Movie Paying homage to Black women in film

Movie Paying homage to Black women in film

The first ever Black women’s film festival in 1976 was a celebration of culture and art with live performances and lectures on change. It showed new work by Black women filmmakers while also showcasing essential discussions about the art’s future.

The group of Black women artists and activists was composed of filmmaker Monica Freeman, poet Patricia Spears Jones, writer Margo Jefferson, artist Faith Ringgold, and Ringgold’s daughter, author Michele Wallace.

Now that festival, the Sojourner Truth Festival of the Arts, is back as a film series and symposium that pays tribute to the original event. The programming is in conjunction with a University of Chicago course titled “Creating a Different Image: Black Women’s Filmmaking of the 1970s-90s,” taught by professor Allyson Nadia Field, and is part of the department of cinema and media studies “Open Classroom” initiative.

“In the past, classes that are ‘open classroom’ courses have one or two screenings that we invite the public into, and the students are involved in that,” Field says. “It just means that they’re on the public program . . . and it’s a way of kind of inviting the audience into our classes.”

But this time, Field’s classroom is even more open. All nine screenings, which occur through March 2, are free to the public, allowing the festival to pay homage to Black women in film while extending the colearning experience outside of the boundaries of a traditional classroom.

“This is unprecedented; this is the first time we’re doing the entire course as public engagement,” Field says. “And what’s neat about that is a lot of the material on the program is rarely screened. Some of it we had to make access copies for, [or] it was sourced from various archives, and so it’s an opportunity for the public to see material that’s not widely screened.”

One of those rarely-screened films is Pearl Bowser’s The Guest.

“It’s part of the Pearl Bowser collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Field says. “And Pearl Bowser is best known as a film curator, collector, and archivist. She also made documentary films, and she’s a historian, so she’s partly responsible for the first wave of scholarship on Oscar Micheaux and early Black filmmaking.”

Unlike Bowser’s historical works, The Guest is a five-minute fiction horror that screened during the series’s first week, showing the breadth of her ability.

“What we wanted to emphasize with the programming is the real range of work and the impact and power of what these women were trying to do in telling Black women’s stories,” Field says.

In addition to Field, the 2023 festival is co-organized by Monica Freeman, who co-organized the 1976 festival; Yvonne Welbon, CEO of the nonprofit Sisters in Cinema; Michael W. Phillips Jr., founder and director of South Side Projections; and University of Iowa professor Hayley O’Malley.

O’Malley, who was researching the original festival, found a program from 1976 in special collections at Northwestern University. As she started to look for organizers and participants from that time, she connected with other co-organizers, and together they created the idea for a way to honor that festival with new programming.

“The process of putting together a 2023 festival has been a highly collective and collaborative endeavor,” she says.

Along with weekly film screenings, the festival culminates with a two-day symposium on March 3-4, where Michele Wallace—another co-organizer of the original festival—will give the keynote address. O’Malley says she hopes attendees can see just how expansive the history of Black feminist media really is.

“There’s a much longer history of Black feminist media,” she says. “And so hopefully, by bringing together filmmakers, writers, curators, programmers for this gathering, for the symposium in 2023, we can celebrate that history and also start thinking not only about what Black women’s filmmaking was in the past and what it is now but what it can be in the future.”

The Sojourner Truth Festival of the Arts 2023 and “Creating a Different Image: Black Women’s Filmmaking of the 1970s-90s”
Through 3/4, free,

All events are held on the University of Chicago campus, and the university has also created additional community events surrounding the film screenings. On February 9 and 16, for example, the university’s Arts + Public Life and Logan Center Community Engagement teams will host happy hours with drinks and appetizers before the film screenings. Sabrina Craig, assistant director of external engagement at UChicago Arts, says these events are meant to encourage people outside of the university to participate. Attendees are then shuttled to screenings.

“Our goal was to create a friendly, low-key ‘field trip’ experience for people who don’t regularly attend university events but who might enjoy going with a group,” she explains.

Each week, the screenings have a theme, such as “A Sense of Place,” “Adaptation and Beyond,” “Family Stories,” and “Interior Lives”—themes that resonate with the human experience.

“I think that this just is really about sharing this work and making it clear to audiences that there’s something here for everyone to appreciate and to understand,” Field says.

Co-organizer Yvonne Welbon explains how special the opportunity is to pay homage to women like filmmaker Madeline Anderson, who was the recipient of a Woman of the Year Award at the original festival in 1976. She believes people will be inspired by what they see.

“She was definitely one of the early folks out there making films in the 50s,” she says. “She really decided, instead of writing a book, to make a film about her life. That’s inspiring. It’s never too late. You can always, always, always work. So we’re going to be seeing a lot of older women who are [still working in film]. I don’t think many people would think about a 95-year-old Black woman making the movie, but that she is.”

And as a filmmaker herself, Welbon knows that inspiration can be for creatives in film, too.

“I know we showed my film [on January 12], The Cinematic Jazz with Julie Dash, and I realized I hadn’t seen it in decades because it’s from the 90s,” she says. “Some of us haven’t even seen our own work in a long time. . . . It’s inspiring for us, not just for audiences but for the filmmakers, too.”