SOUTHEASTERN NC — For 17 years the N.C. Black Film Festival (neé Cine Noir) has been highlighting vast creativity from Black and brown storytellers and filmmakers. It’s also remained resilient in the face of hardship, as Hurricane Florence moved the event from fall 2018 to spring 2019, and the pandemic canceled it altogether in spring 2020.
This year, too, it had to shift into an all-virtual event since Covid-19 halted in-person gatherings. According to lead programmer Brandon Hickman, the festival received 68 entries in 2021 and will screen 21 films over the next four days, Thursday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, Feb. 28.
“Normally, we would receive 100 entries and show about 40 films,” he said. “It’s definitely down, but film production is down, period. Now, depending where you’re at, you’re gonna have to get a rapid Covid test for your actors and staff, and that costs a lot of money for an independent filmmaker.”
The quality of work, however, is not in short supply, Hickman assured. The festival will screen a multitude of documentaries, shorts, dramas, thrillers, comedies and animation. It also will continue to pay $500 to filmmakers who win any of its juried categories: Best Feature, Best Documentary, and Best Short.
“We seek films that tell African American stories,” Hickman said. “The majority of films are written, directed, and produced by African Americans and have African American casts.”
Though reluctant to name a favorite, Hickman said the schedule for 2021 is rife with educational opportunities to show the greatness of Black contributions throughout history. One documentary he recommends is “Digging for Weldon Irvine,” an American composer, playwright, musician and poet, best known for his civil rights anthem “Young, Gifted and Black,” performed by Nina Simone.
“What the film does is follow him and how he used music to address social injustice, to address racism,” Hickman said. “They follow his legacy — a guy in the late ’60s, early ’70s, who was totally using instrumentation that essentially gives head-nods to hip-hop artists today.”
The film is the directorial debut of Victorious de Costa, who produced the 2020 film “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” as part of HBO’s documentary series.
The N.C. Black Film Festival receives entries worldwide, but also curates many flicks made by filmmakers from North Carolina. Wilmington’s own Nakia Hamilton has made three films through the pandemic, according to Hickman. The festival will be screening one, “Her Happy Place.”
“It follows a female that time travels to change her past relationship, hoping she’ll find happiness going forward,” Hickman explained.
Other regional filmmakers on the docket include Kameishia Wooten from Goldsboro (“Destiny’s Road”), Raleigh’s A.J. Wone (“DiaTribe: From the Village to the Streets”), and Durham’s Stephanie Ford, who was awarded the N.C. film grant through Wilmington’s Cucalorus Film Festival in both 2019 and 2020.
Ford’s film “The Black Baptism” utilizes the help of executive director Christopher Everett, a Wilmingtonian best known for the 2015 film “Wilmington on Fire,” about the 1898 Massacre.
The Afro-futuristic “The Black Baptism” is a psychological thriller that follows a prisoner with an escape plan. “She’s inside this cycle of slaves,” Hickman described, “and in the midst of getting out, she comes face to face with some supernaturals.”
Hickman, who has served on the N.C. Film Festival board for seven years, said since he began programming for the festival, he’s watched content evolve and strengthen in both scope and quality year after year. Early on upon his arrival, he noticed a lot of films centered on social justice and topics of police, especially upon the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014. He noticed this year’s tone shifted a bit.
“We saw more of what African Americans are going to do to help each other,” he said. “There’s one film called ‘Jail or Yale: Young Black and Out of Options?’ — what are you going to pick? What are you going to do?”
The film puts emphasis on structural racism in education and how it affects Black males.
Hickman also noticed more historical films coming in this year, specifically, “good docs telling us something we might have never known about the African American experience”
An example is “BLAHC: Brookland Literary and Hunting Club” by Kenneth Campbell. The director teamed up with oral historian Eve Austin to interview standing members of a 79-year-old club consisting of black male professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, from Brookland, D.C. They created a space to play poker and have intellectual conversations during a time when segregation prevented such socialization for Black people in greater society.
“Their tradition is weaning off because they’re older,” Hickman explained, “and as they get older, they haven’t brought in any new young folks, so that’s what they’re working on — the club’s survival.”
All N.C. Black Film Festival entries can be screened for $5 each. Passes are available for $15 a day, $25 a weekend, or $35 for all four days. A full festival pass also comes with a N.C. Black Film Festival T-shirt.
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