Joy, the organizers of Philly’s annual BlackStar Film Festival believe, is best when everyone shares in it. By everyone, founder Maori Karmael Holmes and director Nehad Khader mean … everyone. The festival’s purpose has always been to represent under-represented BIPOC members of the film industry. This year, BlackStar (August 2-6) has also focused on serving filmgoing community members with deafness, low vision, who use wheelchairs, who have compromised immune systems, etc.
“If you’re gonna bring people together, you really need to be thinking about folks’ well-being,” says Khader. “Because that was front and center for the last three years. And we can’t go back on that now.” BlackStar’s new roster of films have closed and open captioning and audio descriptions. Masks are required for all in-person screenings and panels. (Virtual screenings remain available for a reduced fee.) A downloadable accessibility guide helps attendees seeking all manner of accommodations.
BlackStar, then and now
Temple MFA and L.A. native Holmes created BlackStar 12 years ago to fill “a gap in Philly for these particular works,” as she told the New York Times. The event began as a one-time, four-day “microfestival” at International House in West Philly. Today, it’s a five-day, 93-film, 10,000-person Philly-wide phenomenon. This year’s festival screenings span three Center City theaters: the Kimmel, Suzanne Roberts and Lightbox. Panels and parties (BlackStar social gatherings are not to be missed) take place at Cherry Street Pier, Morgan’s Pier, the Barnes Foundation and the W. And those are only the official ones.
As for boldfaced names who’ve been involved: Yaba Blay, Akiba Solomon, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter have all served on BlackStar’s advisory committee. A few years ago, Spike Lee and Tarana Burke led a panel at BlackStar on “radical storytelling.” The festival has shown films by Gabourey Sidibe, Janine Sherman Barrois, Darius Clark Monroe, Nijla Baseema Mu’min, Naima Ramos-Chapman and Terence Nance. This year, the festival is further expanding its focus on films by Black and indigenous makers from outside the U.S. It’s a big deal.
Maybe none of this success is a surprise: Ava DuVernay taught a master class and screened her film Middle of Nowhere at the very first BlackStar.
Also helpful: In May, Karmael Holmes received the 2023 Berresford Prize, a national $50,000 award honoring her work in the proliferating, care, and contribution of artists. In other words, her recognition came not just from discovering new films or filmmakers — but taking care of and wholly celebrating a film community.
“We try to imbue care in a lot of what we do and we try to think about the care for the audience, the care for the filmmakers, the care for the staff that we work with. We like distributing care as evenly as possible — and I think people feel that.” Khader says. BlackStar also offers daily yoga sessions, wellness workshops for virtual attendees, and a sensory-friendly spa.
This year’s films
Still, if it weren’t for the films … Here are a few to check out:
- Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land by director Eternal Polk. This documentary explores how Black landowners are working to reclaim space, dealing with both history and the future, which inevitably includes climate change.
- Looking for something lighter? Companion by director LaTajh Weaver, is a five-minute ode to the relationships between people and their cats.
- Or short documentary A Bear Named Jesus from director Terril Calder, stop-motion animation that’s an allegory for religious friction.
- Interested in something short and introspective? Watch Living Proof, a 9-minute narrative from director Tina Farris about The Queen of the Castro tripping on acid.
This year’s panels of industry directors and creatives — Terence Nance will be returning and Yolanda Wisher will be moderating the Spotlight on Going to Mars panel — include topics such as animation and Black queer futures. As for those parties: August 2 at 9pm at Cherry Street Pier and August 6 at 9pm at Morgan’s Pier; a filmmaker mixer at the W Hotel on August 3 at 6pm, and First Friday at the Barnes Foundation on August 4 at 6pm.
“We recognize that our audience is made up of filmmakers, film lovers, aspiring filmmakers — we try to create an experience where everybody’s going to find something that is going to pull them in and hopefully, folks will leave with their minds blown.” says Khader. “The best part is just meeting a lot of new people and connecting through these incredible artists, long and deep commitment to creating these works of cinema.”
BlackStar Film Festival returns to Philadelphia August 2-6. Find out more on how to attend both in-person and virtually here, including info on all-access and virtual passes and individual screening and events tickets.
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously reported the first BlackStar Film Festival as lasting one day. MORE EVENTS AND THINGS TO DO FROM THE CITIZENBlackStar Film Festival, 2022. Photo by Daniel Jackson.