By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival begins in full swing on Thursday, October 12. My colleague Raymond Ward detailed the opening night gala, which will be preceded by a screening of the highly anticipated film “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman, Sterling Brown, Kate Hudson and James Cromwell, among others. This is sure to be a great cinema event for Chicago, since all of the recent opening events for the Chicago International Film Festival have been great successes.
The Film Festival offers a great slate of Black films within its Black Perspectives Program. This year a veteran Black female actress who can cry with the best of them, Alfre Woodard, will be feted with a Career Achievement Award on Saturday, October 21. The “Tribute to Alfre Woodard” will feature an on-stage discussion with the actress, showcasing clips highlighting her decades-spanning career. The event will be held at the AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois St.) in Chicago.
From her Oscar-nominated breakout performance in 1983’s “Cross Creek” to her stunning turn as Mistress Shaw in “12 Years a Slave,” Woodard has endowed each of her characters with a complexity and strength that have continued to resonate with audiences. Over the decades, she has created stirring and sympathetic characters in roles both large and small in “Passion Fish,” “Crooklyn,” “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “Luke Cage,” among many others.
The Black Perspectives Program was founded in 1997 in collaboration with Spike Lee to showcase excellence in African-American filmmaking. Since the Festival began its annual Black Perspectives Tribute, Cinema/Chicago has consistently honored actors and filmmakers of the highest caliber, including Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry, the late Ruby Dee, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Viola Davis and Steve McQueen, among others.
I had the opportunity to view some of the films beforehand and have noted these choices as films that are great in chronicling the Black experience.
“Black Cop” – It’s not easy being a Black cop: your community doesn’t trust you and your colleagues are wary of you. But for one officer, the tension between duty and moral obligation eventually pushes him over the edge, and he sets out, vigilante-style, to exact a twisted kind of vengeance on the white and privileged in his city. Timely and bitingly funny, “Black Cop” is an unapologetic, confrontational satire about racial tension today.
“Blueprint” – When Jerod, a daycare teacher, experiences the death of his close friend, he must decide how to grapple with the violence in his community. Meanwhile, he’s also attempting to mend a tattered relationship with his girlfriend and their two children. A unique collaboration between filmmaker Daryl Wein (“Lola Versus”) and Chicago actor Jerod Haynes, “Blueprint” captures the reality of being a Black man on Chicago’s South Side with bracing heart and authenticity.
The name Blueprint has many meanings, according to film director Daryl Wein: “We actually arrived at the title from a few different angles. From a literal perspective, the ‘blueprint’ is the road map that is either given or not given to children growing up under difficult circumstances in the Black community. Metaphorically, it is also the blue imprint, like a bruise, inflicted on Black people; an invisible burden that weighs on them. A bruise is comprised of Black and blue, and the ‘blueprint’ is something a Black man or woman feels spiritually everyday, whether conscious or not. Finally, blue is the color that is used to symbolize the police force, so the ‘blue’ print, is also seen from an authoritative perspective within a larger hierarchical system.”
Regarding the film’s portrayal of Black men in vulnerable situations, Wein added: “To see the Black community, mostly Black men, talking about their feelings in the midst of such tragic circumstances shows the world that we are all just people on an equal playing field.”
“Can’t Turn Back: Edith + Eddie and ‘63 Boycott” – From Chicago-based Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”) comes two new powerful half-hour documentaries about interracial harmony, conflict and societal injustice. In Laura Checkoway’s award-winning “Edith and Eddie,” America’s oldest interracial newlyweds, ages 96 and 95, find their happy union threatened by a family feud. “63 Boycott,” by Gordon Quinn (“Golub”), chronicles the Chicago Public School Boycott of October 22, 1963, when more than 200,000 Chicagoans, mostly students, marched to pro-test segregationist policies.
“For Ahkeem” – Daje Shelton, a 17-year-old girl from St. Louis, just wants to do the right thing. But growing up in a tough neighborhood, she can’t catch a break: she’s struggling in school, distracted by boys, and surrounded by a culture of violence and brutality. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Jr. provides a powerful backdrop for this masterfully-crafted portrait of working-class urban life. Daje is remanded to a school that was founded by a Black judge who had seen enough young people come through the courts. His solution works well for the students who put in the work to succeed. “For Ahkeem” tells a familiar story, and the film is great at showing students at an alternative school who have support systems to help them make it through.
“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” – singer, dancer, and actor; “RatPack” legend; civil rights activist; Jewish convert; and Nixon supporter—the life of Sammy Davis, Jr. defies expectations and easy categorization. Charting the performer’s surprising journey across the major flashpoints of contemporary American history, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard interviews such luminaries as Billy Crystal, Jerry Lewis, and Whoopi Goldberg, and culls together an array of electric performances for this captivating exploration of the man, his talents and the struggle for identity. I didn’t realize that Davis had endured such pain during his career, although as a Black, I was not surprised at the hate that was levied against him. He lamented, though, that while his career was lush with accomplishments, he never went to school, because he was entertaining from the early age of three. This documentary covers Davis’ time in the military, as a hoofer and as a singer.
“The Rape of Recy Taylor” – From the director of the highly-acclaimed “The Loving Story” comes another dramatic tale of racial conflict. In 1944, six young white boys raped 24-year-old mother Recy Taylor in Alabama. Rather than stay silent, Taylor spoke up against her attackers. With the help of the NAACP and its chief investigator Rosa Parks, Taylor waged a battle for justice that is powerfully brought to life through archival footage, early “race films” and heartbreaking personal interviews. The director Nancy Buirski shared a bit of why films like this are great offerings at film festivals. “Film festivals are a wonderful means of introducing our film to a diverse audience. Because of the cinematography, it has been shown outside of documentary-only sections, so it is reaching a bit wider film audience as a result,” Buirski said. “We want it to be seen by both the converted and unconverted. This is a hidden story – it’s a great way to reveal it and spread the word through the press that covers festivals as well as through social media.”
“They played in her body,” one expert is quoted as saying in this film. The director leaned heavily on the premise that white men at that time felt that they had access to Black women, without any consequences. I loved this documentary, because I have never heard of this case. It is sad, but it shows the brave determination of Taylor’s family to attempt to exact justice upon the white boys who abused her. Taylor is still alive, and Parks and colleagues embraced her and her family to bring this case to court more than 70 years ago.
There are many more films, documentaries, local and international offerings and more being screened during the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, which runs from October 12 through October 26. Screenings will be held at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. For more information, visit https://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/.