Blackstar Film Festival, in its seventh year, keeps expanding the mainstream

The festival showcases films that may be difficult to find in mainstream theaters.

Listen 5:06
Blackstar organizers Meg Onli, Patrice Worthy, Maori Karmael Homes, Nehad Khader, and Denise Beek in front of an artwork by Jade Montserrat at the Institute for Contemporary Art. Blackstar highlights the work of black filmmakers from around the world. (Credit: Jen Kinney)

Blackstar organizers Meg Onli, Patrice Worthy, Maori Karmael Homes, Nehad Khader, and Denise Beek in front of an artwork by Jade Montserrat at the Institute for Contemporary Art. Blackstar highlights the work of black filmmakers from around the world. (Credit: Jen Kinney)

The Blackstar Film Festival, highlighting black filmmakers, opens today in West Philly. But in an ideal world, said founder and artistic director Maori Karmael Holmes, “Blackstar wouldn’t need to exist. In an ideal world, all of this work would be available on every mainstream platform.”

Yet despite the recent breakout success of “Get Out,” “Black Panther,” and “Sorry to Bother You” — all by black writers and directors — we don’t live in such a world. And Blackstar, now in its seventh year, provides a vital platform for films that may be hard to see elsewhere. Of the more than 80 films in the festival, at least four are world premieres, and many are showing in Philadelphia for the first time.

“A lot of the filmmakers that we show or that we feature are not going to be part of the Hollywood system,” said Holmes. “And, if they are, it’s definitely not going to be in a conventional way.”

Last week, though deep in the weeds of last-minute details, Holmes and four of the festival’s other core organizers met me to talk about the festival during an after-hours tour of the Institute for Contemporary Art. The ICA hosts panels and yoga during Blackstar; festival director Meg Onli is a curator; and Holmes once worked here too.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Onli led us through an exhibition that dovetails nicely with Blackstar’s mission. “The Last Place They Thought Of,” curated by Daniella Rose King, features four black women artists grappling with space and geography. While we spoke, a video by artist Lorraine O’Grady ran on a loop, a close-up black and white tumble.

“It’s her hair, it’s a black woman’s hair,” said Onli. “But you might think it was a field of grain, so it’s thinking about the ways her body can double as a landscape.”

This year, many of the films in Blackstar are about women and their relationships, to themselves and other people, said Nehad Khader, the senior program manager. There’s ”Jinn,” a film about a young Instagram celebrity figuring out her identity amid her mother’s conversion to Islam, written and directed by Nijla Mu’min. There’s “Beyond My Skin,” about three best friends all grappling with sex, sexuality, and sexual abuse in different ways, directed by 16-year-old Aniya Wolf.

And questions of geography are always present. Though the festival began as a space for filmmakers of the African diaspora, it quickly expanded, said Holmes.

“We noticed that other people of color were submitting to the festival, who really resonated with the black American experience or a black diasporan experience overall,” she said. “I always call it a political blackness, that’s who we’re representing.”

While we talked, Holmes, Onli, Khader, managing director Patrice Worthy, and communications director Denise Beek kept gently ribbing each other. Worthy, Holmes recalled, showed up on her second day as a volunteer with a guide she’d written for how other volunteers should be trained. All of the organizers have full-time jobs on top of running the festival, so it helps that they all like each other.

“It’s a labor of love, essentially,” said Worthy. And they believe cultivating deep relationships is what sets Blackstar apart.

“Even that first year, one of the responses we got from attendees was that it was this IRL convening of people who followed each other’s work on Instagram and Facebook and Vimeo and Twitter,” said Holmes. “And then we noticed, in the second and third year, that people were collaborating with people they met at the festival.”

One attendee that first year was up-and-coming filmmaker Terence Nance. He didn’t have anything in the festival that year.

“But he said — and he kept his word — I’m going to make something and be in Blackstar every year,” said Holmes. “And he has made something and had it in the festival for the past six years.”

This year, Nance has chosen Blackstar for the world premiere of his new HBO series, “Random Acts of Flyness,” a surreal variety show that screens Friday night. It’s just one highlight in a weekend of films audiences might not see elsewhere, including the Philly premiere of “Happy Birthday Marsha,” a short documentary about transgender artist and activist Marsha P. Johnson.

There are also panels for filmmakers about craft and philosophy. One takes on speculative fiction and Afrofuturism. Another dives deeply into the relationship between film and surveillance in communities of color. Even though some black filmmakers are having a mainstream moment, Holmes said, there’s still a need to push further, in style and content.

“This notion of ‘black cinema’ or ‘black film,’ I don’t believe it exists,” said Holmes. “How do we get to an Alice Coltrane of cinema? How do we get to a point where we’re completely disrupting the form and taking it to some place people didn’t know was possible? We haven’t done that yet.”

She wants to show that is demand for films like that, not just among black audiences.

“We want our audience to be as wide as possible. It’s literally for, and not in a lazy way — ‘oh it’s for everybody!’ — we literally mean it’s for as much intersecting communities as possible, because everyone should be seeing their work,” said Holmes.

Blackstar begins Thursday and runs through Sunday with panels and yoga at the ICA, and films and other programming at Lightbox Film Center and Pearlstein Gallery. If you missed your chance to buy an all-access pass for $150, tickets to individual films are $12 for the general public and $8 for seniors and students. Panels and yoga are free.

The full lineup is here, and there are some highlights below. The ICA exhibition, “The Last Place They Thought Of,” is on view until Aug. 12.


Nigerian Prince,” director Faraday Okoro
Aug. 2, 5:45 p.m.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.

According to the Tribeca Film Institute, “‘Nigerian Prince’ follows two characters: Eze, a stubborn, first-generation Nigerian-American teenager, and his cousin, Pius, who is a desperate Nigerian prince scammer. After Eze’s mother sends him to Nigeria against his will, Eze retaliates by teaming up with Pius to scam unsuspecting foreigners in order to earn money for a return ticket back to America.”

Milwaukee 53206,” director Keith McQuirter
Aug. 2, 7 p.m.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.

This documentary film explores America’s most incarcerated ZIP code, where up to 62 percent of black men are in prison, through the lives of three people intimately affected by the prison system.

Future Frontier: Shorts Program
Aug. 3, noon.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.

Four short films blend the supernatural and the all-too-real, bending time and space and forcing their female protagonists to confront moral dilemmas. One, “Resistance: The Battle of Philadelphia,” directed by Asli Dukan, takes place in our city in the near future, when a powerful corporate government rules. Also catch the panel Beyond Wakanda: The Resurgence of the Contemporary Black Reality & Future, about Afrofuturism and speculative fiction, at 11 a.m. on Aug. 2.

“Random Acts of Flyness,” premiere and reception, Terence Nance
Aug. 3, 8 p.m.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.
For passholders only

According to HBO, Terence Nance’s new show “explores evergreen cultural idioms such as patriarchy, white supremacy and sensuality from a new, thought-provoking perspective. A fluid, stream-of-conscious response to the contemporary American mediascape, each episode of ‘Random Acts of Flyness’ features a handful of interconnected vignettes, showcasing an ensemble cast of emerging and established talent. The show is a mix of vérité documentary, musical performances, surrealist melodrama and humorous animation.”

Jinn,” director Nijla Mu’min
Aug. 4, 8:30 p.m.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.

“A shape-shifting, pepperoni-loving, black teenage Instagram celebrity explores her identity and sexuality in the midst of her mother’s conversion to Islam.” Writer and director Nijla Mu’min, director of photography Bruce Francis Cole, and producer Avril Speaks will discuss creating the film at a panel on Aug. 3 at 3 p.m. called “On the Making of Jinn.”

Beyond My Skin,” director Aniya Wolf
Aug. 5, 12:30 p.m.
Pearlstein Gallery, 3401 Filbert St.

Managing director Patrice Worthy said she’s excited to check out this film by 16-year-old writer and director Aniya Wolf, who first screened a short film at Blackstar in 2016. “Beyond My Skin” follows three best friends as they grapple with sex, sexuality, and sexual abuse. Other young filmmakers will be sharing their short films in two programs on Aug. 4, at 11 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., at the Pearlstein Gallery. A panel discussion geared toward youth under 22 at 1:30 p.m., Behind the Camera & Beyond the Reel, aims to give young people insight into making a career in the industry.

The Feeling of Being Watched,” director Assia Boundaoui
Aug. 5, 5:25 p.m.
Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St.

In this documentary film, journalist Assia Boundaoui investigates claims of surveillance in her Arab-American neighborhood in Chicago. In doing so, “she uncovers one of the largest FBI terrorism probes conducted before 9/11 and reveals its enduring impact on the community.”
And catch Boundaoui talk about how film presents an opportunity for the surveilled to turn around and “watch the watchers” in the panel Revert the Gaze: The Relationship Between Surveillance and Film in Communities of Color on Aug. 4 at 11:30 a.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Awards ceremony and closing night party
Aug. 5, 7 p.m.
World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St.
Tickets: $25-50

Find out which films will walk away with laurels and celebrate the close of the festival with musical performances including Joi, Lady Alma, Moor Mother, and Natalie Imani, and DJ Oluwafemi. Ticket sales benefit next year’s festival.

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region. Tell us what you think.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal