Story by Denisha McKnight Photos by Will McQueen
A rush of people fill the basement of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows lodge, scrambling about looking for friends and places to sit. The basement is packed wall-to-wall with people ranging from adults to young children hurriedly getting settled. Its time for the show to start. On stage, a traveling troupe of African-American actors enters the room and performs dramatic pieces for the Denton residents. The delighted crowd roars its approval before a spool-wounded roll of film is cranked into a camera, turning the basement into a 1920s Hollywood movie theater. Images move and flicker across the wall serving as a makeshift screen, allowing everyone to forget about their problems and relax in the comfort of community created by the shared joy of watching a movie. This is part of Denton’s past involving cinema and black culture. In the 1920s traveling troupes provided such entertainment to the Denton African- American community known then as Quakertown, establishing and holding a community together through seemingly simple amusements. Denton’s historical cinema roots run deep, sprouting today's community-driven movie event called The Denton Black Film Festival. This festival attracts everyone from filmheads to regular people, showcasing different aspects of black culture through the integration of visual arts. Like Quakertown’s community movies, the Denton Black Film Festival celebrates a culture by drawing people together through entertainment.
It began as a small spark in the mind of Denton Black Film Festival Chairman Harry Eaddy after a night out with his wife at a local film festival two years ago. Not long after, the fire spread to fellow Denton Black Film Festival organizers Mesha George and Cheylon Brown.
There weren’t any black film festivals in the Denton area, so the film festival committee has tried to bring a “rich, colorful experience to the community,” said Mesha, the festival’s Special Projects coordinator. “Its job is to attract independent filmmakers and an audience looking for great independent films.”
The festival shows a medley of movies ranging from independent award-winning feature films, documentaries and shorts produced by independent filmmakers from around the world, along with submissions from local high school and college students. The festivals major sponsor is the African-American Scholarship Foundation, a 31-year-old non-profit organization that awards scholarships to high school students in the Denton area.
Last year, the film festival opened to a full house at the Campus Theater. A diverse audience watched every film, popcorn in hand, smiles lit up by the theater’s bright screen. After viewing films such as 2013 British period piece Belle and the critically acclaimed independent film Dear White People, attendees were able to en-joy a Q&A session with Texas actress Irma P. Hall, widely known for her roles in movies such as Ladykillers (2004) and Soul Food (1997).
COMING TO THE STAGE!
This year, the film festival will incorporate more artistic elements. There will be an art exhibit at UNT on the Square for the month of January featuring the works of Annette Lawrence, a visual arts professor from UNT. There will be a pre-festival art and music event at the Patterson-Appleton Center for the Visual Arts on January 23rd which will include a children’s program in the morning and free films. Artists’ works will feature paintings, metal and wood works and sculptures. A variety of music including reggae, hip hop, R&B, jazz and fusion will also be featured during the exhibit.
Other activities during the 3-day event will include a Gospel Brunch, spoken word showcases, submissions from their film competition, interpretative dance and a night dedicated to Irma P. Hall, where she will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for her vast body of work throughout her career as a mentor, poet and visual artist for more than 30 years.
The event places a huge emphasis on building a community based on partnership through its many collaborations with other local establishments such as the Greater Denton Art Council, UNT, TWU, the Denton Public Library, the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce and more.
EDUCATE, ENTERTAIN, INSPIRE
“[We’re] making sure to create something thats going to be valuable and worthwhile to the community to fulfill our goal, which is to entertain, educate and inspire,” Mesha said.
Denton has become a melting pot over the years, and Denton African-American events, such as the Denton Black Film Festival, build on the foundation laid by Denton black history. Denton black culture is sprouting into a fruitful existence that stretches beyond its Quakertown roots, and there is more to Denton black culture than people realize.
Through cinema, the festival coordinators hope to screen many faces that aren’t often seen. The festival is committed to changing perceptions.
“There’s so many aspects that make [African-Americans] whole people that are very often not portrayed or those [films] aren’t the commercially successful films that people want to see,” Mesha said. “They might see us as the sidekick in the film, but what about the generous side, the relationship, [or] the loving side?”
“The film festival can change lives,” Harry said. Black cinema can be the bridge closing the gap between Denton’s diverse cultures. Black visual arts can cross any boundary and intertwine multiple cultures together, according to James Martin, the festivals Artistic Director.
Award-winning filmmaker Coy Poitier, Vice President of Nu Reel Entertainment, believes black film festivals are the fountainheads that allow filmmakers of all races to showcase their art and educate viewers on the multidimensional structure of black culture. African-American stories aren’t the most popular and are often not portrayed properly by mainstream media. Through black film festivals, spectators get the chance to accurately see black narratives.
“We have to find a way to create [an] industry for ourselves,” Coy said. “Media plays a huge role in how people see us, and until we’re able to control the way we are viewed in film, [people] are going to continue seeing us that way.”
The focus of the film festival’s camera lens goes far beyond what the festival can do for the African-American community, but what it can do for all cultures in Denton. Through the compelling content exhibited, the festival organizers aim to give all people a glimpse into a culture that is uniquely different.
The Denton Black Film Festival will run January 29-31 at the Campus Theater on 214 Hickory St. Ticket prices are $7-10, and people will be able to pay for individual, day and all-access passes online on their website, www.dbff.com