WASHINGTON — “When the lights go down, we’re all the same color.”
That’s the goal of Kevin Sampson, founder of the first-ever D.C. Black Film Festival, which launches Thursday to Saturday on Barracks Row near the Eastern Market Metro station.
“In light of Charlottesville and that tragedy, this film festival is very important,” Sampson said. “I think as black people, we need to see ourselves on the big screen, because it gives us validation … but also for people of other ethnicities, we need to learn from one another. So we have a lot of panels, workshops and things where people can sit down, watch films and have a conversation together. Like Roger Ebert said, ‘Film is the ultimate empathy machine.'”
Screenings will take place at the Miracle Theatre on 8th Street Southeast, which splits time as a church and a movie theater for second-run flicks. Sampson says it’s “a steal of a deal,” not to mention a fitting location for a festival that was itself a mini “miracle” getting off the ground.
“Half the time, I want to throw up like, ‘What am I doing?'” Sampson joked with a hearty laugh. “The other half of the time, I’m like, ‘Yo, we’re making history!’ That’s what we’re doing here.”
Like most history-making ideas, the seed was planted by a simple everyday occurrence. In Sampson’s case, he went to see the Kevin Hart comedy “Think Like a Man 2” (2014) and came home disappointed at the limited representation of African-Americans he saw on screen.
“I loved ‘Think Like a Man 1,’ the stakes were the heart — you’ve gotta have stakes — but in the [sequel] the stakes were: ‘Who can throw the best party?’ It was disappointing,” Sampson said. “For black cinema, we only get a few ‘black-busters’ each year, so I went home and wrote an open letter to black screenwriters saying we need to see more of us on the big screen.”
After feedback from various black filmmakers, Sampson planned to shoot a documentary titled “The Hollywood Blackout,” but was unable to raise his $30,000 goal on Kickstarter.
“The Kickstarter was not successful,” Sampson lamented. “But from there, I said, you know what, I’ve directed a film festival already [the Rosebud Film Festival in Arlington, Virginia], let me just bring D.C. its first black film festival. So that’s kind of the genesis of the festival.”
Next, Sampson put out a wide “call for entries” on the Film Freeway website, receiving 125 submissions from four continents, mostly North America, but also a few from Africa, Europe and South America. These were narrowed down to 52 films that will screen this weekend.
“The stipulation is that at least one person from ‘above the line’ has to be from African descent, [meaning] a director, writer, producer or actors,” Sampson said. “There are a lot of directors in the festival that are white. There are some films you’re gonna say, ‘This seems like an all-white cast,’ but the director and writer are black. So that’s what we’re trying to do, just go for the diversity and exhibit these films because they’re out there, they’re great stories.”
It all kicks off Thursday with the opening block theme of “The Past.” These movies mostly focus on the past, laying the historical groundwork for the other films you’re about to see. This includes the narrative film “Zoo (Volkerschau)” by D.C. filmmaker Monda Raquel Webb.
“Human zoos that took place in 1958 Brussels that had Africans on display,” Sampson said.
“I saw this at another festival and said, ‘I gotta have this for our festival,'” Sampson said. “It really does a great job of analyzing what it means to be of African descent. There’s a lot of people in the film who are from Sierra Leone or Senegal. In their household, culturally, it’s African, but when they step outside, it’s assimilating to American. So it’s that juxtaposition.”
The filmmaker will stick around for the opening night panel “What is Black?” hosted by C-SPAN’s Jonelle Henry along with Tim Gordon, president of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, and Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
“The whole point is: What is black? Black is a color, but am I black? No, I’m brown. So what is that? The whole thesis that the black experience can’t be pinned down to one thing — it’s made up of many things. Also, covering how we’re depicted in film. It’ll be a rich conversation.”
The festival continues Friday with a fascinating film block called “The Future,” showcasing the future of the industry by highlighting young filmmakers, students films and rising artists.
This includes Huriyyah Muhammad’s supernatural web series “Keloid” about a mother and her telekinetic teen; Steven Alexander Russell’s drama “Tastes Like Medicine” about a man’s mental breakdown at his ex-lover’s baby shower; and Dionna McMillian’s “Love, New York” about a New York actress who grabs the wrong cup of coffee before her audition.
Friday’s second block of films is called “The Struggle and The Triumph,” including the inspirational social documentary “Arc of Justice” directed by Mark Lipman and Helen S. Cohen.
“It traces the journey of New Communities Incorporated,” Sampson said. “It’s the story of racial justice, community development and perseverance in the face of enormous obstacles.”
“It deals with what it’s like being the black person in a workplace,” Sampson said. “I’ve been in a situation like that where I was the only black guy on the staff — what that feels like.”
The night closes with a party across the street at The Fridge, featuring food, drinks and music.
“We’re going to show music videos from D.C.-area artists,” Sampson said. “Then we have D.C. artist Tia Dae, she’s going to be performing, as well as Luke James Shaffer. So we get to showcase them, network and have a good time. It’s film, music [and] a chill, artsy vibe.”
The third and final day kicks off with a film block called “The District and The Law.”
It features Anthony Anderson’s web series “Anacostia,” which is an “Emmy award-winning [show] from this area;” Bo Tran’s documentary “Close to U” about “the history and future of the U Street corridor;” Matthew Gentile’s “Lawman” styled as an “old-school, western throwback;” and Maurice Simmons’ “Bill 2/29” exploring the potential of future segregation.
“It will challenge some people,” Sampson said. “In this film, a bill comes out basically separating black people and white people to different states. So we focus on these two neighbors who are preparing to move and they discuss this whole thing. It’s really poignant.”
“Stefon got the Spike Lee grant to to shoot it; he’s an NYU student,” Sampson said. “This film’s really cool. It’s a sci-fi film about two whiz kids that build a time machine. They’re trying to go back in time to stop the main character’s brother from getting killed by a police officer. So it’s a great blend of genres, but it’s also hitting some of those social commentary themes.”
The final block, “Making Black Lives Matter Through Film,” includes Pearl Gluck’s “Junior.”
“It started out as a one-woman play [with] Elle Jae Stewart,” Sampson said. “Pearl saw the play and said, ‘I have got to put this on film.’ It’s a very unique film where the main character is dealing with the loss of her son. His life was cut short by an off-duty police officer. … Because it’s all in one take, we have to be there. She’s addressing you the audience as she’s talking.”
After such heavy topics, the final flick offers relief with Don Hooper’s comedy “Page One.”
“This one is really funny,” Sampson said. “With a lot of films, one of the stereotypes is that the [black] brother dies in the beginning. … So, this actor who has constantly been the one that’s getting killed in the beginning, he becomes the guy that teaches people how not to die!”
Stick around for the closing night panel hosted by Sampson himself, featuring Baltimore lawyer J. Wyndal Gordon and Ava DuVernay’s “13th” cinematographer Hans Charles.
“I’ll be moderating,” Sampson said. “For me, personally, sometimes these [flashpoints] happen, and sure, I could go out and march or whatever, but for me as an artist, I can start a film festival or make a movie. … How can we use our art to help people see and experience the full black experience? … How can we use our art to make a difference in the world?”
If film is the ultimate empathy machine, the gears of compassion are officially in motion.
Click here for tickets and more information. Listen to the full chat with Kevin Sampson below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with festival founder Kevin Sampson