For Document, founder Maori Holmes joins filmmaker and producer dream hampton to explore the versatility in concept and breadth of power in Black cinema
My first experience with the BlackStar Film Festival was in 2016. My mom and I drove to Philadelphia from Newark to screen our film Ori Inu: In Search Of Self, a co-creation by me and my sister, Chelsea Odufu. At this point, we were very fresh in the independent film circuit, and the world seemed to be opening up to us. We had gone from being relatively unknown in the New York scene, to having a film that was getting a lot of attention and creating many opportunities for us.
Upon arriving, it didn’t take long to see the thought and love that went into BlackStar. Every filmmaker received a stipend to supplement their stay in Philly—something that did not happen at any other festival I’d attended. After going to more than 10 all over the country that year, the fact that they had gone the extra mile to make BlackStar accessible was endearing. More than that, it was the community that this festival brought together that made it so special.
I was surrounded by the most amazing Black filmmakers of my generation: I finally got to meet Terence Nance, who was also screening in the festival. Ava DuVernay was there, and gave a speech that I was extremely inspired by. I got to see my former professor Damani Baker’s brilliant documentary, The House on Coco Road, for the first time. I was also able to reconnect with my college advisor at the New School, the late Michelle Materre, who aside from being a force in the independent Black film world was part of the reason I finally made the full transition into film production from music. She was able to see our film for the first time, after I had been emailing her about it for months prior. Most importantly, I felt hope. I felt like our dream of making films on the largest stage was not as far off as it had felt before.
In the days leading up to the 11th annual BlackStar Film Festival, I sat down with founder Maori Karmael Holmes and filmmaker dream hampton to talk about Black film and visual aesthetics, the future of creativity, and everything BlackStar 2022.
“I expect that we will continue to make work on multiple registers that is both beautiful and compelling—work that’s also trying to heal, and trying to recover forgotten and overlooked histories.”
Emann Odufu: What inspires you in the trope of Black cinema at the moment? It could be in general, or even in a metaphorical sense, but I think we should engage with it on a larger level before we get into the nitty-gritty of the conversation.
Maori Holmes: I’m really excited by how many Black filmmakers are permitting themselves to push up against the prescriptions of genre, and the prescriptions of three-act structure and protagonists. Of course, it’s messy and not always successful, but I am intrigued by the attempts being made right now. It makes me hopeful about the future of what cinema will look like in a generation or so.
dream hampton: There were these filmmakers a couple of generations ago, who gave us films like Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett in 1978 and Bush Mama by Haile Gerima in ’79. They were influenced by things that were happening not only in America, but throughout the world, particularly in France and Europe and maybe even Russia. They were interested in the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. It’s exciting to see American filmmakers at large starting to take up that charge.
To see a film like Killer of Sheep, which feels at once vérité and very experimental, be an influence for today’s filmmakers is amazing—whether or not they have that direct chain. Sometimes, they’re being influenced by the people who are influenced by them. Julie Dash, for instance, was significantly influenced by people like Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, and filmmakers today might be influenced by her, or influenced by someone who she influences. I’m also wildly excited by what is going on globally. Wanuri Kahiu is one of my good friends, but I didn’t know her in 2009 when I watched her film Pumzi. She’s the Kenyan filmmaker who made Rafiki, the first African film to screen at Cannes.
Emann: I look at Black cinema as an extension of Black art. To me, there’s no real distinction between creative realms anymore. Film is music, is art, is advertising, is fashion, is interior design, or even architecture. You can see it in an artist like Kanye West, but even on a smaller level, many creatives are toggling between different creative modes of expression.
Another example is Blitz Bazawule. He’s an artist, he’s a filmmaker, musician, and writer, and he’s not the only one. I’m curious what you think about the future of creativity for all art forms, but also how it relates to Black film—and I’m specifically talking about the hybridity between different types of disciplines.
dream: I’m sure you invoked Blitz because, in preparing for this interview, you read that I was one of the executive producers on The Burial of Kojo.
Emann: That would be correct.
“There is no separation in the artistic disciplines for African and Indigenous people. It’s life. I think contemporary artists are just returning to that center.”
dream: One of the things that Black filmmakers have needed is the opportunity to fail—the chance to experiment, and even fail in that experimentation. As you were speaking, I was thinking about branded content. I rewatched Khalik Allah’s Moncler commercial with Solange the other day; he’s a filmmaker who has had the most success as a fine art photographer. So to see him get a chance to play in this big-budget world of retail commercials was exciting. I loved what he was doing with it. Second, I think of Jen Nkiru and what she did with her film Black to Techno as branded content for Gucci in collaboration with Frieze.
In terms of hybridity, I think of Wangechi Mutu’s experimentation in one of her recent painting series. She was thinking about environmental stuff, but was also looking to animate and make some of her work come to life through film. So all those spaces hold the possibility of unlocking so many levels for filmmakers and artists in general.
Maori: The thing that comes to mind is what I was raised to believe from elders. There is no separation in the artistic disciplines for African and Indigenous people. It’s life. I think contemporary artists are just returning to that center.
I think there’s a lot of synergy between creatives making work that exists in traditional cinema, works that end up in a gallery or a museum, and works that end up on Instagram as an advertisement. It only makes sense, because our worlds are also multidisciplinary. We will continue to do that. I expect that we will continue to make work on multiple registers that is both beautiful and compelling—work that’s also trying to heal, and trying to recover forgotten and overlooked histories.
Emann: For me, BlackStar is a space where unconventional Black film has a space. Maori, can you talk about making space for all types of Black film with your programming?
Maori: I want to challenge that just a bit, in that I think that everything that Black people do in the new world is futuristic—because we weren’t meant to survive. We are here, so the things we make must believe in a future that comes after us. I think that the idea of Afrofuturism gets a little muddy because people concentrate on space and technology. Those things are important to me, but Afrofuturism can also look like farms and water. It can also be about some sort of base survival. BlackStar is really interested in experimentation, and has been from the beginning. Part of that is personal, because I’ve been interested in that kind of work, and I’m curious about how they push the forum itself. It’s not something I have the answers to, but I’m curious about making space for us as Black people, and for our Brown and Indigenous brothers and sisters.
In terms of the festival’s curation, we’re also interested in small shifts. We have curated films that aren’t necessarily experimental. They can be quite conventional, but something about them is turning convention on its head. It might be a romantic comedy, but the lead protagonist is a dark-skinned Black woman with natural hair. Earlier in the festival, that was quite radical. We also were initially interested in stories of important cultural figures, like Audre Lorde or Sonia Sanchez. We want to protect the stories of cultural workers and artists who created the foundation upon which we all make work. We were interested in making sure their history stays with us.
“I think that everything that Black people do in the new world is futuristic—because we weren’t meant to survive. We are here, so the things we make must believe in a future that comes after us.”
Emann: Yeah, I can relate to that. One of my current film projects, Black Lady Goddess, is set 20 years in the future, when humans realize that God is actually a Black woman from the Sirius B Galaxy. The first thing she does as the creator of the universe is grant reparations to all Black people around the world. The first season chronicles the chaos that happens in society after this revelation. In a way, we’re just using it to create satire in the present day: showing what could happen if society continues on the trajectory that it’s on. I guess it’s the traditional Afrofuturism lens, but for me, it’s important to bring up—because the series in its highest form would really advance the conversation around global reparations for slavery.
I’m going to switch it up a little bit and ask, what are you both reading right now?
Maori: I’m reading Sharon Salzberg at the moment, so not anything to do with film. The title escapes me, but it’s about love. Besides that, our most recent issue of Seen—our journal of film and visual culture—came out, and so I’m rereading all the articles in print, holding it in my hand.
dream: I am reading Noah Hawley’s script for Fargo, the TV show, which was amazingly constructed. Also, I have about 300 pages printed out from the Supreme Court website, where they have recent decisions from the last season. I read Dobbs, which ended legal abortion in the US, but I wanted to make sure that I also read about them basically suspending Miranda rights, and they did some more fuck shit to immigrants. I’ve just been going over those opinions, focusing on Clarence Thomas with a highlighter. That’s what I’ve been doing in my hammock this summer.
Emann: One thing that connects the type of work you both do is the element of social impact and community building. Can you expand on that idea of creating work that has a social impact?
Maori: At BlackStar, we attempt to be intersectional. We are always trying to think about how we can make the festival, and all its processes, as inclusive as possible. We have a huge accessibility mandate that we put on ourselves this year to better serve people with low vision and low hearing, or no vision and no hearing. From the very beginning, we’ve offered childcare to our filmmakers. We’re always trying to think about what barriers might be there. We think about artists first, then the audience, while considering the connection between these two groups representing us.
We are a festival that’s concerned with social justice, in addition to racial justice and media representation. We always try to align ourselves with political movements, as much as we can as a nonprofit. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, or the work we’re doing ‘activist work,’ but we are trying to be just and move the organization in a just way. How we pay artists, how we pay ourselves, and how we take care of everybody involved holistically is reflective of those values. I’m really concerned with a kind of radical care.
“We want to protect the stories of cultural workers and artists who created the foundation upon which we all make work. We were interested in making sure their history stays with us.”
dream: I am a longtime organizer and activist. There are two film projects that I’ve recently done, one being Freshwater, which is showing at this year’s festival. It is very different from the film I showed at BlackStar in 2016, [Treasure].
That film had a mission to support the movement for justice for Shelley Hilliard’s family; Shelley Hilliard is a trans girl the police set up, coerced into doing dangerous undercover informant work, and arrested for a small amount of drugs at a place where she sometimes did sex work. [Treasure] was a documentary that sat at the intersection of many issues that I care about, and her family had a civil suit against the police department that coerced her and harassed her with the arrest. I definitely saw the impact of that film on the case. I’m not saying it was all because of the film—her mom, who’s since passed, was a strong advocate for her, as well.
With Freshwater, I wanted to turn away from that and do some more interior work. Like Maori, it was more often about the form than the content. I was working with a really small team, which was healing for me after working with a studio and a publicly held network. In 2019, I worked with major studios: HBO, BET and then Lifetime. I needed some healing after those experiences—of getting, like, 40 pages of notes from people on a spectrum of thoughtfulness.
Back to Maori’s thing, around how she’s looking at her organization as a place to create radical shifts: She talked about radical care, but it’s really all about radical shifts. After being on a call sheet with 300 people, it was so healing to have four people working on a film, in my home. All of that was how I was doing my activism in this one, but I have done both—I have had projects that had a social impact. This small film impacted me greatly, and hopefully, some of the people in the small team that I worked with.
The 11th annual BlackStar Film Festival takes place in Philadelphia through August 7.