By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
The 52nd Annual Chicago Film Festival is in full swing and runs until Thursday, October 27. Opening night lived up to all the fanfare that it normally does, with guest celebrities, actresses and actors walking the red carpet in advance of not only their upcoming screenings but the premiere of “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. “La La Land” tells the story of a jazz enthusiast and an aspiring actress, both looking to make their mark in what they believe is the land of milk and honey. Both struggle to find their place, as they look to each other for encouragement. This film is part musical and, while I’m not completely into musicals, the opening number is so colorful and magnificent that it made the rest of the film enjoyable.
Chloe Wines sponsored an opening night gala, featuring Chloe wines and hors d’oeuvres, and film critic Dean Richards welcomed the crowd, while introducing filmmaker and graphic artist Michael Kutza, the festival’s founder, who spoke about kicking off the first Chicago Film Festival more than a half a century ago. He started the festival in 1964 to provide an alternative to the commercial Hollywood movies that dominated the city’s theaters. Seeking out the best in international cinema, the festival has opened windows to a world of films previously or otherwise unavailable in Chicago. In addition, at more than half of the screenings each year, filmgoers have the rare and exciting chance to meet directors, producers, writers and cast members who introduce their films and hold discussion sessions after the screenings.
A couple of days after the opening gala, on October 15, Actor Andre Royo, of “Empire” and “The Wire” fame, walked the red carpet, along with co-star George Sample III, before the screening of their new film “Hunter Gatherer,” the story of a newly released convict played by Royo, trying to get back on his feet. Sample’s film “Cronies” screened at last year’s festival, and he is starring in the soon to be released film called “Human People,” which follows a variety of New York characters as they navigate personal relationships and unexpected problems over the course of one day. Royo says that “Hunter Gatherer” gave him an opportunity to portray a Black male who wasn’t a drug dealer or in any other of the common stereotypes. “I had to trust the director, since filming was completed in 18 days, as opposed to mainstream films that may take 30 or 40 days to shoot,” he told me while on the red carpet. “This film had a haunting tone and at first I felt a bit out of place.” Royo is a great actor, and any uneasiness that he may have felt can certainly be attributed to the fact that most people recognize him for his role as the slick attorney in “Empire” or that of Bubbles, the recovering heroin addict, in the HBO hit “The Wire.”
Sample was going through the pain of losing his 81-year-old grandfather and hadn’t had time to properly grieve. In “Hunter Gatherer,” his character takes care of his ailing grandfather, and Sample said the role helped him with his personal loss. “I found myself personalizing it and mourning my grandfather while shooting the film,” he said.
I have covered the festival for a few years, now, and I always relish the opportunity to screen the films. For 20 years, the festival has presented a Black Perspectives slate, and this year Taraji P. Henson, star of “Empire,” will be interviewed in advance of the release of “Hidden Figures,” the story of three African-American women who served at NASA on the mission to send astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The interview takes place on Monday, October 24.
On October 22 at 2:00 p.m., the festival will present “Black Cinema, Then and Now: 25 Years After the Black New Wave.” In 1991, African-American filmmakers launched several influential films: “Boyz in the Hood” (John Singleton), “Daughters of the Dust”(Julie Dash), “New Jack City” (Mario Van Peebles), “A Rage in Harlem” (Bill Duke) and “Jungle Fever” (Spike Lee). Twenty-five years later, the panel will examine the question: where is Black cinema now, and how much more needs to be done to foster African-American filmmaking and stories?
On October 22 at 6:30 p.m., to celebrate 20 years of the Black Perspective slate, Academy Award® winner Steve McQueen, a British filmmaker and artist, renowned for his visceral, deeply humane storytelling and whose films include “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” is the subject of a tribute.
Veteran actor Danny Glover stars in “93 Days,” a drama
that chronicles the impressive effort to contain the spread of Ebola across Nigeria’s most populated city. When a feverish Liberian American ambassador collapses in a hospital in Lagos, it’s clear the long dreaded 2014 Ebola outbreak has finally arrived at Nigeria’s door. Over the course of 93 gut wrenching days, health officials rush to prevent the disease’s spread. At ground zero of the exposure is the hospital team, whose lives and families are at stake in this compelling drama of sacrifice and courage. The film screens again on Friday, October 21, and Tuesday, October 25.
On Sunday, October 23, a social justice film “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” which inspired a recent White House recognition for the snubbed 18 African-Americans of the 1936 Olympics, will screen. Narrated and executive-produced by actor Blair Underwood, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” profiles the 18 men who defied Jim Crow racism in the United States and Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany to win hearts and medals on the world stage. While history remembers Jesse Owens, the others faded into obscurity.
The Closing night film on October 27 is “Arrival,” the story of an elite team enlisted to help humankind communicate with aliens, after a mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe and mankind tethers on the verge of global war. The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. For more information about the film festival, visit the Festival box office at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. or the website https://www.chicagofilmfestival.com.