They say summer is the perfect time for family reunions, and for all intents and purposes, that’s just what this is.
It’s Saturday night, and Philadelphia‘s International House is packed with people awaiting the screening of BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. Pretty soon, the crowd will fill the theater to capacity. While they wait, many embrace each other and speak with friendly greetings usually reserved for a distant aunt, uncle, or cousin.
Except this “family reunion” is about much more than just catching up with grandma over a plate of food. It’s the fourth annual BlackStar Film Festival, and people from all walks of life have migrated to Philly to screen independent films made by African-Americans. Festival founder Maori Karmael Holmes perfectly describes the atmosphere:
“You see people downstairs and they’re hugging each other. Someone just came up to me, and they’re seeing someone they haven’t seen in years, because people are here from all over the country. It’s a moment of release, in a way, and re-connection.”
The night’s showing of BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez brought Philly out in record numbers, probably for two reasons. First, it’s described by many as the standout film of the festival. But more importantly, poet Sonia Sanchez herself is in the building, and she’s especially well-known, loved, and respected in the city.
A Philadelphia resident, Holmes is well aware of Sonia’s star power:
“She’s just a phenomenal human being. A phenomenal artist, a phenomenal activist. She’s eighty years old and she’s still sharp, and biting [laughs], and doing the work, and fierce. There hasn’t been a film about her yet, which is crazy because she’s been a part of so many movements for over sixty years. Particularly in Philadelphia, this is like home base since she’s been living here for so long. She’s an international treasure, but definitely for us in Philadelphia.”
About 90 minutes later, the documentary came to a close amid thundering applause from the crowd. Throughout the film, viewers get an intimate look into Sonia’s thought process as she works to perfect her writing – the very work that has gained her widespread recognition and comparisons to Maya Angelou.
We’re also blessed with footage of Sonia performing a few of her poems, and they’re all worthy of snaps, snaps, and more snaps.
Another focus of BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez centers around the Black Arts Movement and Sonia’s position as an activist. Throughout the entire festival, social justice is a theme that is present in most, if not all, of the films. In the midst of recent tragedies involving police brutality, as well as the murder of nine Black church-goers in Charleston, this topic is especially relevant right now.
Other offerings at the festival include Breaking In, a short film that focuses on the effects of Stop and Frisk on young Black men, as well as Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans justice, Mapping a Detroit Story, a documentary on the murder of a Black transgender woman. Later in our interview, Holmes discussed the decision to showcase Treasure at this year’s festival.
“I think we chose that film because in this year, thinking about Black Lives Matter, thinking about all of the visibility for trans folks this year, it really felt like this is the film that we should be talking about. Sometimes, when we talk about Black Lives Matter, we stop talking about women’s issues, we stop talking about LGBT issues, and all of these things contribute to justice.”
“Some of it is about the work on the screen, about being inspired by seeing Black faces at the center and not marginalized, not murdered. That’s been really important,” Holmes continued.
All together, over 60 films were shown from Thursday-Sunday. As I waited in the lobby before the screening of BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez on Saturday, the growing excitement surrounding the festival became clear, as one man described: “Every year, the crowd gets bigger and bigger!”
If you weren’t in attendance, you’ll want to mark your calendars for next year. For more on the BlackStar Film Festival, click here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Melanie Smith