The Denton Black Film Festival, now in its third year, is gearing up for a culture-sharing celebration.
The annual event, which will feature more than 40 narrative films, documentaries and shorts from filmmakers across the nation as well as internationally, is for “film lovers, art seekers and culture enthusiasts of all ethnicities,” event spokesperson Mesha George says.
A Jan. 26 screening of I Am Not Your Negro, which The New York Times calls “one of the best films you are likely to see this year,” kicks off at 7 p.m. at Silver Cinemas in the Golden Triangle Mall. Additional films will be screened through Jan. 29 at the historic Campus Theatre in downtown Denton.
Among them are Jerico, which follows best friends Jerico Walker and Jarvis Cook as their good day descends into a hilarious fight for survival. The film’s side-splitting humor blends brilliantly with the harsh, everyday realities of the Jim Crow South in a way that eases racial tension.
The movie is written by Brandon Lewis and directed by Seckeita Lewis, a husband and wife filmmaking duo out of Dallas who make up Lewis Taylor Productions.
Brandon says even though the film is funny, the seriousness of the characters’ situation wears them down to the point that Walker puts on white-face to become a “crazy, hillbilly character” named Dale Stevens.
“You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh again,” Seckeita says. “We really want to be dynamic and work with different genres, but comedy just comes natural for us.”
Other festival attractions include a Jan. 28 jazz concert by Ashleigh Smith, and KWTXR, an exhibit by local artist Christopher Blay. Festival-goers can also attend spoken word and comedy showcases and workshops, as well as mingle during an artist mixer event.
Smith — whose album Sunkissed was released in August — signed with Concord after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2014. She says she bounces around with different bands locally and is in the process of putting together a summer festival tour. The songbird also worked as a backup vocalist for five years with Chrisette Michele, which gave her firsthand experience in the music industry.
“I went to London, Africa, Paris and all over,” she says. “It’s been fun.”
The opening reception for Blay’s KWTXR will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 25. The art exhibit is free and runs through Feb. 3 at UNT on the Square. KWTXR is a play on words that references the artist Kara Walker and the character Walker Texas Ranger. Blay borrows from both personalities, he says, however, they are not the subject.
The subject developed when Blay was an artist-in-residence at CentralTrak in Dallas and the deaths of unarmed, black men at the hands of police officers were making headlines. Through his artwork, a concept Blay calls Afro-Futurism, the artist reaches back in time 25 years, beginning with the beating of Rodney King, to re-create and reflect on similar situations that have taken place through the years.
“These cases are flashpoint cases that dominated news cycles,” he says. “It was part of the national conversation. I thought they would be good to do to symbolize the feeling that I have around these things. It’s a combination of grief and despair. It just becomes this thing that you can’t ignore.”
The exhibit at the film fest will be a smaller version of the KWTXR exhibit held at the South Dallas Cultural Center last year and will include sets of drawings, watercolors and Polaroids that all connect to a movie, which Blay says is a central part of the narrative.
“I conceive all of these pieces as one big thing, not as individual pieces that come together to make a show,” he says. “They are all interconnected.”
Blay says his fictional character, KWTXR, tells the stories of men such as Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant and others in a nonlinear way. The character gets a badge, becomes a police officer, has a time travel experience, and then goes back into each situation to try to produce a different outcome.
“She’s jumping in an out of situations,” he says. “It’s ambiguous what happens.”
There’s also a goddess Shiva character with multiple hands whom Blay describes as a “kind of goddess of destruction and rebirth.” His ideas, he says, are of “futurism, science fiction and the place of black bodies in the future.”
“It all talks about trying to find a place for me in society,” he says.
Whether the art sells or has any kind of critical acclaim is secondary to Blay. “I feel it’s important that I bear witness to what happens during the time that I live as artist,” he says. “It’s important to me, because I’m an African American living in the world. And I see people affected. And they look like me.”
Word Warriors III, written and produced by Takia “Tizzie” Green and Lyah Beth LeFlore, also addresses violence, by advocating the use of words instead of guns.
“We’ve been in the TV business about 20 years,” Green says. “As independent filmmakers this is our first film.”
The premiere sheds light on “everything that was going on, just the whole system that was kind of keeping brothers down,” Green says. While LeFlore acknowledges the documentary paints a stark picture of the disparity in black communities, she says it also paints one of hope.
“And it goes back to words — using words as weapons,” she says. “We are very excited to bring it to the Dallas area.”
Self-taught filmmaker M. Legend Brown has written eight films and directed 11, four of which are feature length. He says A Heart That Forgives, which was filmed in Terrell, is about two foster brothers, one a minister, the other a hustler, who cross paths later in life to encounter the universal struggle of forgiveness.
The Rockwall-based filmmaker will teach a workshop during the festival about how to make a movie with a budget under $100K.
“It’s all about rolling up your sleeves and getting it done,” he says. “When you first start out, it seems like everything’s against you.”
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Brown says the film industry is “a broad beast” that is always looking for talent and money, but it is really more about building and cultivating relationships. The best thing a budding filmmaker can do, he says, is find a mentor to shadow for a few years.
“If the subject matter, or the story, resonates with [actors], they don’t care if it’s a black film, a Jewish, an Italian film, a renaissance film; it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I think the story is still king.”
DBFF is put on by the Denton African American Scholarship Foundation which aims to address under-representation in film and media while giving black stories an audience, according to its press release. Festival proceeds provide scholarships for black students in Denton.
Passes are $24 to $179 to the Denton Black Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 27, through Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Campus Theatre (214 W. Hickory St.), or you can buy tickets to individual films. Visit dentonbff.com for more info.