By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Each year during the Chicago International Film Festival, there are a few films that are presented as part of the Black Perspectives slate. This year—although the Festival is being presented virtually and in some drive-in theaters across the city—there are a number of films being offered for moviegoers that highlight the excellence and diversity of African-American cinema.
Founded in 1997 in collaboration with Spike Lee, this program celebrates the richness and diversity of African American and Black storytellers from across the diaspora. By virtue of the festival’s 2020 streaming capabilities, most Black Perspectives films are available for streaming across the U.S. during the period October 14-25, 2020.
In its 24th year, the Black Perspectives line up, which will be available for home viewing via the Festival’s website and Roku and Apple TV apps, includes Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” “Sylvie’s Love” and the world premiere of the Chicago-made documentary “Mama Gloria.”
I was able to screen “Mama Gloria” before press time and in advance of the Festival’s opening. Meet Mama Gloria. Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen, now in her 70s, blazed a trail for trans people like few others before her. Emerging from Chicago’s South Side drag ball culture in the 1960s, Gloria overcame traumatic violence to become a proud leader in her community. Most famously, she pioneered a charm school for young transgender people that served as an inspiration for Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins’ hit play “Charm.” Luchina Fisher’s empathic and engaging documentary is not only a portrait of a groundbreaking legend, but also a celebration of unconditional love, the love Gloria received from her own mother and that she now gives to her chosen children. World Premiere!
This documentary features rarely seen archival images of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood nightlife and drag balls, as Mama Gloria opens up her kind heart to tell her story in an intimate way. She was born George Allen, grew up on 42nd and State Street, went to Englewood High School, and her mom and grandmother were entertainers. She vividly tells the story of the female impersonators and drag queens who in the 50s and 60s would frequent clubs on the South Side, such as Parkside Lounge near 51st and Cottage Grove Avenue and also the Grand Ballroom. She would see Wilbur Hi Fi White hosting a bevy of men dressed in grand splendor as women. She described it as a “parade of sissies in high heels,” adding that the word sissy was used to refer to the men who would dress as women.
She offered that she had been working at the University of Chicago Hospital and when she went to work at the Zanzibar Hotel in her 20s, she finally started dressing as a female all the time. “The George stepped out of my body and went on about his business.” Mama Gloria said that when her mother, grandmother and great aunt accepted her living as a woman, she “felt like Sno-White just being kissed and woke up to life. I fell in love with myself.” She added: “I knew I was a girl in the wrong body. I didn’t want to be a boy.”
Later when coming to the North Side, she said she ran into transgendered women who were acting like hoochie mamas, and she started a Charm school at the Center on Halsted so they could learn how to be ladies. I had never heard of Mama Gloria, and this documentary shared her imprint not only across the South Side but throughout the city as a whole.
Among other films included in the slate are:
“Sylvie’s Love,” starring Tessa Thompson (aka Valkyrie in the Marvel movies universe) and Nnamdi Asomugha (“Crown Heights”) in a film that looks and feels as if it were made in the Golden Age of Hollywood. In “Sylvie’s Love,” the jazz is smooth and the air sultry in the hot New York summer of 1957. When Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), the daughter of a record-shop owner (Lance Reddick), meets Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophonist who gets a part-time job at the shop, the two begin a friendship that sparks a deep passion in each of them unlike anything they’ve felt before. Years after their summer romance comes to an end, Sylvie has success as a TV producer, while Robert tries to come to terms with what the age of Motown is doing to jazz, the music that defines his work. While life continues to take Sylvie and Robert in different directions, they cross paths again, only to find their feelings for each other remain the same.
In “40 Years a Prisoner,” filmmaker Tommy Oliver – executive producer of OWN series “Black Love” – documents activist Mike Africa Jr.’s fight to exonerate his parents, who were members of the revolutionary group MOVE imprisoned after a violent police raid on their Philadelphia commune in 1978. Debbie and Michael Africa, Sr. were charged in the death of a police officer during a brutal raid by authorities at the end of that decade.
Regina King makes her feature film directorial debut in “One Night in Miami.” On one incredible night in 1964, four icons of sports, music, and activism gather to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When underdog Cassius Clay, soon to be called Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), defeats heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall, Clay memorialized the event with three of his friends: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Based on the award-winning play of the same name, “One Night in Miami” is a fictional account inspired by the historic night these four formidable figures spent together. It looks at the struggles these men faced and the vital role they each played in the Civil Rights Movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. More than 40 years later, their conversations on racial injustice, religion, and personal responsibility still resonate. Also shows live Friday, October 23, at 6:30 p.m. at ChiTown Movies, 2343 S. Throop St., Pilsen.
“The Special,” Spanish with subtitles: In this thoughtful and uplifting debut, the profoundly charming Chuo is having to navigate the challenges of early adulthood with Down Syndrome. He feels a growing need for independence from his father José, who struggles to provide and care for his son as he grapples with demons past and the disappointments of dreams deferred. When Chuo lands a job at a small graphic design studio, he begins to find community and discover purpose and a sense of self. Long parted by an ocean of silence and shame, will father and son be able to fulfill the promise of Chuo’s dreams and build a common future?
“MLK/FBI.” It should come as no surprise that the FBI mounted a relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but this astonishing documentary reveals both the shocking details of the operation and the complexity of the iconic man in its crosshairs. Using newly declassified files, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard (Chicago International Film Festival’s “Best of the Fest” director of “Two Trains Runnin’” and “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me”) brilliantly weaves together revelatory restored archival footage, Hollywood movie clips, and interviews with key cultural figures to tell an astonishing and chilling story about power, racism, and the dark side of the U.S. government. A livestream Q&A with director Sam Pollard takes place Monday, October 19, 7 p.m.
“Bad Hair.” In this hilarious horror satire set in 1989, an ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television, but her flourishing career comes at a cost when she realizes that her new hairstyle might have a mind of its own. As he did with his auspicious debut “Dear White People,” Justin Simien combines sharp, witty storytelling with piercing insights about race, Black identity and American society. With terrific performances from newcomer Elle Lorraine and an all-star cast including Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Usher Raymond, and Vanessa Williams as her boss-from-hell, Bad Hair is topical, funny, and full of hair-raising thrills. Shows Friday, October 16, at 7:00 p.m. at ChiTown Movies, 2343 S. Throop St., Pilsen.
For details on Black Perspectives and a complete list of films, visit www.chicagofilmfestival.com/festival-program/black-perspectives/.
Festival Passes – offering access to 10 or 20 virtual screenings – and single tickets are available now to the general public at chicagofilmfestival.com/festival/tickets. All screenings, including streaming movies, have a finite number of viewings allotted, so advance purchase is recommended to guarantee access.