WASHINGTON — Launching a brand-new film festival can feel like a miracle achievement.
It’s only fitting that the Miracle Theatre is hosting the second annual D.C. Black Film Festival, which returns to Barracks Row near the Eastern Market Metro from Thursday to Saturday.
“The first year is writing the rules … the second year is improving on it,” founder Kevin Sampson told WTOP. “It’s great because we’ve grown in terms of submissions, entries, everything. A lot more people were responsive because the first year is proof of concept.”
In order to qualify, at least one “above the line” creative force must be African-American, meaning the lead actor, writer, director or producer, providing a diverse lens on the world.
“It gives representation for people of African descent on the big screen, but also education and cultural exchange with people of other ethnicities,” Sampson said. “There’s something about the representation, when you’re able to see yourself on the big screen. … One of these filmmakers might be the next Barry Jenkins or Dee Rees, so you want to come support them.”
After receiving 120 submissions last year, this year’s festival received more than 150 submissions, which were then whittled down to 45 to screen throughout the weekend.
“We get submissions from all over, which is awesome,” Sampson said. “I’m just always amazed by the submissions that come through. Even, sometimes, the ones that don’t get in for whatever programming reason, there’s some that you’re like [wow]. I always feel like Schindler from ‘Schindler’s List.’ I’m like, ‘Can I just sell my rings for more rental time?'”
It all kicks off Thursday with the opening night theme “Going At It Alone,” including three short films, “1 Chance,” “Odyssey” and “Othello-San,” followed by the feature “Animator.”
“It’s films that deal with the journey in self-discovery,” Sampson said. “‘1 Chance’ is about a boxer who finds out he has health issues. … ‘Odyssey’ is basically Uber; it just follows one lady’s car ride and the characters she meets. It really highlights the D.C. area, which is really cool. … Then, we get Ted Adams’ ‘Othello-San,’ which is a really great film. Then, Roberta Jones’ ‘Animator,’ about an artist that can draw or erase the past through his drawing.”
Speaking of the past, Friday shines a light in the special block “History and Hidden Figures.”
“We’re going to see films about historical figures we don’t often hear about,” Sampson said. “‘Deeds Not Words’ is about Robert Madison, who overcomes significant economic and social barriers to achieve the ‘American dream.’ … ‘Agents of Change’ goes back to the civil rights and black power movements, then correlates to Black Lives Matter. Then, ‘Padlock Men’ by Lewis T. Powell from ‘CSI,’ born and raised in D.C. … It’s a really good short about four guys.”
Friday’s slate continues with the “Love and Heartbreak” segment.
“We kick it off with ‘Thurman Comes Home,’ a really cool one about a homeless guy,” he said. “Leah Johnson directs ‘Loose, Keep It Tight.’ … ‘Ruminations’ by Chad Eric Smith. … ‘For the Love of Musiq’ [about] a girl that grows up in foster care. … ‘Stuck’ by Praheme, a romantic comedy [where] people rush into the most intimate act without getting to know each other first. … Then, finishing out that section is ‘One Bedroom’ … about a breakup by two couples.”
After that comes the dynamic block “We Still Dealin’ With This!?”
“The first one is ‘Dishonour’ [starring] one actress who plays six different characters … about female genital mutilation — by the end, I was cringing,” Sampson said. “‘Ghost Me’ deals with alcoholism. ‘Botanical Black’ is an amazing film … about all the killings that happen and a florist who is getting those requests. … I will also give one shout out to ‘Make America Black Again,’ directed by Leon Robinson … who you may recognize from ‘Cool Runnings.'”
Friday wraps with the acclaimed feature documentary “United Skates” and post-show panel.
“It’s doing really well at the festival circuit right now, so we’re honored to be able to show it,” Sampson said. “It deals with how the American landscape is [changing]. We’re losing our roller rinks! … That is a positive place for people to go to in their communities, so the film looks at this underground subculture, but also what it means for the communities involved.”
Saturday morning offers family fun with the special block “Girl Power: Daughter and Me.”
“We’re doing a buy-one-get-one-free where parents or guardians can buy one ticket and their daughter ages 8 to 18 can get in free,” Sampson said. “‘Queens in Training’ is [about] two African-American girls who learn how to play competitive chess. … ‘Possibility of Her’ [shows] 12 women of color in nontraditional jobs. … Bring your little girls! We want to inspire them.”
After that, get ready for the block “Friends: How Many of Us Have Them?”
“This is short films and web series that deal with friendships or the lack thereof,” Sampson said. “‘Lost Kings: The Series’ is directed by Terrance Smalls Jr. A lot of judges said this feels like ‘The Wire.’ … ‘I Cross My Heart’ [deals] with a family secret. … ‘Civic Mind’ [is] a New York film, gritty, about a teenage NYPD volunteer who goes undercover to purchase alcohol.”
After that, head over to the Capitol Hill Hotel for a free workshop with Creative Control.
“Folks that attend will be able to learn about copyright, intellectual property and how you can navigate that as a filmmaker or an artist, which I think is extremely important,” Sampson said.
You’ll also get a fireside chat with comic-book artist Sanford Greene at the Capitol Hill Hotel.
“He’s been doing this for 15 years, and he’s worked for Marvel, D.C., Dark Horse,” Sampson said. “He’s drawn Power Man and Iron Fist, which is Luke Cage, Black Panther, Inhumans. … If there’s any comic geeks in the D.C. area who want a firsthand, intimate account of someone that’s done it and is doing it big, this is definitely something that you want to check out.”
Greene will also join the closing panel “Rise of the Black Superhero” that includes a string of short genre films from “The Girl With No Brain” to “All Kids Go to Hell” at Miracle Theatre.
“I think it’s going to be really exciting, because with ‘Black Panther,’ The CW’s ‘Black Lightning,’ ‘Cloak and Dagger,’ there’s so many different [black superheroes today],” Sampson said.
Whether you love caped crusaders or gritty indie dramas, it’s a worthwhile weekend outing.
“It’s important because we can have a safe space where people can come see movies, Q&A with the filmmakers and even have conversations after the lights come up,” Sampson said.
Find out more on the festival website. Hear WTOP’s full conversation with Kevin Sampson below: