"Destination: Planet Negro!"
BLACK HARVEST FILM FESTIVAL
When: Friday-Aug. 29
Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State
Admission: $11 ($7 students, $6 members). A $50 pass covers six screenings (except opening night) and one small popcorn.
Updated: September 3, 2013 6:11AM
Fifteen features and five programs of shorts comprise the 19th Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center. All the dramas and documentaries are by or about African Americans. Besides Chicago stories, there is work set in Jamaica, Sierra Leone and Zanzibar. This year’s lineup of 20 titles is especially strong.
Now in its 19th year, the fest launches at 6:45 p.m. Friday with the presentation of the Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership to Chicago artist Theaster Gates, currently exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “A Black Harvest Feast,” a screening of four shorts, will follow. Although the Closing Night film, “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” is sold out, this documentary about a legendary black comic airs in November on HBO.
Among filmmakers appearing at their screenings is Katherine Nero, who showed a short at the 1995 Black Harvest Film Festival. The plot of her new feature, “For the Cause,” is rooted in local Black Panther Party lore. The Whitney Young High School alum, now teaching at charter schools in New York City, misses Chicago’s political scene: “You can go to a barbershop or beauty salon and can hear some really deep analysis,” says Nero.
Nero will appear on a free panel titled “Action! The Real Deal About Filmmaking: Money, Casting, Production, and Distribution” at 6 p.m. Aug. 24. “Get people on your project who value your project, not people who feel they’re doing you a favor,” advises the director, who shot her indie here in July 2012.
Another director coming is Kevin Willmott, a film prof at the University of Kansas. His “Destination: Planet Negro!” takes off from 1950s sci-fi films and lands a trio of baffled 1939 blacks in contemporary Kansas City. A fan of Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, this race satirist argues: “There always need some honesty and truth in the joke.”
Two dramas inject issues: “Things Never Said” addresses domestic violence and “Home Again” assails the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act in Canada.
Documentaries profile jazz great Charles Lloyd, L.A. blues bar legend Laura Mae Gross, and Brooklyn photographer James Shabazz. Hair and husbands are the topics of “In Our Heads About Hair” and “In Search of the Black Knight.”
‘A BLACK HARVEST FEAST’ (6:45 p.m.) is a sampler of shorts to come in the festival. The best two are Martine Jean’s “The Silent Treatment,” treating a comic spat rendered in silent-era black-and-white style, and Kibwe Tavares’ “Jonah,” a delightful tale of a giant leaping fish caught by a stolen camera. This is one of four programs deemed family friendly (with the symbol FF on the fest site). A special admission — $25; students $20; members $15 — benefits the center’s educational programs.
‘THE MAN IN THE SILO’ (8:15 p.m.): Phil Donlon, co-founder of Gilead Theater Company, takes several unsuccessful risks in his first screen feature. Ernie Hudson plays a black man with a white-collar job on emotional leave. His mind is a miasma of flashbacks. Visually, it’s an overload — terrifying for him, trying for us. What almost works is music borrowing from Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” The wonderful short “Jonah” screens too. (Also, 8:15 p.m. Aug. 14.)
‘THE RETRIEVAL’ (8:15 p.m.): Chris Eska writes and directs a powerful rite-of-passage tale set in 1864 Texas. White bounty hunters force a man and his 13-year-old nephew to trick a freed slave. Their prey is digging graves for the Union army. Only northbound blacks can travel there. During the trek back south, the boy’s allegiance turns towards the stranger he must stab in the back. A knife plunged in a leg will spell life, if not freedom, for the fatherless boy. (Also, 5 p.m. Aug. 18.)
‘DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO!’: (8:30 p.m.) Kevin Willmott’s world premiere is my favorite film this year. Like his 2004 satire “C.S.A —The Confederate States of America,” which imagined the South winning the Civil War, this comic sci-fi adventure goes through a time warp for a message. Black scientists in 1939 Alabama propose solving the “Negro Problem” by rocketing to Mars instead of sailing back to Africa. Off target, voyagers crash in the Obama era. The sagging pants style is misinterpreted as a sign of malnutrition. N-word usage is puzzling too. “Man, it is complicated being a Negro in the digital age,” observes one time traveler. (Also, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 27.)
Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer.