Maori Karmael Holmes didn’t plan on creating a film festival, but what was planned as a one-day event was expanded to four days in its first year, and quickly became a premier destination for independent filmmakers of color.
“I started BlackStar because I was interested in screening a group of films that, at the time, were looking at the African Diaspora,” says Holmes, 42, who serves as the CEO and artistic director of BlackStar projects, the recently launched parent organization of the festival, which was founded in 2012.
An accomplished filmmaker who has curated programs for The Whitney Museum in New York and MOCA Los Angeles, she put the inaugural event together in three months.
In its first year, BlackStar drew 1,500 people from across the country to attend select screenings for the 40 films, including a first look at Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012). Ebony magazine called it the “Black Sundance,” and it has continued to grow since.
BlackStar has always put Black and filmmakers of color first. Holmes, whose feature-length documentary Scene Not Heard: Women in Philadelphia Hip-Hop (2006) shed light on the untold stories of the female pioneers of the Philadelphia music industry , wanted to create a space for filmmakers and visual artists to not only have their work showcased but to connect with potential sponsors and investors.
“The festival started as being filmmaker-centric and we’re really invested in connecting them to their respective audiences,” she says. “It’s constantly evolving and pretty dynamic.”
The lineup for this year’s festival includes 80-plus films from more than 20 countries. The lead sponsor is national civil rights nonprofit Color of Change. Created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the organization seeks to amplify the political voice of the African-American community. Additional supporters include Lionsgate/STARZ, WarnerMedia, the MacArthur Foundation, and Netflix.
While most of the festival will take place online, three drive-in screenings are slated to run at Philadelphia’s Mann Center for Performing Arts in West Fairmount Park from Aug. 21-23. Presented by Lyft and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, the drive-in screenings are part of a new citywide initiative to promote socially distant movie attendance.
Access to panels and conversations is free and open to the public. Day passes for digital screenings start at $5, with a full, week-long festival pass for $100 that includes a donation to BlackStar. For the drive-in screenings, limited reservations can be made online.
Spanning a week, BlackStar Film Festival will include a selection of panels and screenings followed by Q&As with featured filmmakers. Both feature-length documentaries and narrative films, along with programs dedicated exclusively to film shorts, will be shown.
The festival will also include live musical performances and roundtable discussions between filmmakers and journalists, including The New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris and culture writer Jenna Wortham , and groundbreaking Black producers and directors such as Madeline Anderson .
WHAT’S THE GOOD?
Holmes wanted to create a space for independent Black, brown, and Indigenous filmmakers to showcase their work to a global audience, network, and become part of a community that would continue to provide inspiration and support for future projects.
“People meet, collaborations are born, and then you’ll see the work they’ve made together screening at the festival a couple years later,” Holmes says.
As part of her broader mission to subvert the media arts landscape where filmmakers of color have been historically relegated to the side of mainstream, the films selected cover a range of subjects from murder mysteries and rare glimpses into the underbelly of tech to political activism, both historical and present-day.
(2019), written and directed by Gibrey Allen , tells the story of sprinter Jeffery Jacobs , whose sudden murder becomes a nationwide scandal. Set in Jamaica, the film explores themes of public speculation, fragile family ties, and rural life as Jacobs’ father sets out to uncover what led to his son’s untimely death.
Racial bias in facial recognition technology is explored in Coded Bias (2020), directed by environmental activist and filmmaker Shalini Kantayya . In the documentary, MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers an alarming trend of dark-skinned faces being misread by algorithms, which leads her to advocate for legislation in the U.S. that will regulate what is increasingly becoming a tool of our everyday lives.
Historical films also feature heavily on the festival’s bill, resurfacing particularly pertinent works such as (1972). Directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Williams Greaves , the documentary covers the National Black Political Convention of 1972 that drew thousands of activists, artists, and politicians, including Coretta Scott King and Sidney Poitier .
Seen , BlackStar Project’s debut journal of film and visual culture, is now available for pre-order . The organization plans to launch a filmmaker seminar in Spring 2021, along with a Philadelphia-based lab. BlackStar will also continue to expand its sponsorship program next year.
Building on the success of past exhibitions at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery and the International House of Philadelphia, more exhibits are slated to be announced in the future.