If Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz’s “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story,” the origin documentary about the rise of the divisive mogul, could deliver on one promise, it arises as an undeniable crowd pleaser. Despite its intrusive, cacophonous score and its heavy-handedness—deployed to burnish another laurel to Perry’s noted career—the broad film still felt quite personal to the vibrant young and the older, sage Black attendees who filled Theater One at the Gene Siskel Film Center. They felt seen and cared for; they felt a hope that warmed them further on an already abnormally warm November night. It is the oncoming harvest that calls the Midwesterner to winter’s slumber; it is the impressive haul, filled by Thursday night’s inspiring closing showing and the countless films of the last two weeks during this year’s Black Harvest Film Festival, that will nourish many in the colder days ahead.
It’s been a year since the festival’s co-founder, the dearly missed Sergio Mims, passed away. Celebrating its 29th iteration, the first program directly untouched by Mims, the festival conjured a theme that implicitly connected the gathering to its enduring past while looking toward a necessary future. Lead Curator Jada-Amina and Coordinator Nick Leffel rang the opening to their harvest under the banner of “Revolutionary Visions.” It’s an alluring phrase. But what exactly does it mean, and how does it feel? Similar to the temporal implication of the phrase, the very utterance demands a response. Throughout the festival, the answer arose defiantly through the selected films and the filmmakers themselves, whom Jada-Amina often prompted in post-screening Q&As to offer their interpretation of the theme. Much like the diversity in the Black diaspora, the responses were not monolithic but as unique and as idiosyncratic as the imaginations on display.
Their response could first be heard in the inherited echoes of Black cinema. Maya S. Cade (founder of the Black Film Archive), Justice Singleton (the son of director John Singleton), and Paige Taul (a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute) served as jurists for the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Black Harvest Film Festival Prize. The two main prizes were awarded to Joseph Douglas Elmhirst’s short “Burnt Milk” and Katherine Simóne Reynolds’ experimental feature “A Different Kind of Tender.” It’s worth noting that all three jurists, in some way, are protectors of Black cinema’s past and awarded two films that look toward the previous splendor of broken landscapes to inform their present. Black Harvest also programmed five films by Singleton’s father—“Boyz n the Hood,” “Poetic Justice,” “Higher Learning,” “Shaft,” and “Baby Boy”—to further bolster its retrospective slate.
The biggest highlights of the repertory programming could be found in the live additions. Edward O. Bland’s “The Cry of Jazz” (1959) takes place in a Chicago apartment, where an interracial group of friends gather to discuss jazz’s origins. The Black participants attempt to explain to their white counterparts why Jazz is a uniquely Black genre, one exemplified by the hurt, angst, and limitations felt by Black Americans. For all its datedness, the film is still a searing social project.
Following the “The Cry of Jazz,” singer and musician Angel Bat Dawid offered a raucous and visceral performance that ripped open the racial anxiety at the heart of Bland’s conversational film. In celebration of the Blacklight Film Festival, founded by Floyd Webb and the late Terry White Glover in 1982, festivalgoers were treated to Oscar Micheaux’s “The Symbol of the Unconquered,” backed by musicians Edward Wilkerson Jr, Jim Baker, and Jonathan Woods. I must admit, I’ve never been a lover of Micheaux’s clearly important work, if only because so much footage is missing. But the score by the trio of players, a woozy, abstract piece that elucidated the director’s political and emotional framing, put it in a newer and more urgent light.
Curators Jada-Amina and Leffel balanced the heavy dose of retrospectives with a bold onslaught of shorts. In fact, Black Harvest featured an incredible ten short programs. I was fortunate to catch five of the blocks, which offered a wealth of work from filmmakers working in an approach that is often the most forward-looking. “Tether,” for instance, a slow motion, red-smeared film of a Black woman dancing, was granted live accompaniment by its director kelechi agwuncha. Anthony Davis’ “Lining” and C.C. Randle’s “A Mind of Its Own” offered comedic interrogations of Black hair in the workplace and love. Tari Warieb’s “We Were Meant To” reimagines the coming-of-age genre through a sci-fi lens of a Black community with the ability to fly. Felicia Pride’s hilarious “Look Back At It” and Bashir Aden’s haunting “A Sweet of Lapse” provide perspectives on the importance of Black sisterhood. Niya Abdullahi’s “In the Whiteness” is a poetic story of a Harari-Ethiopian woman’s life told through dance. These films thought about the Black body, the resistance of its very existence, through sound, picture, and movement that stretched the limits of the spaces they pass through.
Of the features at this year’s festival, the most striking, for the most part, were documentaries. Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro’s enlightening “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” is an intimate portrait of the legendary Jazz drummer. Caullen Hudson’s “No Cop Academy: The Documentary” is a sharp, political text concerning a group of young activists’ desire to see the funds reserved for cop schools redistributed to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Lagueria Davis’ “Black Barbie: A Documentary” tracked the history of the toy and its importance to young Black people searching for racial representation. The lone fictional film that pulled me away from documentaries was Monica Sorelle’s Miami-set critique of gentrification, “Mountains.” I had the pleasure of speaking with Sorelle about her evocative, vibrant, and rebellious Haitian-American film during the festival. Chaz Ebert hosted a Female Filmmakers Happy Hour on behalf of Sorelle, Kelley Kali (“Kemba”), and the filmmakers in the Phenomenal Women shorts program.
Usually, I’d say if your main takeaway from a festival is its parties, then you probably didn’t see enough films. But at the Black Harvest Film Festival, I was reminded what a revolutionary vision can feel like. Because we know when we see it, but what does it mean for the sensation to touch our bones? It can hug you in a room full of people, specifically Black people—laughing, sharing, embracing—who feel safe to exist. The many receptions, glowing faces, and swapped memories were in themselves freeing visions.
But now I return to the closing night film “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story.” In his reliance on well-worn tropes and the mechanics of the minstrel, it’s difficult to associate Perry with the word “revolutionary.” Many will point to his financial triumphs in a structurally racist Hollywood as an example of his groundbreaking stature (which wouldn’t be a totally incorrect track to take). I found it disappointing, however, that in a film entirely enraptured by Perry’s rise from poverty to founding his own studio—thereby thumbing his nose at white Hollywood and giving his mother a comfortable life—Oscar Micheaux wasn’t once mentioned. In a film enamored by placing Perry’s achievements in the context of history, why not talk about said lineage? There are other issues with the film (jumbled editing choices and a repetitive nature), predictably, but that is a glaring, unforced error.
And yet, I can’t help but think about my sisters (both avid Madea fans). I also can’t forget the genuine jubilation in the room, the aspirational wants that jumped from viewer to viewer as they watched Perry defy the odds.
When I first saw the festival lineup, I was puzzled. Why end with a Perry documentary amid a clearly indie and DIY assemblage of films? Surely, he must offer the most regressive vision of the other works on the bill? But as has always been the case in the mogul’s career, what he conjures in the heart is vastly different from what remains in the mind. Theater One of the Gene Siskel Film Center was given a meal, ingredients gathered by Perry meant to enrich the soul. Perry might not be artistically excellent, at least not by the barometer set by many critics, but he’s comfortable being a Black man dismissed by a few but loved by many. Isn’t that a revolutionary vision, too?