Talk about a labor of love.
I can’t accurately pinpoint when I first met filmmaker Pam Thomas, founder of Black Folks Make Movies and the driving force behind Cincinnati’s inaugural FADE2BLACK Film Festival, which runs from Thursday through Saturday at University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. But I do know that our first meeting paved the way for an ongoing educational and experiential journey. Discussing film with Thomas, especially African-American cinema, is akin to trying to debate Aphrodite on the subject of love. Thomas lives, breathes and dreams in the moving images of black folks in this thoroughly modern art form.
During a brief three-day window, F2B will spotlight a wide array of screenings and guests (including myself in my role as film critic). Actor, filmmaker and political activist Danny Glover will deliver opening remarks via video. Present will be co-host (with Thomas) Charles Burnett, whose classics of African-American cinema include To Sleep With Anger (featuring Glover) and Killer of Sheep. Also scheduled to be here are Carol Munday Lawrence, producer of the documentary Oscar Micheaux, Film Pioneer; Tanya Hart, a documentarian as well as a television and radio personality; Atlanta-based filmmaker Patrick James Thomas (Cut My Hair, Barber); and film historian Dr. V. Paul Deare. To Sleep with Anger, Oscar Micheaux: Film Pioneer and Cut My Hair, Barber are scheduled to run at the festival.
Among the other films to be screened are 1939’s Harlem Rides the Range, featuring the first great black singing cowboy, Herb Jeffries (often billed as Herbert Jeffrey); a more modern western with African-American cowboys, 1972’s Buck and the Preacher, starring Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier (who also directed); and Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, which is on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
From 1984 to 1994, Thomas dedicated 10 years to producing (with Bestor Cram) the documentary Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies, which was nationally broadcast on PBS’s The American Experience in 1994 and will be shown during F2B. The film — about the first major African-American filmmaker, who was active from the 1920s to 1940s — served as a sermon for Thomas, an impassioned call to the cinematic faithful and the curious seekers, an enticement to feel the fire contained in film and discover stories of black love and life here in the United States. And it was her opportunity to seize the medium to tell the story of black folks using film to tell their own stories.
Now, under the aegis of Black Folks Make Movies, in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati Center for Film and Media Studies, Thomas is proudly presenting her first F2B Film Festival, subtitled “Celebrating Black American Cinema 1910-Present.” The event is a contextual chronicle of the black experience and its century-plus struggle to define its image on film from an “Afrocentric” perspective, and the process of sharing a richly historical narrative snapshot of the African-American experience.
Cincinnati film fans should be particularly excited about hosting writer-director Burnett, who along with cinematographer Owen Roizman, actor Donald Sutherland and French director Agnès Varda, will be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Nov. 11 as “artists whose work embodies the diversity of our shared humanity.” As an independent filmmaker, Burnett has dedicated his efforts to portraying the little-seen African-American experience. In 1978, his first feature was Killer of Sheep, which he wrote, produced, photographed, directed and edited. His 1990 To Sleep With Anger and 1994 The Glass Shield garnered attention beyond the indie world. Burnett also directed documentaries, including Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and a number of short films.
I am scheduled to facilitate the discussion with Burnett following Friday’s 7:15 p.m. screening of To Sleep With Anger.
F2B seeks to balance its educational aspects with a desire to entertain audiences. Every screening and discussion aims to bring these elements into harmony. Thomas answered a few questions from CityBeat about the festival’s intent and what she hopes for its regional impact. Her passion and commitment for African-American storytelling come through in her answers (submitted via email and edited for clarity).
CityBeat: What was the genesis for the F2B film festival?
Pam Thomas: I slaved over 10 years making my baby, Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies. (It) lays the groundwork for the foundation of black American cinema. It recognizes and acknowledges that history. I’m all about that history and the absolute necessity of people knowing that history. I’ve produced several film festivals/media events in various parts of the country, always focused on film works by peoples of color, primarily black people. All of those events have led up to F2B. All the various components have now gelled into F2B.
CB: Is there a particular Cincinnati-based aim for this kind of arts outreach?
PT: Considering where we are as a country right now, most particularly in Cincinnati, the black community needs something positive to hold on to. I am adamant about the necessity of presenting a culturally affirming, uplifting program specifically focused on our history in black American film. In these literally crazy, uncertain times, F2B is critical to the black community as a lynchpin to our heritage. As a filmmaker and passionate participant in making sure our cinematic heritage is both acknowledged and celebrated within the American cinematic lexicon, F2B is my contribution in this effort.
CB: How does F2B fit into the arts-directed push to promote and rebrand Cincinnati?
PT: We’re in it anyway as filmmakers of color. However with F2B, it’s from a different perspective. It’s about the history. Acknowledgement of our contributions as filmmakers with a traditional historical involvement helps support that rebranding. Taking a positive look at black film with a Cincinnati education-based event does nothing but promote good feelings within the black community and the Queen City.
CB: Will the focus of the festival change as it moves into more of an ongoing event?
PT: I really don’t see that happening. My whole point has been to make people aware of the fact that we’ve been in the (filmmaking) mix since 1910. Again, if you don’t know or at the very least aren’t aware of your history on different levels, you’re doomed to wander around in the ether, lost in ignorance with an unknown sense of self, not knowing who you are. That’s really scary. You become a permanent victim, which is where most black folks have been from day one.
The FADE2BLACK Film Festival runs Thursday-Saturday at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. More info/tickets: blackfolksmakemovies.org/f2b.