BlackStar Film Festival 2020: A Reflection

In perhaps the heaviest year in recent memory, film festivals have two choices: They can commit to being distractions from the current world or they can do the hard work of mirroring the struggles we currently face. This year at the BlackStar Film Festival, each piece of programming echoed the communal unrest of Black people across the diaspora fighting to diagnose and heal an unjust, capitalist world. With an emphasis on nonfiction filmmaking and pared-down realistic fiction, BlackStar aimed to capture a wide-ranging number of voices all telling urgent stories of suffering, poverty, discrimination, resilience, resistance, and most pointedly, love. The films captured the lives of marginalized folks all over the world, from Haiti to Puerto Rico, South Africa to the Southside of Chicago. Though my tastes as a film critic lean more towards the playful and genre-bending, I could not help but bear witness to these urgent, timely stories. Every feature effort at the festival this year felt journalistic, trying to document the times as they are before distance and history can rewrite the narrative.

The award-winning narrative feature Miss Juneteenth told the story of a mother coping with the disappointments of her past while hoping that her daughter does better. Garrett Bradley’s staggering documentary Time also tells the story of a mother fighting for the wellbeing and prosperity of her family within an unjust system that criminalizes Black people for simply trying to have enough to survive. After watching Time, it would be impossible to see any way forward for Black people without prison abolition. Shalini Kantayya’s essential documentary Coded Bias shows us that even STEM carries cultural biases, as technology continues to be made with only white people in mind. Landfall, Stateless, and A New Country tell stories of discrimination and cultural unrest in Puerto Rico, Haiti, and South Africa respectively reminding us that freedom is a global struggle. Meanwhile, the 1972 documentary Nationtime – Gary shows us how far we’ve come already. The path forward is informed by where we’ve been. We cannot afford to go backward.

But the work that stayed with me the most highlighted the strength and wisdom of Black women. Ashley O’Shay’s vital documentary Unapologetic shows Black women at the center of activism in Chicago, showing the ways in which these women battle misogyny, homophobia, and white capitalist oppression all at once with energy and a strong sense of community. These notions are echoed in Ja’Tovia Gary’s mesmerizing, award-winning experimental film The Giverny Document (Single Channel). Images of police brutality, colorful imagery, sound bites, and more are spliced with man-on-the-street segments focused on the question of Black women’s safety. It feels almost like a new kind of visual album, letting the rhythm of emotion guide the sound and imagery. My other favorite short film at the festival, A Song About Love, takes a similar approach, blending interviews with our dearly-departed elders Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison with a symphony of color and music all about desire, love, and emotion. As I watched these films, it felt like I was communing with every Black woman onscreen. My body warmed, filled with knowing and longing. During a time when I haven’t been able to touch my sisters in so long, these films feel like a balm for my broken heart. Amongst all the pain we are in, there is still beauty. This year, the BlackStar Film Festival reminded me of that duality. The process of healing is ongoing. And yet, we continue to move forward, finding better ways to love and protect each other. I’m eternally grateful for that. I hope I can make it to Philly next year. I feel as if I need to be there. At least once.

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