The 25th edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival, playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this month, boasts a robust lineup of titles that are wide-ranging in subject matter and ambitious in aims. The festival opens with “A Black Harvest Feast” (85 min.; Sat 8/3, 7 PM), a series of five new shorts commissioned by the Film Center, and closes with Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (114 min.; Thu 8/29, 6:30 PM), his 1994 ode to his family; Lee’s cowriter, sister Joie Lee, will be in attendance.
In between are seven more programs of shorts, grouped by thematic content, and 17 features. Among the full-length festival films, three documentaries and three dramas are of particular interest, starting with It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story (114 min.; Tue 8/6, 6 PM; Wed 8/7, 8 PM), directed by Eric Friedler. Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter are but a few of the artists who fondly recall Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the two German Jewish emigres who founded the New York record company in 1939 and whose obsession with jazz would propel the form out of its former category of obscure “race records” into the mainstream of American music. From the label’s first hit, Sidney Bechet’s rendition of “Summertime,” to the postwar rise of Thelonious Monk, from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ live recording of A Night at Birdland to Bud Powell and bebop, the movie makes a strong case for how Blue Note helped change race relations in the U.S.
Jacqueline Olive’s harrowing Always in Season (90 min.; Fri 8/9, 4:15 PM; Tue 8/13, 6 PM) charts the history of public lynching since the Reconstruction era and its aftermath today—specifically the death of Black teenager Lennon Lacy, whose body was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, in 2014. Police ruled it a suicide, but Lacy’s mother believes he was murdered as punishment for his affair with an older white woman. While his family grieves, other residents of the south—Black and white—process the trauma of their shared bloody past by annually staging reenactments of crimes such as the murders of two Black couples at Moore’s Ford Bridge in northeast Georgia in 1946, believed to have been committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Although difficult to watch, the film is invaluable in its exploration of lynching as a form of racial terrorism. Danny Glover narrates.
“I just want to be a change agent, and politics is the way I can change people’s lives,” says 34-year-old Bakari Sellers in While I Breathe, I Hope (72 min.; Fri 8/16, 4:15 PM; Tue 8/20, 6 PM), Emily L. Harrold’s fly-on-the-wall portrait of the idealistic attorney, politician, and CNN commentator. At 22 years of age, he ran for office as his district’s state representative and unexpectedly defeated his Republican opposition, but disillusionment soon set in. “I’m a Democrat in South Carolina, so my job is the definition of insanity, because I repeatedly do the same things over and over again, and don’t accomplish much,” he says of his tenure. And indeed one of his finest achievements occurred after he was out of office: while he was working as a social activist in the wake of the 2015 mass shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, he and others succeeded in finally convincing the state legislature to retire the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. Whatever you think of Sellers, who is immensely likable, if more openly emotional than the average guy—but hey, he’s hardly average—don’t miss this enlightening documentary, a primer on the risks and rewards of politics, and why it’s absolutely fundamental that all citizens engage in its discourse, on whatever level we can.
Among the fiction films, the vibrant Jamaican sports drama Sprinter (114 min.; Fri 8/23, 4:15 PM; Sun 8/25, 3 PM) is a crowd-pleaser devoid of false sentimentality, thanks to its disarming young lead, Dale Elliott, and a sturdy supporting cast that includes Lorraine Toussaint and Dennis Titus as his separated parents, Kadeem Wilson as his criminal older brother, and David Alan Grier as his strict coach. Elliott plays Akeem, a Rastafarian high school track and field star whose chaotic home life threatens to derail his athletic goals and his chances at college in America, where he could reunite with his mother, who had left him ten years ago to support her family by working without a permit in California. Director and cowriter (with Robert A. Maylor) Storm Saulter does not sugarcoat the dangers facing vulnerable young men in Jamaica, nor their own behaviors that lead them into trouble. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are the movie’s executive producers.
Two other features deal with college-bound Black teens from ruptured families, but these are told from a female perspective. In Strive (82 min.; Wed 8/21, 8:30 PM; Thu 8/22, 6 PM), Joi Starr plays Kalani, a young woman from the Harlem projects who has earned a spot in a tony white private prep school. But the disdain she faces there exacerbates all her stresses at home, where her working single mom unfairly holds her responsible for her sister and brother, who are close to Kalani’s age but have much less sense and self-discipline. Their reckless actions lead to one tragedy after another, and the only thing keeping Kalani from a nervous breakdown is her school counselor (Danny Glover), who wisely advises her to put herself and her dream of attending Yale first. The screenplay by Sha-Risse Smith and Piper Dellums at times hovers on melodrama, but Starr keeps the film on target with her performance; she’s fierce as a tigress, and just as mesmerizing. Robert Rippberger directed.
The crown jewel of this festival is the rapturous Premature (90 min.; Fri 8/9, 8:30 PM), directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, who cowrote the screenplay with his star, the incandescent Zora Howard. She plays Ayanna, a talented young Harlem poet who during the summer before her freshman year of college enters a romance with a somewhat older, slightly adrift man (Joshua Boone), whom her mother (Michelle Wilson) is justifiably wary of; the jury is also out according to Ayanna’s girlfriends, who bristle at what they perceive as his sexism. The distributor, IFC Films, has requested that longer reviews of this movie be held until it opens theatrically in January, but for now just take my word for it: Premature is one of the year’s best films. v