For cinema that represents the black diaspora, look no further than the Black Harvest Film Festival. This annual event, now in its 25thyear, has earned its prominence as a platform to showcase the talent of not only Chicago-born filmmakers, directors and actors, but for artists around the world.
Here, Sergio Mims, the festival’s co-founder, talks about the festival and why it is one of the ultimate celebrations for cinephiles everywhere.
Chicago Defender: This year marks the silver anniversary of one of Chicago’s premier cultural festivals; what has the journey been like?
Sergio Mims: When we started Black Harvest, I don’t think we really had an idea where it was going. We thought, “Yeah, maybe it is a good idea that could work or maybe it wouldn’t,” but it was something that was definitely needed. And, like any film festival or major cultural project, it was rough at the beginning. There were struggles and sometimes there were even doubts, but we continued with everybody involved and of course, with the filmmakers who believed in us from the very beginning.
CD: How would you say the festival has influenced Chicago’s arts community overall?
SM: Chicago has always been a diverse city and the festival is simply a reflection of that. For the last several years, the Chicago [International] Film Festival has had a black perspective within its movie selection; sure, it’s a big film festival but up until maybe 10 or so years ago, you really didn’t see a whole lot of black cinema played at that festival. They’ve seen the kind of influence we’ve had so they had to get on board.
CD: Over the years, the city has seen a rise in other film festivals, too, which also shows Black Harvest’s reach.
SM: Absolutely. The Black Harvest influence is in other black film festivals like the Chicago South Side Film Festival, the Englewood Film Festival and others. Of course, I don’t want to say it is totally because of us, but clearly, we had an influence. I don’t think anyone can deny that if you’ve been around for 25 years, you definitely have an influence.
CD: Many of the festival’s films were either shot here, directed by a Chicagoan or feature local actors in the roles. Talk about the festival’s support of homegrown talent.
SM: It is something we have always done. Chicago has always had a history of black independent filmmaking, even going back to Oscar Micheaux, who started his film company here. It’s impossible to do a festival in Chicago and not reflect Chicago talent because to do so would look bad for us.
CD: The Black Harvest Film Festival is known for highlighting the diversity of the African-American experience. Why is it important toremain consistent in this regard?
SM: Worldwide, the African-American and the black experience is diverse. It’s not just one thing. You cannot say only one movie defines the black experience because that’s impossible. Do they say that about white movies?
CD: Can you tell us about a film that will screen at this year’s festival that you feel really reflects a diverse perspective?
SM: We’ll be showing a documentary called “Thee Debauchery Ball,” which is about a covert, underground house music party that takes place twice a year at a secret location in Chicago. While it is in fact about a house party, it’s also about people who are into alternative behaviors. We’re showing this documentary because it’s a good film, it’s locally made and it’s yet another aspect of the black experience.
CD: Another example of diversity comes via “American as Bean Pie,”which is the story of Chicago Southsider Liz Toussaint’s journey as a country artist. Can you tell us a bit about this film?
SM: This is also a locally made documentary. It is about a black female Muslim who is a country singer from Englewood. I mean, how can you not show this picture? Once again, that shows the diversity and the complexity of black people.
CD: While Black Harvest has truly always had something for everyone, is there anything you would like to see more of in the festival?
SM: I’d like to see more science fiction, more animation and even a musical, but more than that, can somebody please make a black western? I mean, enough with the rom-coms!
CD: Regarding the evolution of the Black Harvest Film Festival, what makes you the most proud?
SM: I’m proud that it has been around for so long which is a testament to the hard work it takes to put it together. We are fulfilling a need; people want us to keep going, they want to see these pictures and they want to be entertained and inspired. That is what I’m most proud of.
The Black Harvest Film Festival runs August 3-29; for the full lineup visit BHFF25.
LaShawn Williams is a lifelong Chicagoan and arts and entertainment enthusiast.