By Dylan Deprey
Whether it is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” showcasing the breaking point of racial tension at a pizzeria in Brooklyn, to Steve McQueen’s most honest and brutal depictions of a freed black man fighting for his life after being sold into slavery in 12 Years a Slave, black filmmakers have taken some of most complicated and controversial stories and have produced award-winning films.
MKE Film Festival’s Black Lens aims to give black audiences the best opportunity to view quality black independent films by Black Film makers for its third straight year. It was the perfect storm for Black Lens’ creation back in 2013. Soul Food director and Milwaukee native, George Williams Jr. was honored with a tribute for his work and a showing of his films Notorious and “The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister and Pete.” That same day he participated on a panel-discussing race in mainstream cinema.
Artistic & Executive Director Jonathan Jackson was elated with the turnout for the panel and prescreening mixer for Williams Jr. In an attempt to keep the momentum moving forward, Jackson needed a team to head what would eventually become Black Lens. He asked feature committee member Donte McFadden who was able to help, but only for the summer having taken a Film Studies teaching position at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
McFadden then turned to friend Geraud Blanks for help. It was a no brainer as Blanks, Jackson and McFadden all went to UWM for undergraduate school together. The puzzle pieces fell into place and Black Lens was born.
“What’s unique about Black Lens is we select black themed films by black filmmakers,” McFadden said.
Having doubled its audience attendance since last year, McFadden said he was excited to see what the turn out would be this year. He was confident in the films he and Banks had selected.
“I think this is our strongest line up to date,” McFadden said.
The Black Lens’ lineup for this year includes seven-feature length films both fiction and documentary. Black Lens added a shorts program to the roster, which includes six short films.
“Can You Dig This?,” directed by Delila Vallot, is a documentary Milwaukeeans can relate to. Urban gardening projects have been popping up across the city and organizations like We Got This and Growing Power continue to use urban gardening to help their communities. This documentary follows four urban gardeners projects in Los Angeles and its effect on them and their community.
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, highlights Maya Angelou’s career, relationships and hurdles she faced throughout her life all narrated through her own words.
Blanks said that the selection process for this year was a very strenuous having to find films that kept the balance of being respectful yet entertaining, but also in struggling to get films that were exclusively shown in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York.
“We had to fight for them, and we got them here for you,” Blanks said.
The Nas produced film, “The Land,” was one of the films that had been shown across the country, but never made a stop in Milwaukee.
“The Land” centers on a group of skateboarders living in inner city Cleveland who stumble upon a bag of drugs and start selling them.
McFadden said that films like The Land are instrumental for Black Lens, because it spotlights Milwaukee for obtaining exclusive films, as well as the film’s message about the dangers of street life.
The MKE Film Festival runs from Sept. 22 to Oct. 6, and it includes more then just movie screenings and popcorn.
“Not only are we trying to bring the films to Milwaukee, we’re also trying to bring filmmakers to Milwaukee to engage directly with audiences,” McFadden said.
There are panels scheduled throughout the festival including one with the gardeners from the documentary “Can You Dig It?”
McFadden has high hopes to skyrocket Black Lens among the ranks of other Black Filmmaker Movie festivals.
“This is our city and because this is the MKE Film Festival, we should really take this as our festival,” McFadden said.