In the spring of 2018 I opened my first solo show, “Drapetomania: The Strong Urge to Escape” at Waller Gallery in Baltimore MD. The show was an installation of photos and videos I made between 2013–2017 while traversing South America. Drapetomania is a “mental illness” that explains why enslaved Africans in the American South would dare run away from their plantations according to American physician Samuel A. Cartwright. The intention behind my show was to share what I had experienced as a queer Black woman in South America with my community in Baltimore. I was also working out what I thought freedom could look like outside of the States. Essentially the show was my take on the Black experience in South America. At that time I was making the leap from full time freelance journalist to hopefully, full time artist. One installation was a mourning tree. I papered the corner of a room with the obituaries of Black femmes who were victims of femicide. Femmes from all over the Americas who had been killed by the hands of the state or by the hands of people who claimed to be their lovers. Mothers, daughters, environmental activists, sex workers, politicians; all types of femmes of African descent with varying nationalites and gender orientations were featured on my mourning tree. I invited visitors to leave love notes at the tree. The other side of gallery featured a short documentary I created about Brazilian artist, Helen Salomão. She talked about how her hometown of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil influenced her. The way she talked about the women in her city mirrored the way I felt about the women in my own. Making that video cemented my personal theory that Black femmes are pillars of culture and the provisions they make for their families and communities are a unifying experience throughout the African diaspora. But if my theory is correct then why are Black femmes being abused and killed throughout the diaspora at alarming rates? What is it about being Black and claiming one’s femininity that arouses love and fear? How are we the lifeblood of the world but treated as if we don’t actually exist?
We talked about these matters on the weekend during panel discussions. But the gallery owenrs and curator of my show, Joy Davis, wanted more programming. I had other video works I could screen that didn’t exactly fit into the theme of the show but I felt weird about charging people to see more of my video work. I recalled all of my filmmaking friends who are Black and femme and constantly struggling to have their work shown and I had recently experienced rejection too. I had just been passed up for a position as the volunteer coordinator at the Maryland Film Festival, which I had been volunteering at since high school. Feeling rejected and enraged by the major institutions in my city but empowered by the space given to me by Joy at her Gallery, I decided to make my own festival. I took to Twitter to talk shit about how I was overlooked for a position I was obviously qualified for. I bragged about how I would make my own festival. Around that same time, the Maryland Film Festival had just hired its first Black female employee, Keisha Knight. She read my tweets and reached out to me. She was a seasoned programmer coming from New York, unaware of the racial apartheid that plagues Baltimore. She was drawn in by the idea of the festival but was initially turned off by the name. “Aren’t we doing the same thing they’ve always done to us?” she asked. I laughed.
The name “Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest” was a misnommer initially. A stunt. Imagine; Black femmes, meaning Black people who fall under the spectrum of femininity, being able to give the world that same abusive energy we’ve had to take for eternity. The world would actually explode. In naming my festival I was thinking about how Black femmes have been historically used, abused and erased in the film industry. I wanted to invert that standard with my festival. I only wanted to show films by and about Black femmes. I also wanted to prioritize queer stories. This festival was about showing work that wouldn’t screen elsewhere. So I created a google form asking for submissions and volunteers. At the time, Shannon Houston was a TV editor at Paste Magazine. She got it published there as well as Shadow&Act.com. I received 41 submissions and two volunteers, Hilda Adeniji and Samah Ali who would go on to become my digital and programming leads. In May 2018, we screened about 25 shorts and two features in the upstairs bedroom of Waller Gallery. Nearly 30 people crammed into the space for hours at a time and watched short films projected on white sheets that I hung on the wall. The ticket price to a screening block was 13 dollars to represent the percentage of working Black female filmmakers in Hollywood. My best friend Maya Rodriguez designed the one page program. The money we made from tickets sales was split between food and alcohol for the reception and paying feature filmmakers a small screening fee. My immediate community donated chairs, a speaker and the projector. Friends and family volunteered as ushers and tickets takers.
What started as a reaction to an injustice sprouted into something greater. My programmer, Samah Ali, had a bigger vision in mind, “When is the next one?” she asked. At the time, I was unsure. I felt like I had made my statement and I was content to let the Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest be archived solely as a weekend event for my art show. But a few months after the Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest was born, Keisha, the first black female to be hired at the Maryland Film Festival in it’s 20 year history was deemed “aggressive” and then fired. She recanted her side of the story to me on a summer day a few weeks after my festival. I was shocked but not surprised. What she didn’t understand, as a non native of Baltimore was the way things worked here. How the city that created redlining as we know it, despite being predominantly Black and under Black leadership, still operated in a manner that saw black people consistently rejected from leadership positions in our major cultural institutions. Keisha brought potential to the Parkway, the programming that year was inspiring and fresh. Seeing her be tokenized and discarded made me reconsider the future of my festival.
Later that fall I started a 9–5 position at a housing non profit. I was unsure about how to manage my new communications position and the festival. My team had decided on producing a screening event at the beginning of 2019 to celebrate the opening of our submission season and announce our new festival date. We called it “Taste Test”. We curated a group of short films created by and for Black femmes that portrayed the Black femme as a universal protoganist. We wanted to create a space where potential submitters could get a better idea of what BFSFilmFest is about. With donations from Shannon Houston, Somar Nowark and a local Arts Advocacy group that my mother Sheila Gaskins founded ARTpartheid, we screened shorts from Cuba, South Africa, Brazil, Canada and the States at Creative Alliance, a local multi use art space. We went from a bedroom to a theater with professional equipment in less than a year. After the screening we brought our filmmakers together for a Q+A to talk about their work as well as the festival. Not only were we able to pay our filmmakers, but I was able to pay my team. We also offered submission discount codes to everyone who came. Samantha Mitchell, who was the film curator of the space at that time, set up our FilmFreeway account and even let us print out our programs for free. I cried at the end of this event. I remember feeling an intense joy and pride when I shared the stage with our screening filmmakers.
This same month, I went to a screening of “As told to G/D thyself” at the Parkway. Not only was I surprised that the Parkway was screening such a film, but I was also surprised at the amount of Black folks at the Parkway. Elissa Blount Moorhead, introduced me to Sandra Gibson, the interim director of the Maryland Film Festival and Parkway Theater. Apparently, the founder and former Executive Director had recently stepped down. Sandra, an established Black Arts Executive and former President/CEO of Association of Performing Arts Professionals, shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eye when she asked about the future of my festival and the possibility of it being hosted at the Parkway. From January to September of 2019 we worked on bringing the BFSFilmFest to the Parkway Theater. We secured sponsorship from Planned Parenthood, the Africana Studies Department of Hopkins University, Sandra even gave a small personal donation to the festival. Things that that seemed impossible just a year before, were happening with ease. Our 2019 festival saw over 300 folks over the three day weekend. Our festival opener was “Jezebel” by Numa Perrier who even sat for a Q+A afterwards. We screened over 40 films and even sold merchandise. To host BFSFilmFest in the same institution that inspired our creation was a full circle moment that speaks to the power of Black femme rage and solidarity. And the largest blessing was yet to come.
A month after our festival we got a DM on Instagram from Karen Hunte, at that time she was working for ARRAY, Ava Duvernay’s independent film distribution and resource collective. Karen invited me to the inaugural ARRAY Ascend Summit. I spent the weekend with film advocates from all over the country, learning about the industry and taking notes from its leaders. As if having all my expenses paid for this amazing weekend of education wasn’t enough, Ava surprised us all with a $10,000 unrestricted grant. With that money I was able to go to the Film Festival Alliance @ Art House Convergence and the Sundance Film Festival. That grant has paid for the 2020 Taste Test touring program year, which opened in DC and had pre COVID19 plans of screening in Houston and Detroit. Due to COVID19 we are now campaigning to recoup funds lost in the cancellation of those events. Our touring program will now be virtual. Our next screening is in collaboration with the Houston Museum of African American Culture and happening on May 17th. BFSFilmFest 2020 will be virtual as well. Although we are saddened that we won’t be able to see our community in person, we trust that making it virtual this year will allow the international community to be part of the festivities. And thanks to yet another Black femme,the legendary Ava Duvernay this festival continues to survive and evolve into something that we couldn’t have imagined when we first started. Today marks the 3rd year of existence for the Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest. Protection, guidance, and help are words associated with that number and when I think about it, these are words that explain how I’ve been able to organize and produce this festival. Since it’s inception I was uncertain about my ability to produce this event and every year the Black femme filmmakers in my life make sure it happens. I trust that this year will be no different.
The Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest is now accepting submissions, donations and sponsors. To learn more, please follow us on social media @bfsfilmfest and join our email list on our website; bfsfilmfest.com