During Black History Month, WTOP is highlighting black men and women in the area who are doing groundbreaking work to better the community. This is Part III of a four-part series, including a pastor of faith and farming and a NASA aerospace engineer who’s a “Hidden Figure” no more.
WASHINGTON — Black History Month is not only a time to reflect on pioneers of the past, it’s also a time to salute hardworking, everyday heroes affecting the community today. There is no finer example than Kevin Sampson, founder of the D.C. Black Film Festival and recipient of the 2018 Donald H. McGannon Award for advancing women and people of color in the media.
“D.C. is an amazing city,” Sampson said. “You go back to Black Broadway, U Street, all these historically famous and culturally significant things, being able to start the D.C. Black Film Festival has definitely been an honor. What’s really exciting is the conversations that happen after the festival when the lights come up, seeing the impact it’s having on the community.”
Sampson, who splits time between D.C. and North Carolina, grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. He fell for movies at a young age by studying Jim Henson’s costumes in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990), the animation of “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and the action of “The Fast and The Furious” (2001). He also acted in high school plays, including “Our Town.”
“As a black performer, it was always this running joke that it’s not until your senior year that you really get a role with lines,” Sampson said. “That’s what happened with me.”
Craving creative input, he studied film and media arts at the University of South Carolina.
“As an actor you get to be one cog in the machine,” Sampson said. “So, going into college, I decided to get behind the camera so I could do more of the storytelling. My thing has always been film. I never changed majors. … I just felt like the only way that you can experience being another person is through watching film. [It’s] the ultimate empathy machine. That’s how, for me at least, I was able to really look at the world and see different places, different faces.”
Soon, he began making social change documentaries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“My dad’s side of the family is from New Orleans, so I went down two years after the hurricane and just shot what was there … through the lens of my family, teachers, I even interviewed a representative,” Sampson said. “[Another doc] was the tale of the Jena Six … where there were six black students, this big fight and a noose hung at what they call the White Tree. So it was kind of like a ‘get on the bus’ documentary just following people involved with the NAACP [riding] from Columbia, South Carolina, to Jena, Louisiana, covering the rally.”
He dabbled briefly in his brother’s hip-hop group The Elements, opening for 112, Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West, but just like his stage name, The Visual Kid, his true passion remained film. At the urging of his now-wife Alexandra, who was studying law at Georgetown University, he moved to D.C. in 2008 to get his masters at American University with a post-9/11 thesis film.
“On the last day of work, a Muslim American uncovers a terrorist plot and has one hour to save himself and his coworkers,” Sampson said. “The whole theme was what perceptions we have. At the time, it was huge in terms of Muslim Americans, how we were looking at them and automatically if there’s a plot to kill someone at the office, it has to be the Muslim guy.”
After grad school graduation in 2011 and the birth of his daughter in 2012, he landed a job at Arlington Independent Media (AIM), teaching folks how to use Final Cut, Adobe Premiere and studio and field production. Ever the entrepreneur, he looked around at the public access station’s facilities and decided to launch his own movie review TV show called “Picture Lock.”
“I was able to highlight independent filmmakers,” Sampson said. “It’s just morphed from there. Eventually, AIM started a low-power FM radio station, WERA 96.7, so ‘Picture Lock’ went from TV to radio. … Any students that are budding critics, I have them go check out some of the screenings, and I’m able to edit their work, help them and mature them as film critics.”
Never satisfied, he took over as director of the Rosebud Film Festival, an Arlington-based event open strictly to DMV filmmakers as a way of highlighting local work since 1990.
“I had always known that I wanted to have my own festival before I was asked to run Rosebud, but this was a great way for me to cut my teeth, make mistakes and learn,” Sampson said. “Eventually, I just decided it was time to step out and do the D.C. Black Film Festival.”
The final straw was Sampson’s disappointment over black portrayals in Hollywood.
“‘Think Like a Man’ had surprised me, I saw black love on the big screen, they were playing for each other’s hearts,” Sampson said. “‘Think Like a Man 2’ comes out, it’s the Kevin Hart show, we’re going to see who can throw the biggest bachelor or bachelorette party. It was silly. … So, I wrote this open letter to black screenwriters saying we need to be able to tell our stories. … ‘Think Like a Man 2’ wasn’t even written by a black person. … I got a whole bunch of feedback from filmmakers saying we don’t have the financial resources or places to show our work.”
So, in 2017, he created that space by launching the first-ever D.C. Black Film Festival. The only stipulation for submitting is that one or more of the film’s “above the line” crew — writer, director, producer, main actor — has to be from African descent. Now entering its third year at the Miracle Theatre on 8th Street Southeast, submissions have increased 20 percent.
“My goal is to eventually be able to open up where we have a producer’s institute, where we’re able to take producers and give them a scholarship, allowing them to be around big industry folks and help them with producing, directing, screenwriting,” Sampson said. “That’s eventually where I wanna go because going back to the whole reason it started with the open letter to black screenwriters is the importance of seeing our image on the big screen.”
He envisions a future of equal opportunity filmmaking for women and people of color.
“For black folks in film, last year was a hugely successful year with so many directors helming over $100 million domestic box office films,” Sampson said. “One of the articles that I love that came out of ‘Black Panther’ was: ‘Black Panther is amazing, but Shuri will save the world.’ What it was saying is that Black Panther’s sister, she’s an engineer of Wakanda, creating all this tech, and how for the little girls that saw her on the big screen, how much of an impact that had.”
He cites a recent study by the Geena Davis Institute as hope for his own daughter.
“In 2012, ‘Brave’ came out as well as ‘The Hunger Games,’ two films with a female protagonist with a bow and arrow,” Sampson said. “The next year, little girls that were going into archery had a huge uptick and seven out of 10 of those girls attributed it to ‘Brave’ and ‘The Hunger Games.’ Seeing themselves of the big screen inspired them to want to get into archery.”
It’s proof that efforts like his own are starting to pay off in a big way.
“My responsibility in terms of the D.C. Black Film Festival and using my platforms, whether it’s ‘Picture Lock’ or the DCBFF, I want to make sure that my kids are able to see themselves on the big screen in a way that inspires them,” Sampson said. “It’s not the same old same-old that we’ve gotten in the past from Hollywood, but just great storytelling. I think we’re just starting to break through and get that these days. I’m just excited to have a small part in that.”
Currently, when he’s not busy traveling to other film festivals, from Sundance to Middleburg, he’s writing a pair of books: “Army of One: PR & Marketing for the Indie Filmmaker” and “Then and Now: A Multi-Generational Conversation with Film Critics About Film Criticism,” a series of interviews with D.C. area critics, including Arch Campbell, Nell Minow and Kevin McCarthy.
After all of his conversations, travels and experiences, he now appreciates movies on a different level than when he was a Carolina kid watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with his mom.
“My mom used to watch that movie every single Christmas,” Sampson said. “I did not realize until I got older how good of a film that actually is. Honestly to me if there’s a film I have to [show], you think about your kids and sit someone down and say, ‘This is the meaning of life,’ it’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ That’s one of those special films [where] I’m crying in the corner.”
If Frank Capra’s holiday classic is correct — that true wealth is measured in lives we touch — Sampson will soon have a gathering of family, friends, filmmakers, critics and moviegoers flooding his home, singing carols and raising a toast: “To Kevin, the richest man in town.”
Hear our full chat with Kevin Sampson below. Read previous installments as WTOP’s Rachel Nania explores a pastor of faith and farming and WTOP’s Rob Woodfork explores a NASA aerospace engineer. Tune in next Monday as WTOP’s Noah Frank wraps the series with a local sports figure.