Five Powerful BlackStar Film Festival Documentaries to Look Out For

By Sameer Rao Jul 30, 2015

Four years after its inception, the Philadelphia-based BlackStar Film Festival has confirmed its reputation as a black Sundance, an independent powerhouse of a film festival where film and criticism powerhouses such as Spike Lee and Marc Lamont Hill converge with burgeoning artists over panels and screenings that celebrate the vitality of independent film from the African diaspora.* This year’s festival, which begins today and runs until Sunday, August 2, is no different. Featuring appearances from acclaimed indie filmmakers such as Arthur Jafa and Terrance Nance, BlackStar 2015 promises to uphold the standards it’s previously set in empowering black artists in a film world that isn’t always quick to recognize artists of colors’ potential. 

We scoured this year’s program guide and picked five documentaries worth highlighting. For those lucky enough to pass through Philadelphia this weekend, check out these showings. For everybody else, keep an eye out for these films in theaters, other film festivals, on demand, on Netflix or wherever else they land. Their profiles will only grow after Sunday.


5) "La Belle Vie: The Good Life" by Rachelle Salnave

Given the long history of political turmoil between Haiti and its neighbor, The Dominican Republic, "La Belle Vie" is an important and timely documentary to watch. Shot prior to the Dominican Republic’s current expulsion of Haitians born there, Haitian-American filmmaker Rachelle Salnave explores her identity and relationship with Haiti through a trip to the country as it wrestles with endemic poverty and the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that forever altered the country’s fortunes. "La Belle Vie" is preceded by two short films also rooted in Haiti. 


4) Shorts from TNEG by Various 

Those who really want to dig into the future of black independent filmmaking should look not just toward films created, but the ideologically-driven studios designed to elevate the art. This conceptual drive guided the creation of TNEG by director/cinematographer Arthur Jafa ("Crooklyn," "Dreams Are Colder Than Death"), director/cinematographer Malik Sayeed ("He Got Game," "Belly") and producer/curator Elissa Blount-Moorhead (Weeksville Heritage Center, The Contemporary). This emergent film studio adapts the production models of legendary studios like Motown and Pixar, with the express aim of creating black cinema “capable of matching the power, beauty and alienation of black music.” Among the six shorts being screened at BlackStar (followed by a conversation with Jafa and Blount-Moorhead) is "New Soul Rebel: Adrian Younge," which focuses on the work and philosophy of the innovative soul producer whose work you may have heard in "Black Dynamite." 


3) "Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee" by Muta’Ali Muhammad


Few black film figures loomed as large as Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. "Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee" will be an important contribution to their legacy of excellence and activism. Directed by their grandson Muta’Ali Muhammad, this documentary digs deep into the couple’s life and functions as both a reference guide for future generations of artist-activists and a testament to family. 


2) "Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story" by dream hampton 

This year’s festival closer deals with a topic whose public visibility, while growing, still remains tragically in the shadows. "Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, a Detroit Story" looks at the life of Shelly "Treasure" Hillard, a young trans woman of color whose murder was not tried as a hate crime, as well as the struggle of her mother to achieve justice for her daughter and community. 


1) "BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez" by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon


We predict that this film, given its tremendous subject and bevy of featured guests (Questlove, Talib Kweli and the aforementioned Ruby Dee among them), will be the one to go furthest after BlackStar. "BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez" is a poignant look at the life and career of legendary writer, spoken word progenitor and Black Arts Movement figure Sonia Sanchez. The documentary chronicles Sanchez’s eight decades of creative development and incendiary influence, addressing both her early contributions and her ongoing role in ensuring black literature’s centrality in university curricula. 


The BlackStar Film Festival begins today, July 30, and closes on Sunday, August 2. Click here to learn more about BlackStar, and check back on Colorlines next week for interviews with select artists from the festival. 

*Editorial note: Akiba Solomon, Colorlines’ editorial director, serves on BlackStar’s advisory board and contributed a piece to this year’s festival program.