This Black Film Programmer Doesn’t View Films in a Silo

I’ve been a film programmer and film festival director for over fifteen years, and I am still in love with film! It’s one of the few mediums that incorporate all the elements of art to tell a story or to convey a vision. The quintessential filmmaker Orson Welles once compared the filmmaker to that of a poet and to the camera as their eye.

Regardless of genre or category, when film is done well it transcends our expectations. A film should make you want to learn more, not just “see” more. In a way, that was Orson Welles’ point: The camera is the delivery of the poem’s vision, not the poem.

My focus in film has been a commitment to open the cinematic eye to the vision of underrepresented poets, specifically, Black women around the world. That focus has also limited the vision of many viewers who think that programmers like me have tunnel vision.

This is not true.

Granted, I can only speak for myself, but from what I understand from other film programmers, most of us are very similar. We’re creatures of our own creation. We see vision and become the translators between the poet and the public. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but we must — no we’re required — to be able to see connections that others miss; we must decode the mystery of the film and filmmaker to make it understandable to the layperson. It’s a thankless role, but the programmer’s love of film makes the “a-ha moment” worth the hours of glazed stares and side-eyes.

As an African American woman the public and those in the film industry often “ghetto-ize” the experience of being a Black female film programmer. What I mean is that the industry and film festival circuit are usually comfortable with us staying in the “Black female” lane, but the moment we veer out of it or incorporate comments into it, it’s problematic for those who have no other language to accept the Black female existence as a fully articulated human being.

Articles have been written about it and panels created about the lack diversity in the cinematic gaze. It’s an issue that seems to have a lot explanations, but fewer solutions. The Black female perspective in film programming has become an “exhibit of ‘specialness’,” where we are the unwitting exhibits of a niche sideshow. I’ve tried to expand the arc of “specialness” to extend into narratives not normally visited by Black female film programmers, specifically, horror, sci-fi, animation, fantasy, and experimental film. It was a valiant attempt that grew more admirers than believers.

For the public to understand what I am programming for film festivals, I think it’s equally important for them to understand how much giving and receiving within the film language happens when programming. In my case, my experiences have a lot of influence on how I receive and understand film; but there are also feeders into that experience that are not as narrow or defined as the obvious assumptions.

The average film-goer fails to understand is that the obvious outward expression of who you are (race, gender, color, ethnicity, height, etc.) this is not the only gaze filmmaker programmers have. You cannot serve your duty as a translator and only know one language.

As a film programmer, I must be able to see the entire breadth of the film spectrum to make an under represented filmmakers less mainstream viewpoint real and understandable to the viewer.

In my film programming I encourage people to know how my mind works. I give myself frequent exercises to expand my and my audience’s film vocabulary. One of those exercises involves making “influential” lists of films and filmmakers who are not a part of my film festival’s goal or objective.

Below are films outside of the “Black film” or “Black filmmaker” spectrum that have themes that impact the vision of how I program films. (If you’d like to see a list of Black influential films, you can also visit my “living list” at MUBI:

  1. The Last Mistress (2007 — France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
The Last Mistress starring Asia Argento and Fu’ad Ait Aatou

I’m all for an “unrepentant whore” storyline. A thinking woman who’s ahead of her time and not playing by society’s rules. Asia Argento stars in this lush production as a “professional” mistress in aristocratic French society. She is aging and according to society she is waning and should “step aside.” She does not. She develops a passionate love with a libertine played by the ever gorgeous Fu’ad Ait Aatou, and they fan each other’s flame for years…even after if disavows her for an aristocratic marriage match. Unflinching, unrepentant, and indescribable. A masterpiece …or mistresspiece.

2. Gone Baby Gone (2007 — USA, dir. Ben Affleck)

Gone Baby Gone

Whoa. This is one of those gritty “only in America” stories. A nuanced view and insider understanding of a very specific time and place in urban America, director Ben Affleck tells the story of a not so unique American urban neighborhood that’s multiracial –or a “mixed” neighborhood — in south Boston. When films talk about inner-cities, they’re usually mono-ethnic dead end places that aren’t the experience of a lot of urban dwellers. The police department is multi-racial/ethnic and the neighborhood is every imaginable configuration of races and ethnicities, but all seem to dwell in the deep experiences of racial segregation by color and communicate and interact accordingly. Powerful, deep, and frustrating, this film is a 21st century urban story of crime, redemption, loyalty, and truth.

3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945 — USA, dir. Elia Kazan)

Regardless of how you feel about Elia Kazan, this film is one of those quietly haunting films that says everything a struggling American family has wanted to say. From the viewpoint of the intellectually gifted oldest child of a struggling urban family, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the pitfalls that impact children not born with a sliver spoon in their mouth. The daughter realizes that the survival of the family hinges on her ability to navigate those pitfalls and use her intelligence to hold on tight to any modicum of opportunity that may cross her family’s path. This is one of the first films to openly admit that there are also white families dealing with alcoholism, abortion, illiteracy, poverty, and dismal solutions to life problems. This film tears me up every time.

4. Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) (1957 — Italy, dir. Federico Fellini)

Giulietta Masina plays the hooker with a heart of gold. Cliché, right? Not in this film. Seemingly light-hearted, your heart will eventually break for the diminutive Maria “Cabiria” Ceccarilli, a slight but spunky prostitute looking for love in Rome, Italy. Aside from the sleek Italian cars, villas, va-va-vavoom (ahem) “co-workers), you see past the flash and dash toward the un-glamorous trappings of being a prostitute who’s looking for love in all the wrong places. But Cabiria’s undying optimism and trust in love will lighten your heart and crush it at the same time. This film is the inspiration for the Bob Fosse production and film, “Sweet Charity!” starring Shirley Maclaine. A masterpiece!

5. All That Jazz (1979 — USA, dir. Bob Fosse)

I’m totally influenced by studying classical ballet for over ten years and having a mother who was in a modern dance company …don’t judge me. I love a good backstage story (A Chorus Line, The Red Shoes, etc.), but this is the quintessential tawdriness of American musical theater. Directed by one of the masters of the modern musical and choreography Bob Fosse (Chicago, Sweet Charity, etc.), All That Jazz seamlessly mix mortality, music, dance, and death into one of the most satisfying films…ever. It culminates into a shocking but satisfying ending replete with musical numbers, Ben Vereen, and (wait for it) funky jazz! Unexpected and amazing!

6. Alien (1979 –USA, dir. Ridley Scott)

Wowsers. What incredibly creative and imaginative storytelling! Fuck every science fiction film you’ve ever watched. After watching the original Alien, everything else will only pale in comparison. First, you’re lulled into this sleepy science fiction story about a mining ship thrown off courses that we’ve seen a million times. As the story builds, you realize there’s so much more to this story. No matter how many times you see it, you’re pulled back into the characters. It’s one of the most “real” science fiction films ever. There’s no clean, bright and shiny heroes. The characters are stuck on a dirty ship floating through space with nothing but reconstituted corn bread, coffee, cigarette, and union/labor issues to keep them grounded in home. Then “it” happens and all hell breaks loose. Once “it” happens, there is no turning back; you’re along for the ride!

7. Aliens (1986 — USA, dir. James Cameron)

As the sequel to Alien, this film is almost as good as the original. How many films can say that?! Taking a cue from the original, Aliens turns to the female protagonist, Ripley, to be the heroine in this film. Ripley is razor smart, focused, unapologetic, and a bit traumatized from her first “Alien” encounter. She still doesn’t trust “the man,” and she has no reason start trusting him, yet. She becomes a de facto partner with the amicable and smart Corporal Hicks who knows she’s smarter than him and acquiesces to her strength. Well, dayum. I don’t think I’ve seen a film yet where this happens, except for Mad Max: Fury Road …which is almost a whole 30 years later.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road (1986 — USA, dir. George Miller)

I’m also an action kinda chick. I hate the bizarre antics of Mel Gibson, but I admit that I was here for all of his “Mad Max” roles –Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. This reboot of the Mad Max series was E-P-I-C. Tom Hardy played a tightly wound up, crazed Max Rockatansky who’s fighting the world and his demons. We pick up where he’s freshly on the other side of a failed savior mission to save a group of people or a bunch of people, and he’s not doing so good. He’s having visions, flashbacks, and is plagued with guilt. Along comes the main villain’s henchmen who capture him and use him as a “blood bag” for one of the many War Pups –a cult of physically deficient offspring of the villainous Immortan Joe. Max tries to free himself, but is promptly recaptured and sent out into the outback attached to a War Pup …and his vehicle. Max finds himself untethered and joins forces with the outlaw Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron…who’s got only one arm. The best part about that statement, there’s absolutely no mention about her one arm, how she lost it, or if she was born that way. That point was so awesome that it inspired a viral essay — “The Subtle Triumph of of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm.” The film becomes nonstop action for two hours and only grows increasingly nutso. Worth every insane minute.

9. Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) (1992 — Mexico, dir. Alfonso Arau)

Taken from the book with the same name, this film is one big poem about love. It’s not a mushy love story with hokey twists and turns, but a growing passion that explodes at the end! A woman (Tita) is caught between the family obligation of her aristocratic landowning widowed mother, Mamá Elena, and her love of Pedro Musquiz, a boy her age who is also from an equitably compatible family. Using old Spanish traditions of familial order, Tita finds herself as the youngest child who’s obligated to taking care of her mean, selfish mother, while her sister is betrothed to the beautiful Pedro. As the film progresses, Tita becomes increasingly despondent over Pedro and his marriage to her sister Rosaura. Of course, the series of events pre- and post-wedding don’t turn out as planned and Mamá Elena grows furious at the direction of her daughters’ lives. Tita, with the guidance of their indigenous cook, learns how to seduce her love and the ending sparks into the throes of love and desire!

10. The Age of Innocence (1993 — USA, dir. Martin Scorsese)

You cannot have an influential film list with the wizard, Martin Scorsese! The Age of Innocence is one of those studies of the little-known nuances of America’s upper-class, specifically, “old money.” They are fascinating, tiresome, and always intriguing, and Scorsese brings author Edith Wharton’s gossip-y novel to life in this 1993 film. The tug between tradition and passion are riddled throughout this film, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer smolder beneath their velvets, silks, and gloves! This film is never vulgar or unseemly, but the perfect touch of Edwardian New York society where family connections, beauty, pedigree, and tradition trump everything. It’s a great escape and a study on Edwardian New York society from an author who lived it!

11. Dark Days (2000 — USA, dir. Marc Singer)

You will remember this documentary for years to come. British filmmaker Marc Singer went where no one ever wanted to go at the turn of the 21st century –to the homeless subway underworld of New York’s homeless, mentally ill, and drug-addicted. I worked with these same populations in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood around the same time and I can tell you that this documentary was everything tied to that experience. Dark Days used donated but flawed black and white film from Kodak to document the stories of the untold. This subterranean world follows about five individuals throughout their existence in this underworld city and how they survive for food, hygiene, clothing, love, and, yes, for some of them drugs. It also explores their backgrounds in their own words and you find yourself being frustrated by them and rooting for them at the same time. An unflinching and unapologetic slice of reality.

12. Wolfen (1981 –USA, dir. Michael Wadleigh, John D. Hancock, & Rupert Hitzig)

Bombed out boroughs in New York, discarded addicts and homeless, the super-rich land developers (or the rise of the Trumps), and shape shifting Native Americans –oh, and wolves. All of these seemingly disparate themes are coalesced into the under-rated Wolfen, a horror film that is more social commentary than horror. Unlike other “wolf films” of the era, Wolfen didn’t resort to old world stories about werewolves, but it reimagined the “nature horror” category previously dominated by atomic bugs and plants. This time there was no nuclear fusion involved, but just natural evolution. Albert Finney plays a detective trying to solve the murder of a handsome Manhattan developer and his lady, both of whom happen to be from one of NYC’s old world families –Dutch money. That’s how far back they go. Everyone becomes a suspect as more information emerges about what exactly Mr. Dutch Moneybags had planned for New York’s new developments. Everyone becomes a suspect, a group of indigenous American construction workers who know they got shafted on Manhattan’s purchase, a terrorist organization, junkies, drunks, cops, and others. The real murderers reveal themselves and it’s not who you would expect in the 20th century –nature.

13. Dheepan (2015 — France, dir. Jacques Audiard)

An unromantic look at what immigrants from war-torn countries do to escape for a chance at a non-embattled life. Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal are strangers who fake their familial connection to restart their lives in Europe, specifically the U.K. All of them are Tamil Tigers or connected to the Tigers and are desperate to flee Sri Lanka. They assume a new identity as a family unit to increase their chances of fleeing Sri Lanka, but one of them has a plan to separate as soon as they reach Europe. As time progresses, the grow –unwillingly at first — as a family, but soon have circumstances that force them to rely on one another. Granted, the “U.K. as ‘Promised Land’” is oversold, but the story is enduring.

14. The Proposition (2005 — Australia, dir. John Hillcoat)

A complicated, bloody story of Australia’s developing colony, and the struggles between “civilization” and the outlaw outback. Guy Pearce broods through this film as his character has a heavy burden: Turn in his outlaw brother to save the life of his innocent younger brother. The film never ambles along as every character is thought out and harboring their own agenda, The Proposition superimposes a ticking time clock over the tightly wound suspense as Guy Pearce’s character has to negotiate with a sociopathic brother and his band of misanthrope, while keeping his younger brother alive as he’s kept in the custody of Australian law enforcement. The film has a whole other level of magnificence due to Nick Cage’s and Warren Ellis’ haunting music.

15. Rosemary’s Baby (1968 — USA, dir. Roman Polanski)

This film is rife with so many layers of real life, societal fears, and creepiness. The late-1960’s had a chilling sub-cultural obsession with Satanism and Anton LaVey who was the self-ordained leader of the Church of Satan. He became a bit of a minor celebrity. Then Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968 …and then director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson Family the following year. The chilling theme of the film –couple consisting of a “recovering Catholic” innocent played by Mia Farrow and her jerk husband, played by John Cassevetes get pregnant and “Rosemary” finds out she’s pregnant by the Devil and not her husband — parallels a horrible series of events in real life. Before the horrific series of events to come, Rosemary’s Baby built into a hallucinogenic ride into a secret coven of Satanists who summon Beelzebub himself to impregnate Rosemary into unwittingly bring the anti-Christ into the world. You hold your breath through the whole bizarre ordeal, and you are gut punched and floored by the ending. This film is a hauntingly brilliant masterpiece of an unraveling reality.

These films are only meant to highlight how film programmers like me are here to share the power of film to transform, inspire, awe, and impact.

Hopefully, this will inspire you to trust my instinct and the instinct of other programmers who love film as much as you! We’re not here to change your taste, but we are here to inspire you to look deeper into film.

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