The Black Harvest Film Festival has long been one of the most important film events of every summer in Chicago. Taking over the Gene Siskel Film Center for almost the entire month of August (running August 5-31), the programmers of BHFF offer an array of films from the black perspective, including many homegrown projects from Windy City filmmakers. Over forty filmmakers are scheduled to appear at the Siskel this month for the four-week event, including Floyd Norman and John Ridley. With so many options, the program can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few highlights:
Jonathan Olshefski’s “Quest” premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and remains the best film I’ve seen so far in advance of Black Harvest. It’s a film I’ve thought of surprisingly often since seeing it seven months ago, thinking about the Rainey family and eager to see how the world responds to their story. Olshefski’s film chronicles the ups and downs of one family essentially over the entire run of the Obama administration, moving from 2008 all the way to Trump’s victory. It is a film that is never explicitly political and yet captures so much about who we are as a culture and where we’ve been over the last decade. "Quest" is a great film in the way it balances the personal story against a backdrop of national change. It even reminds one of the legend of Chicago documentary filmmaking, Steve James, who always had a gift in the way he captures the profound in the everyday and the universal in the specific. (“Quest” plays on Saturday, August 12th at 3:30pm and Monday, August 14th at 8pm. Get tickets here.)
Almost as strong is the latest from Stanley Nelson, director of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." One of our best chroniclers of African American history returns with “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” another Sundance hit making its Chicago premiere. Nelson’s film is remarkably ambitious in that it basically tries to capture the black college experience over a century, and from multiple angles. Nelson starts with the importance of access to education for newly-freed slaves in the pursuit for equality, but his film really gains cultural traction when he starts to explore the idea that black colleges allow for community as much as they do learning. They are not only places to gather knowledge but to incubate movements and have been crucial in the fight for civil rights. His film is arguably a bit too expansive in its scope—covering slavery to the modern problems facing black colleges is a bit much for one movie—but it offers a ton of food for thought. (“Tell Them We Are Rising” is playing Sunday, August 6th at 5:30pm and Monday, August 7th at 8pm. Get tickets here.)
A great deal has been written and filmed about the American tragedy at Rosewood, but there’s a stunning lack of information out there about Wilmington, North Carolina, making Christopher Everett’s “Wilmington on Fire” an essential learning document. Everett goes into great detail about what happened in 1898 in Wilmington, which could have been the model city for the New South—white and black people operated businesses next to each other and even participated in government together—until the Democrat-backed white supremacists decided to change the history of the state forever. For five years, Everett obsessively dug into the story, finding rare photographs, legal documents, and even testimony from descendants of the people who were there, and the depth of his work is right there on the screen. (“Wilmington on Fire” is playing Thursday, August 17th at 6pm. Get tickets here.)
There are two music-driven docs playing at Black Harvest, both of which frustrated me a great deal but both of which offer enough archival material of their subject matters to be of interest to their still-thriving fanbases. The stronger of the two is Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” which offers a window in the meteoric rise of Whitney Houston and her tragic downfall. Speaking to a number of people who knew and worked with Houston, Broomfield and Dolezal capture how much Houston was lost in a system that never really supported her. She was booed at the Soul Train Awards for being too pop. She was never allowed to show her love for old friend and possible girlfriend Robyn Crawford. She was used more than she was helped at every turn. The film’s structure doesn’t quite work for me, but there’s enough food for thought here about how easy it is to disappear when you’re not allowed to be yourself. (“Whitney: Can I Be Me” is playing Friday, August 11th at 8:30pm and Saturday, August 12th at 6pm. Get tickets here.)
Finally, there’s Michael Rubenstone’s “On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone,” about a legendary musician who literally disappeared. If nothing else, Rubenstone’s very personal film should serve as a reminder of how much Sly and the Family Stone mattered to the national music scene when they were at their peak. Rubenstone’s film features a bit too much of its director’s personal issues for my tastes, but he smartly turns over a lot of the midsection of the film to its enigmatic subject, presenting archival footage of Sly Stone and his incredible group of collaborators. You’ll want to get up and dance. (“On the Sly” plays on Friday, August 25th at 8:30pm and Saturday, August 26th at 6pm. Get tickets here.)
The Black Harvest Film Festival runs from August 5-31 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For tickets, showtimes and more information, click here.