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25 years of the Black Harvest Film Festival

July 31, 2019

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Doing anything for 25 years is impressive. You’d know that if you’ve tried it and if you’ve done it, you’d agree that it takes a certain resolve and firm believe in what you’re doing in order to keep at it. It also takes a confidence and passion for what you’re aiming to accomplish. Such is the case with Sergio Mims, a Chicago-based film critic and historian who has been involved in the Black Harvest Film Festival since 1994 which specifically celebrates black cinema, as a co-founder/programmer. I haven’t posted an interview with another film critic here on Keeping It Reel before, but the 25th anniversary of this festival compelled me to approach Mims to discuss his involvement and I honestly feel like we could’ve gone on and on.

If you’re unfamiliar with Sergio Mims, I would highly recommend checking out his numerous guest spots on the Movie Madness podcast and his informative DVD/Blu-ray commentaries for distributors such as Arrow Video and Vinegar Syndrome. In the years I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve found Mims to be a fascinating film enthusiast, filled with knowledge beyond my limits and a passion for film discussion. I appreciate his curiosity for film and typically leave our conversations with a broader understanding of film history and appreciation.

The Black Harvest Film Festival will take place once again at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and is set to run from Saturday, August 3rd, through Thursday, August 29th! Additional information on the festival can be found after my chat with Sergio Mims below…

 

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David J. Fowlie: Take me back 25 years. What was the inspiration for the idea of the Black Harvest Film Festival?

Sergio Mims: Well, back in the early 80’s, around 1982, I co-founded an independent black film festival called Blacklight. I left after four years, but the festival itself continued for a few more years, eventually showing films at the old Film Center, when it was over at Columbus and Jackson. Years later, Barbara Scharres at the Siskel Film Center (which it’s now called), asked me if I would be interested in helping to start a new black film film festival, though I don’t think anyone at the time realized that it would continue for another two and half decades. I sure didn’t

DJF: Why didn’t you think it would still be around in 2019?

SM: Well, many film festivals come and go and you never know. But due to the dedication of those who put it together and the filmmakers and of course the audiences it kept going every year. Yes during the first few years it was shaky or iffy just getting people to know we existed but now it’s without question the biggest and most important black film festivals not only in the U.S. but the world. Our audience amazingly gets bigger every year and now filmmakers come to us. We started out as a two week festival and now it’s a month long We don’t have to reach out to them much, though we still do. The festival is primarily put together by submissions and solicitations.

DJF: And since 1994, this has been your baby? Are you the sole curator?

SM: No, I’m not. There are more of us who do the programming (and yes we do disagree about films sometimes), but for me it is a year-long thing. I’m always looking for possible films…like, looking at what’s playing at Toronto in September. Anything we can show. I’m already thinking about possibilities for next year.

DJF: Let’s take this year’s festival…how early did you start scouting films and courting filmmakers?

SM: It’s just like last year. There was a documentary I read about which I had to get for the festival. I spent a year in contact with the producers and we did get it. However, when it got picked up by a distributor, they pulled the film because of music clearance rights. I was bummed out, but it happens. At least the Chicago International Film Festival isn’t getting it either.

 

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Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” turns 25!

 

DJF: With this being the 25th anniversary of the festival, are you approaching it any differently than past years?

SM: Well, we wanted to be the biggest yet and I think we’ve mainly succeeded. Of course, I can’t help thinking about the one that slipped away but that the nature of the game. This year we went for the broadest range of films that we could find. I think we have some outstanding choices, including closing night with “Crooklyn” for the 25th anniversary screening (We’ve been doing anniversary screenings now for the past four years) with actress/screenwriter Joie Lee and lead actress Zelda Harris in person, which will be one of highlights of the festival’s history.

DJF: That’s exciting! What kind of diversity do you typically aim for when you’re programming? Are there themes that you’re going for, is it a “something for everyone” approach or is it just s matter of what films you can get?

SM: Well yeah, our films are for everyone (though there are a few which are adult in nature like this year’s “Thee Debauchery Ball” doc) but on the whole we don’t look for themes per se. There have been years in the past when filmmakers would submit films that had similar themes and subject matters and even then we would pick the best of that lot.

DJF: Do you recall what year you began to really pick up with submissions, to the point where you realized the festival was becoming a huge thing?

SM: Oh brother! I think about ten years ago we began to notice the changes and than I would say in the last five or six years it really began to kick into high gear.

DJF: That’s got to be a great feeling!

SM: It was a while coming!

DJF: Has there always been a concerted effort to include local Chicago filmmakers?

SM: Oh yes! You can’t do a Chicago film festival without local film. And besides, the history of independent black filmmaking in Chicago goes back to the silent era.

 

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David Weathersby’s documentary “Thee Debauchery Ball”, looks at Chicago’s bold and innovative house music scene.

 

 

DJF: With 40 something films in the festival you obviously haven’t seen them all, but which films are you personally looking forward to seeing?

SM: Yeah, I have to see them all expect for “Premature” since that’s a sneak preview. But I would recommend that film and “Jezebel”, as well as “Thee Debauchery Ball”, “D’Angelo Devil’s Pie”, “American as Bean Pie”, “Always in Season” and “Crooklyn” (of course) “Fatuma” and “While I Breathe,  I Hope”.

DJF: What percentage of screenings are followed by a Q&A?

SM: I would say 98%!

DJF: That’s impressive! Are you basically going to be living at the Siskel Film Center in August? Is there a comfy couch you crash on?

SM: At one time, I practically had to but not any more. We have a Black Harvest Community Council and many of the members love to do the the Q&As that follow screenings. A couple outside people will also do a few Q&As, so I don’t actually have to be there nearly as much as I used to. I can now pick and choose what days I want to be there.

DJF: I’m sure that helps. In the past 25 years, what would you say are the biggest differences in how black cinema is received by viewers?

SM: More demanding. It used to be we’d support anything as long as it’s black. That was due to the fact that there was so little out there and you were grateful for anything. It’s different now. There’s a lot of competition. Now you better come with it.

DJF: Interesting! Sergio, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat about the festival during an important year. I’ll definitely be making my way to check out my some films! 

SM: Sure thing.

 

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For more information on the festival, a full festival line-up and purchase tickets, visit the official Siskel Center site.

The Black Harvest Film Festival is supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the Illinois Arts Council Agency; and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

 

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