By Christina Johnson
When I arrived to the Denton Black Film Festival’s opening film, I Am Not Your Negro, last Thursday night, hundreds of people stood in line with great anticipation to see the film that had been nominated for Best Documentary Oscar only one day prior. Following the film, I asked attendees what they thought; my inquiries were met with a deep breath and an average response of “that’s going to take days to sink in” and “I want to see more.” I knew exactly how they felt: my heart was heavy, and I felt weighed down with ignorance, humility, and grief. Ultimately, I was filled with hope, and I wanted to keep learning, watching, and listening. I Am Not Your Negro was only the beginning of what was to be a timely, successful festival that impacted the lives of many here in Lil’ D. Read on for more of our thoughts on last week's Denton Black Film Festival.
History is relevant, and often repeats itself
I Am Not Your Negro was undoubtedly one of the most powerful documentaries we have seen in a long time, perhaps most of all due to its relevancy to our current societal issues. It’s no secret that racial tensions have run high in our country for the last several years, and we see movements and commentary about it everywhere we look. The irony, and the power, behind this film was that the only words spoken were from James Baldwin himself, who died in 1987. Interviews and the reading of Baldwin’s memoir, performed by Samuel L. Jackson, were interwoven with archival footage of civil rights protests, dozens of movie clips that portrayed racism and discrimination, and more recent footage of police brutality and racial tension within America. Baldwin was known for his eloquent and authentic approach to the issues surrounding racial injustice, and this film served as a call for viewers to truly face history and examine their hearts for the purpose of change in our country. The weight of this call was palpable; attendees from all races and backgrounds wept throughout the film as they watched real footage of both our history and our present day reality side-by-side, layered underneath the prophetic words of Baldwin. Denton was fortunate to be the site of the Texas Premiere of I Am Not Your Negro, which will be released in Angelika film theaters starting February 2nd.
Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith, follows the trials of a Detroit judge who sat on the federal bench for 45 years. Nearly from the beginning, Judge Keith presided over four court cases that would each lead to national change. One notable case was his battle against racial discrimination and busing in Pontiac schools (Davis v. School District of Pontiac), which happened to take place only a year-and-a-half after he started as a judge. Judge Keith ruled for desegregation, sparking both a local and national debate and earning a place on the front page of papers around the country. From the local battle for desegregation that ensued in Detroit, a campaign for desegregated schools and busing caught on throughout the country. Judge Keith bravely fought for civil rights on the local level and launched the nation into one of many fights for equality, all the while shielding both himself and his family from death threats. Walk With Me followed him through all four notable cases while also profiling his personal and professional life; it contained footage and interviews from Judge Keith, his family, prosecutors, and those affected by the outcomes of his trials. The film encouraged viewers of the power of local politics: from civil rights, to taking a stand for the constitution, and for standing up for those who feel they have no voice. Judge Keith, who currently presides on the second highest federal court at age 93, encouraged viewers to fight for change and for what they believe in, and stated that “one person can change the world”, if they are willing to fight with all they have.
Education is a Powerful Tool
The power and influence of education proved to be essential themes throughout DBFF, both in respect to the acknowledgement of history and the educational system itself. Word Warriors III, a documentary focused on the violence, crime, and poverty that many younger black men face, addressed the power of education in teaching those young men to use their words to deal with their adversities rather than falling into the systemic cycle of violence they often find themselves faced with. The film addressed the influence of educators as mentors, and the roles that reading and writing can play in assisting young men as they struggle through difficult situations such as poverty, loss of a father figure, or the surrounding gang culture. The writers and directors spoke briefly at a Social Justice Panel following the viewing, emphasizing the roles of mentors, educators, and the arts as effective tools in motivating young men to fight their way out of the systemic issues. When we reflected on all that we had taken in at DBFF so far, it was evident that education was at the root of it all: Baldwin turned to poetry and writing to educate the minds of those who sought to learn more; Judge Keith’s education and efforts in the criminal justice system impacted the entire nation; all of the men interviewed in Word Warriors III turned to poetry, which in turn educated the public of adversities they face on a regular basis. DBFF also educated Denton citizens through the power of film and words while also introducing hope.
Hope exists in the midst of adversity...and Denton is full of it. The Denton Black Film Festival was full of information, inspiration, and encouragement; perhaps the most encouraging aspect came in the form of hope. The population of Denton came out in full-force to support the DBFF this year, including our mayor, those on city council, local teachers, pastors, professors, students, and business owners. The attendance of this year’s festival were nearly double that of last year, and at every showing we attended we overheard people saying that they wanted to come back for more. Lines were wrapped around buildings, several films were sold out, and the square was packed with people attending the festival all weekend long. Denton has proven time and time again that they care about issues, education, and people. It was deeply encouraging to look around the theaters and see so many people weeping for both past and present injustices that take place in our country. Education leads to change, and the people of Denton have a passion for information and action are a hopeful step in the right direction, even when things may seem grim. We were encouraged by all that this year’s festival had to offer, and we are already looking forward to next year!