Glass interviews Maori Karmael Holmes, CEO and Artistic Director of BlackStar Film Festival

THE Philadelphia-based BlackStar Film Festival describes itself as “an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global communities of color, showcasing films by Black, Brown and Indigenous people from around the world”. Since its formation as a one-day micro-festival in 2012 it has grown significantly, developing a reputation as an important cultural hub for filmmakers of colour, and has been dubbed “the black Sundance”.

Ahead of BlackStar’s return in digital form August 20-26, 2020, the festival’s founder and Artistic Director Maori Karmael Holmes spoke to Glass about the films that excite her and the role of cinema at a time of racial protest.


Black Star Film Festival Poster

BlackStar takes place in August and you’re previously talked about the significance of August as a month of acts of black liberation historically. Could you tell us a little more about this?
When we started the festival in 2012, that was a time when a lot of people were considering the legacy of Black August, beginning with George Jackson’s murder in San Quentin and also thinking about many other things that happened in the month of August: the Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the foundation of the Underground Railroad, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the March on Washington. August is the month that these things are planned and plotted.

But it’s also the month of Marcus Garvey’s birth (where we get our name, from his Black Star Line), it’s the month Fred Hampton was born and W.E.B. DuBois died. The independence of several black countries are celebrated in August. For some reason in this month things happen and it’s become this critical point.

So that first year we wanted to have these events in August because the festival was very much intended to be Pan-Africanist, a global presentation of black identity. And we’ve kept it because it worked: we had a really robust attendance and we felt a lot of people felt seen and found meaning in being at the festival.

Maori Karmael Holmes, CEO and Artistic Director of BlackStar Film Festival. Photograph: Rashid Zakat

BlackStar festival is going digital this year. What do you think will be gained and lost by this move?
I think the magic of film festivals is in meeting other people: independent filmmakers meeting their audiences up close, in hallways and corners. That casual, personal interaction cannot be replaced in a digital space.

That said, there are things I am really excited about. We have been hoping to position ourselves as a global festival from the beginning, and with an online platform we can have a panel of people all over the world. Someone can be at home in London, another in Berlin, another in Nairobi and another in Philadelphia, all at the same time. That’s exciting because we can’t always afford to bring people over and get them all in the same room.

Is there anything from this year’s programme that you’re particularly looking forward to?
We have a world premiere of a documentary feature called Unapologetic by Ashley O’Shay that’s looking at the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago. We’re really excited to show this film. It’s obviously timely and it’s a beautiful moment to share that film with our particular audience.

There are a couple of short documentaries that I think are very lovely as well. One is a 15-minute short called Tamales Y Tuna by Lucia Archila-Escobar, about a group of Indigenous Guatemalan women who live in South Carolina and are facing healthcare barriers that make it difficult to carry their pregnancies to term. It’s looking at a community that I think a lot of people don’t even realise exists, and I think that’s really interesting.

The other short that I found really beautiful and also, unfortunately, super timely, is KEON by E.G. Bailey. It’s looking at three young black men who end up encountering the police in their neighbourhood. It doesn’t tell you where they are but the filmmakers are based in the Midwest in the US and so you can imagine that it could be Minneapolis or somewhere like that.

We also have a few films that are not world premieres that we’re excited about, like the feature Farewell Amor by Ekwa Msangi, which had its premiere at Sundance. That film is also really timely: it’s about African immigrants in the US who are reunited after being apart for 17 years. We’ve been talking about, and trying to share films about, immigration for almost all of BlackStar’s nine years.

Then there’s Sky Hopinka’s małni, a feature documentary following two Indigenous people from the US as they contemplate afterlife, rebirth and places in between. The entire film is spoken in Chinuk Wawa (their Indigenous language).

I think one of the things that’s really exciting about BlackStar generally is that we’re not afraid of experimental form, and although małni is labelled as a feature doc it’s really an experimental film as well. I think it’s going to be formally challenging in a good way for a lot of people.

Still from Farewell Amor. Director Ekwa Msangi

You mentioned that many films in this year’s programme are timely. Is this something you look for when curating BlackStar or does it simply reflect the fact that some themes in society, like police brutality, never cease to be relevant?
It’s definitely the latter. We don’t go into the programming process searching for any themes or trends. This issue of police brutality and misconduct in this country is not a new situation at all. Nor is the mistreatment of immigrant populations, right? So I think those two, in particular, are themes that have shown up in the festival every year.

These themes, as you say, are not new. Black Lives Matter is not new. But we’re at a particularly heightened moment right now, what feels almost like a revolutionary moment.What is the role of cinema in a moment like this?
Cinema is a form that’s affecting us on so many levels: aural, visual, emotional. Motion picture media (including films, television and online videos) have the power to shift how we think and how we see. I think about so much of the television I grew up with and how it impacted my desires.

I think about the hip-hop videos in the mid-90s – they really changed how people expected to party! It sounds silly but it’s true. I think about people’s expectations for their future families based on The Cosby Show, or how Will & Grace normalised gay and lesbian folk for certain  communities, how it shifted their politics within the eight-year run of the show.

There is also obviously an 120-year history of erasure. Particularly in the US, we haven’t seen the vast majority of communities of colour depicted in any nuance. It’s been stories about white people, with people of colour on the fringes, and when they do show up they show in stereotypes, they often show up in negative ways.

Still from KEON. Director E.G. Bailey

Director Perry Henzell said of The Harder They Come (the first Jamaican feature film), “Black people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time created an unbelievable audience reaction”. In your role at BlackStar, have you witnessed certain groups and communities seeing themselves on screen for the first time, or presented with nuance and humanity for the first time?
That’s really interesting because black Americans have been on the screen for a long time, just not in the ways that we should be. So there have been – I think about the classic texts by Donald Bogle.

There have been these very stereotypical servants and comic relief and Magical Negroes, there have been these foils for white protagonists in American media. And there have actually also been these moments, in the 1970s and then in the ’90s and our current moment, where there has been an increase in production by black makers, and so there have been black shows and black films.

Oftentimes those shows happen, they’re very popular, then they go away and we don’t see them again. And I always bring that up because I think compared to other people of colour we have more visibility than Arab folks or Indigenous folks or East Asian folks. It’s still not enough, but we do have more.

So I don’t think black people in the US are seeing themselves for the first time, because we’ve had these moments over the last 50 years when we’ve seen ourselves on screen. But I do think what happens at BlackStar is that people are sometimes seeing their particular community for the first time.

In this country, oftentimes independent films go to film festivals and then they disappear, unless the filmmaker gets famous or gets distributed. The beauty of BlackStar has been that some of these films are getting to their intended audience, or a similar one. And so it was really important to the director Terence Nance to premiere his show Random Acts of Flyness at BlackStar because he knew he was going to get an audience that got the right jokes, that laughed in the right places and cried in the right places.

Because oftentimes when you’re making work and it’s playing in front of, let’s say, a white audience (although it’s not always about race, it could be about class or location), you’re having to over-explain the work, or people are excited about the wrong things. And so I know a lot of makers who turn to BlackStar because of that really authentic, direct audience response.

We talk at the moment as if cinema going online is an aberration and things will go back to normal, but we don’t really know that. Are you anxious about the future of cinema and film festivals? If this becomes the new normal, how will it affect cinema and filmmakers of colour in particular?
I’m less anxious about festivals and movie theatres. What I’m anxious about is people being able to make work. Film is a medium that requires collaboration, it requires working in communities. If you’re making a documentary or a narrative, you need other people and you need to be up close with them.

So if this goes on longer than one and a half years, if it’s three years or something, then I am very concerned about our cultural output. How will people make new projects? I’m not sure there’s enough VR or green screen to make up the difference! Something may shift – that’s what we do as a species, we adapt. But that’s the part that I’m concerned about.


Still from In Sudden Darkness. Director Tayler Montague

You’ve previously said that ultimately you’d like to see cinema of colour properly included in the mainstream, to the extent that a space like BlackStar would become unnecessary. How will we know when we’ve reached this point? What will it look like? Do you see it happening?

I don’t know. I’m trying not to be cynical. I feel like a lot of the change that has happened over the last decade is more lasting than before. But I was at a different stage of life before. I don’t have a proper analysis of what happened in the 1990s because I was a child, so I don’t know if my perspective is different because I’m an adult now, but it does feel like the emergence of Ava DuVernay or Charles D. King, any of these folk that are in executive positions, it feels like they are part of lasting change. But we won’t really know for another ten years because we can’t tell in the moment whether it’s permanent.

When you say ‘what does it look like’, I think there has been a slow shift in American sit-coms to being more representative. You see it on something like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore or any of these shows where the cast are incredibly diverse. In any Ryan Murphy show you see people of different abilities, people of different genders, different races and nationalities, they have them all in the show.

If that continues 20 years from now and then each of the people on that show have their own break-out show and we’re scrolling through TV Guide and you can see families of many different kinds then, to me, that’s a very obvious shift, and we’ll be able to tell because we’ll see it.

All that said, I think a space like BlackStar may or may not be necessary, but we won’t know until we get to that place. If we do end up with more representation of people of colour in the mainstream then a space like BlackStar will get weirder, with a focus on the odd and experimental.

Still from Unapologetic. Director Ashley OShay

Are there any rising stars who you think our readers should know about?
There’s a film that we showed at the festival last year and also online a few months ago, A Love Song for Latasha by Sophia Nahli Allison. I have just been so moved by that film and by Sophia herself and I’m really looking forward to the kind of work she makes in the future.

Nuotama Bodomo is a filmmaker we’ve shown quite a bit at the festival and she’s someone I’m always thinking about and always rooting for. She has such a unique voice and an incredible perspective and is just really talented as a director. I’m excited to see what she continues to produce. Darius Clark Monroe is another filmmaker whose work really impresses me, and Garrett Bradley is someone I’ve just come to learn about in the last few years whose work is very moving and powerful.

In addition to your programming work, you also make films. Do you have any plans to make more films yourself?
I have several films that have been sitting on my heart for several years but I haven’t had the space to really dedicate to them.

You sound quite excited about the future. It’s refreshing. Are you an optimist by nature?
I think so. I feel like there’s not a binary between optimist and pessimist because I do think I’m quite cynical, but there’s a quote that’s something like “waking up is an act of optimism”. And that propels me to think about what’s possible.

by Jackson Caines

BlackStar Film Festival runs online 20-26 August 2020. For more information visit