Smithsonian launches inaugural African American Film Festival

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the African American Film Fest (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — You can’t overstate black contributions to the silver screen, from Oscar Micheaux to Gordon Parks Jr., Spike Lee to John Singleton, Ryan Coogler to Barry Jenkins.

The next chapter is written with the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Fest this Wednesday to Saturday at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

“We are dedicated to restoring and preserving films, so it felt like a natural extension of the work we’re already committed to doing,” founder Dr. Rhea Combs told WTOP. “Also, recognizing that filmmaking and image-making has been going on for decades, for centuries, it was really important for us to acknowledge that rich history, tradition and culture.”

The festival kicks off with the opening night screening of “Widows,” the latest by director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Daniel Kaluuya.

“This is an amazing film,” Combs said. “McQueen is one of the most accomplished and highly respected and regarded filmmakers. … We really want to highlight … black excellence, and you have that in this cast, in the acting, in the way in which this story is being told. … That really speaks to the dynamism of storytelling, creating complex but rich stories of a wide variety of people, so for that reason we wanted to open up with a really exciting story and film.”

It continues Thursday night with the festival’s “Night at the Museum” event.

“We’re honoring these veteran filmmakers that may have had a lesser known presence for a lot of people,” Combs said. “We’re focusing on Madeline Anderson, one of the first female documentary filmmakers to have her program on national television. [She’ll screen ‘I Am Somebody’]. … We also have ‘Killer of Sheep’ by Charles Burnett, recently acknowledged by the Academy Awards’ Board of Governors as one of America’s finest filmmakers.”

Friday afternoon brings “Boom for Real,” exploring the teenage years of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Friday night brings the documentary “Quincy” about Quincy Jones, who will attend.

“Quincy will be in conversation with Nelson George and his daughter Rashida Jones here right after that screening, so that will be pretty epic,” Combs said.

It all culminates Saturday with “If Beale Street Could Talk” by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”).

“It’s the first [narrative] film to adapt one of James Baldwin’s works,” Combs said. “Jenkins, a  forward-thinking, dynamic and thoughtful director, has once again brought to the screen something that is not only thought provoking but beautiful to look at and very well executed.”

In this way, the festival aims to highlight current artists on the verge of making history.

“We want to make sure that we’re not only telling the stories of the past, but that we’re also really speaking to what’s happening today,” Combs said. “We feel like there’s this renaissance and wave of great filmmaking. In the technical craft and storytelling, the bold moves that people are making, it really feels like we’re on the precipice of really exciting opportunities.”

Why should D.C. audiences come out?

“They get a chance to see 80 films over the course of four days and meet with filmmakers,” Combs said. “They get to have exchange opportunities to see what’s happening with young filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, but also connect with some of our masters in the craft. We have master classes in editing, script writing and cinematography with Bradford Young. … We literally have something for everybody, the old, the new, the cinephile to the neophyte.”

Find tickets and details on the festival website. Hear our full chat with Dr. Rhea Combs below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Dr. Rhea Combs (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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