From August 3 through 29, the Gene Siskel Film Center, located at 164 N. State St., welcomes you to the 25th Anniversary Black Harvest Film Festival. The community’s support of films celebrating Black life, Black stories and Black culture around the world has brought the festival to this milestone year!
This film festival is always a welcome treat to begin the fall months in Chicago. I have followed Black Harvest for many years, and this year—the 25th—promises to be extra special. The “Chicago made” movies are always exciting, and this year longtime Black Harvest consultant and film critic Sergio Mims will be presented with the Gene Siskel Legacy Award at the Sunday, August 18, screening of “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts,” after which the audience is invited to a reception in Sergio’s honor in the Gallery/Café.
The Black Harvest Film Festival’s anniversary presents a bountiful harvest of 17 new feature films—fictional and documentary—plus scores of new short films, and personal appearances by more than 40 filmmakers, including producers, directors and actors.
Selections include the opening night presentation of the world premieres of five just-completed short films by directors from the Midwest. In honor of the anniversary, and for the first time in the Festival’s history, the Gene Siskel Film Center, with the support of The Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Illinois Arts Council Agency, awarded production grants to five proposals vetted by an elite jury of filmmakers and critics.
The audience will see these films for the first time, with filmmakers in person, in a program hosted by NBC Chicago’s LeeAnn Trotter. Immediately after the show, the audience is invited to a reception across the street at the Joffrey Tower.
On closing night, August 29, the Festival pays tribute to Spike Lee’s career with a 25th anniversary screening of his vibrant family drama “Crooklyn” (1994), screening in a 35mm print. Actor/co-screenwriter Joie Lee is scheduled to be present for an audience discussion.
Some consider this film to be Spike Lee’s warmest and most purely entertaining. Co-written by siblings Joie, Spike and Cinqué Lee, the episodic, autobiographical narrative centers on 9-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), the only girl in a family of five children with an overworked, tough-love mom (Alfre Woodard) and an underemployed, indulgent dad (DelRoy Lindo).
Popular Gospel producer Warryn Campbell’s sister Joi Starr gives a good turn as Kalani in the film “Strive,” which is on the slate. The film is based on experiences of the co-screenwriter Sha-Risse Smith, and is about a Harlem girl’s dream to get into Yale. Veteran actor Danny Glover plays her guidance counselor and confidant.
“Strive” is fraught with urban situations and disappointments—drugs, an unwanted pregnancy, poverty and hopelessness. It sounds bleak, but in the midst of it all, I was rooting for Kalani to surpass these demons and walk through the doors of Yale. After her brother’s murder, her mom tells her that a mental health break is for white folks—a riveting scene that should highlight more need for mental health awareness in the Black community. Campbell plays the minister at the family’s home church.
Other feature films in the Chicago made category include Edward J. Wilson’s “Lost Gurl,” a drama of lost innocence and redemption starring Simeon Henderson (who is a great local actor with a nice body of work, many films under the direction of Chicago director Mark Harris whose current film called “Black and Privileged” is playing on Netflix), and “Thee Debauchery Ball,” David Weathersby’s documentary look at Chicago’s bold and innovative House music scene.
Chicago-based country-music star Liz Toussaint shines brightly in her autobiographical documentary “American As Bean Pie.” A piece of Chicago history is restored and examined in Olivier Sarrazin’s “Bessie Coleman, First Black Aviatrix,” with the aviation pioneer’s great-niece Gigi Coleman Brooms and other special guests scheduled to appear in person.
Festival documentaries tell remarkable stories and explore issues in depth. Jacqueline Olive’s “Always In Season,” finds parallels with the past in the suspected lynching of a North Carolina high school football star. Erik Ljung’s “The Blood is at the Doorstep” examines the shooting death of a Milwaukee man at the hands of police. And Black music history stars in Carine Bijlsma’s “Devils Pie—D’Angelo.”
Not only are almost one-third of this year’s films directed by women, but the dreams, challenges, and fates of women of color are front and center in many of the selections.
Breast cancer awareness and the effects of this illness are vividly told in LaToya Hunter’s short film “In Her Words,” which is part of the Shorts Program: Made in Chicago.
All festival films are eligible for the Audience Award, so audience members are reminded to pick up a ballot in the lobby for every film that they see. All shorts are eligible for the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Black Harvest Film Festival Prize, with the winner to be selected by a prestigious jury. Check the website regularly at https://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/bhff25 for updates on artist appearances and special events.
The Black Harvest Film Festival is supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the Illinois Arts Council Agency; and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Special thanks to Festival consultant Sergio Mims, the Black Harvest Community Council, and the many filmmakers who help make this Festival possible.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information visit email:[email protected].