By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Most film festivals that are trying to still offer great content to moviegoers have pivoted to a virtual online platform, and the 26th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival (BHFF) is another fest that is set to run online from November 6 through November 30. The fest is presented by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.
This year’s festival will offer an engaging, fully online experience, featuring the Chicago premieres of short and feature-length films that celebrate the full range of the Black experience, and will be available via the website, siskelfilmcenter.org, at various dates throughout the month.
One short film that is part of BHFF examines the subject of gentrification, which has affected many urban areas across the country.
In this case, writer, producer and director Washington Kirk tackles the topic as it concerns his neighborhood in Harlem. His film is called “Frederick Douglas Boulevard aka Food & Drink Boulevard aka F.D.B.” Some elements of Kirk’s film, which screened at the recent American Black Film Festival, remind me of the work of Spike Lee, whose 1994 vibrant family drama “Crooklyn” was last year’s closing night film at BHFF.
The film tells the story of Malcolm Jamal Turner, a Harlem transplant and struggling music writer from the Ohio suburbs, who is ambivalent about the neighborhood’s changing demographics (when not outright hostile), who concocts a ludicrous scheme to de-gentrify Harlem. What results is a hilarious litmus test for an unsuspecting potential white occupant, who must answer culturally relevant questions in order to prove his worthiness.
I was able to ask Kirk a few questions about his topic and his cinematic angle. “I didn’t grow up in a house filled with cinephiles, but my parents made it a point to expose us to Spike Lee’s films,” he said. “So, Spike is my most significant cinematic influence by a mile.” He continued: “Spike often expresses feelings of ownership over Brooklyn and New York City in both his art and life, and I thought it’d be fun and interesting to explore similar feelings from a character influenced by him and who shares many of his political views within the context of gentrification.” Kirk and I both agree that this short is definitely a love letter of sorts to Harlem. “The character Malcolm, like myself, grew up watching Spike’s depictions of New York City and listening to Golden Age hip-hop, the most enduring of which also painted rich, vivid portraits of New York City,” Kirk said. “Malcolm has sort of always considered himself a New Yorker. Spike often expresses feelings of ownership over Brooklyn and New York City in both his art and life, and I thought it’d be fun and interesting to explore similar feelings from a character influenced by him and who shares many of his political views.”
Kirk remarked about the differences over the years in Harlem and how this plays out in his film. “I remember when you could walk for blocks and blocks and blocks and not encounter a white face. That was a real shock to a kid who grew up in predominantly white ’hoods and attended predominantly white institutions—both a shock and an unexpected relief. Malcolm [the film’s main character] is definitely grappling with mixed and often hostile feelings at the idea of Harlem no longer being a Black ’hood.”
Finally on the subject, he said: “In short, the Black dialogue and concern over notions of Blackness are crucial to the story I want to tell, and hopefully the humor and satire both send up some of it and make it more palatable.”
Kirk has presented at about a dozen film festivals and is thrilled to screen at BHFF. “It’s an honor for Frederick Douglass Boulevard, etc., to have been selected! BHFF is an established, well-respected festival with a long track record of promoting quality films. My project’s just a speck in that legacy, but being a speck is still pretty cool,” he said.
He has family members in Chicago and says it’s a great city. “A Black city that feels like a home away from home in many ways.”
For information about “Frederick Douglas Boulevard aka Food & Drink Boulevard aka F.D.B.,” visit www.foodanddrinkboulevard.com.
For more information about the 26th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival, visit https://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/bhff2020.