Reel Sisters has down through the years. We are treated to numerous confessionals from women of color expressing their excitement and joy for Reel Sisters and the work they do. Directly after, we are finally introduced to the festival’s wonderful founder Carolyn A. Butts. She is introduced by producer Lisa Durden who takes a moment to pointedly call out larger film festivals that prioritize star power over discovering new, often marginalized voices. This moment, like many of the other moments in the ceremony, is filled to the brim with positivity and love. It feels like a gathering of friends.
As the evening goes on, two more awards are presented. The ceremony takes care to give every honoree a showcase before they take they take the stage. Every honoree is announced by a cherished friend and colleague, making every award feel personal. Actress Tamara Tunie is announced by her best friend, director Kasi Lemmons. When she accepts her Reel Sisters Trailblazer Award, she makes point to express that “recognition from her sisters” means more to her than any other accolades. While Tunie is on stage, I realize that I am sitting directly behind her mother. In that moment, I feel community and sisterhood wash over me again.
The final honoree of the evening is introduced with a short film: That’s Why They Calls Us Colored. It’s the story of a white man who realizes that he has shared ancestry with a family of African-Americans. The film depicts his first meeting with his long lost family members. The matriarch is played by legendary actress Vinie Burrows, who ascends the stage after the film to accept the Reel Sisters Hattie McDaniel Award.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the evening comes when Love Muwwakkil (of Urban Bush Women) performs and interpretive dance. She speaks the names of influential women of color in the film industry as she moves gracefully across the stage. The creates a rhythmic tapestry of black women as moves. She is black art in motion.
The entire ceremony is a beautiful tribute to the artistry of women of color and an affecting re-introduction of Reel Sisters as a constant force in an ever-changing film industry. It’s been 20 years, and Reel Sisters is still expanding and commanding our attention. As a woman of color and storyteller in this industry, I am honored to have the opportunity to use my voice to tell the world about these hard-working women.
Next weekend, from October 21-22, Reel Sisters of the Diaspora will hold their annual film festival at AMC Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem and Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. For more information and to purchase, visit their website.