Five Must-Watch Films at the BlackStar Film Festival

By Sameer Rao Aug 04, 2016

The fifth annual BlackStar Film Festival* kicks off in Philadelphia today (August 4). Like last year, the 2016 "Black Sundance" (a moniker that stems from the festival’s growing profile as a launching pad and networking hub for Black diasporic filmmakers and creative professionals) features a plethora of screenings and panels meant to uplift the best of new independent Black cinema.

Just as previous lineups featured a mix of heavyweights and rising stars like Spike Lee and Terence Nance ("An Oversimplification of Her Beauty"), speakers and panelists at this year’s festival include L.A. Rebellion leader Haile Gerima ("Sankofa") and relative newcomer Matthew Cherry ("The Last Fall"). 

Between now and its Sunday (August 7) conclusion, BlackStar will screen a variety of projects spanning genres and formats, many of which could move on to other major festivals, theatrical runs or network premieres. Whether you’re in Philly now or want to chart the trajectories of these new projects, we suggest you check out the following films:

"9 Rides"

The festival’s closing feature film follows a Los Angeles Uber driver on New Year’s Eve (the busiest night for drivers) as he comes to terms with life-changing news—with the help of the passengers during his nine fares. Director Matthew Cherry shot the entire film on an iPhone 6.


"Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows"

Director Rob Hatch-Miller told us at the DOC NYC festival last year that he, a White filmmaker, did not want his documentary about underrated soul legend Syl Johnson to get too preachy. "We just wanted it to be about him and his music, first and foremost, and let the music’s politics speak for themselves, rather than let the movie speaks for the music’s politics," he said. But his film still illuminates Johnson’s socially provocative message on songs like "Is It Because I’m Black" and its relevance to both his ’60s and ’70s heyday and the hip-hop generation, given his prominent sampling by artists like the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay Z. Hip-hop and retro-soul lovers, this one’s for you.


"Tell Me Something Sweet"

Shattering stereotypes about African women’s social and sexual agency, this Johannesburg-set film explores the romance between an aspiring novelist and a celebrity model. Directed by Nigerian actor Akin Omotoso ("Blood Diamond"), "Tell Me Something Sweet’s" BlackStar screening is also its North American premiere.


"Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA"

Gerima and his L.A. Rebellion colleagues started a cinematic revolution in the aftermath of the Watts Riots. The films they created through the UCLA Center for EthnoCommunications wrote the script for Black filmmakers to come, defining a unique aesthetic that centered and spoke to people of color’s concerns. This documentary, directed by Zeinabu irene Davis ("Compensation"), charts these hidden heroes’ creative genesis in volatile late-’60s Los Angeles.


"Free CeCe!"

Trans activist CeCe McDonald made national headlines in 2012 when she went to jail for fighting back during a transphobic and racist attack. Her sentencing and struggles as she navigated the criminal justice system compelled a widespread movement (boosted by Laverne Cox) to liberate her. "Free CeCe!" explores society’s multilayered discrimination against Black trans women through a conversation between McDonald and Cox.

Click here for the full festival schedule.

*Note: Colorlines Editorial Director Akiba Solomon serves on BlackStar’s advisory board, and Culture Reporter Sameer Rao wrote a preview for this year’s festival guide.