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Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival, now in its ninth year, is a celebration of the stories of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, consistently resisting the forces that try to define culture in majoritarian terms. In a year like this, when a global pandemic has laid bare the racial fault lines that run through our societies, the festival has decided to go online. “The filmmakers featured in BlackStar over the last nine years … have been innovators in telling stories about these and other turbulent matters that are plaguing our communities in every corner of the world,” reads an official statement from festival founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes and program director Nehad Khader. “It is in honor of these stories and our families who live them that we’ve made the difficult, but confident, decision to move forward with our festival in a safe way.”
The program features 90 films from over 20 countries, accompanied by panel discussions and BlackStar Live!, the festival’s daily morning show that will stream on Facebook. The pandemic has reinforced how the US is built on the backs of working-class people of color, yet the country consistently denies them the lives they deserve. Films like Loira Limbal’s documentary Through the Night remind us of this reality. Set in a 24-hour daycare center in Westchester, New York, it depicts the emotional cost of balancing parenting and labor under a ruthless capitalist economy.
Ursula Liang’s Down a Dark Stairwell covers the case of Akai Gurley, an innocent Black man killed by police officer Peter Liang, and how the incident aroused different responses from Black and Asian communities in New York. It explores the complicated ways in which non-Black minorities struggle with anti-Black tendencies, especially when armed with power. Similarly, Bao Nguyen’s Bruce Lee biography Be Water problematizes the “model minority” myth, emphasizing that racism is not just a Black people problem, but one that dehumanizes and humiliates all people of color.
There’s a pervasive sense of grief and frustration in Garrett Bradley’s Time and Ashley O’Shay’s Unapologetic, but both films also celebrate the persistence of Black love and hope in the face of the unfair US criminal justice system. Time follows one woman’s 21-year fight for her husband to be released from prison, while Unapologetic focuses on young activists leading the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago. Michèle Stephenson’s Stateless travels to the Dominican Republic, where thousands of citizens have been cast legally adrift because of their Haitian descent. The film studies the fissures of racism that run through the histories and politics of the two countries. And Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias goes beyond the physical realm to expose how digital programs and algorithms replicate the biases of the real-world people creating them.
The festival’s diverse shorts program includes gems like Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document, a travelogue-poem about the beauty, autonomy, and creativity of Black women. Ash Goh Hua’s I’m Free Now, You Are Free discovers familial love between former members of MOVE, while Tayler Montague’s In Sudden Darkness is a tender look at a Bronx family working through a power outage. Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s The Lake and the Lake meditates on the ways our lives intersect with nature. The program gathers the jigsaw puzzle of a community’s identity — complete only when the many pieces conjoin.
Outside of the screenings, creatives like critic Wesley Morris, director Madeline Anderson, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors will participate in panels on solidarity, Black film history, and more. On the last day of the festival, filmmakers Heidi Saman and Lulu Wang will discuss their careers as women filmmakers of color. BlackStar, much like the shipping line it is named after, looks to repurpose and rebuild an existing exclusionary culture to make it accessible, inclusive, and revolutionary. Holmes and Khader call for “shared cheerleading in these digital streets.”
The BlackStar Film Festival runs online August 20 through August 26.