"A LOT OF THIS is about having a good time," says Portland filmmaker and writer David Walker, who, in collaboration with the Hollywood Theatre, co-founded the Portland Black Film Festival in 2013. In a cultural landscape that's often embarrassingly normative when it comes to representation from filmmakers who aren't aging white men, a festival like this one—spotlighting work from African American filmmakers—is especially important. And by the sound of it, it's also really fucking fun.
"A lot of festivals will like try to show 30 or 40 movies, and we're like, let's try to get five or six movies that are fun to watch," says Walker. One of the aims in curating the festival, he says, is selecting under-seen films that he wants to watch himself. "We've had the opportunity to show some films," Walker says, "that don't get shown on the big screen that often."
This year includes obscurities like Catch My Soul (AKA Santa Fe Satan), a 1974 rock-opera adaptation of Othello shot in the desert of New Mexico, with Othello reimagined as the peaceful leader of a hippie commune. Walker counts Othello among his favorite Shakespeare plays, but he hasn't seen Catch My Soul yet. That's because the 35mm print that will screen at the Hollywood for the festival is the only known copy, and it required a bizarre stroke of luck for Walker and the Hollywood's programmer, Dan Halsted, to track it down at all (it just happened to be screened at a festival in New Mexico). "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's gonna be awesome," says Walker.
There's a 35mm theme to much of this year's programming, thanks to what Walker calls the "rather eclectic and eccentric world of film collectors." The festival will feature 35mm prints of Buck and the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte as an unlikely duo leading former slaves westward (Walker calls it "a precursor to Django Unchained"); Black Caesar, which boasts a James Brown soundtrack and stars actor Fred Williamson (who will also be at the screening); and Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary, which has elements of classic prison exploitation films, but is revolutionary in a way most exploitation films aren't.
If you see Penitentiary (and you should), consider pairing it with the festival's screening of Zeinabu Irene Davis' Spirits of Rebellion, a documentary about the filmmakers of color who emerged from UCLA's film studies program in the '60s and '70s. By making films intended for their own communities, the LA Rebellion created a cinematic narrative that ran directly counter to the one sold by Hollywood's limiting—if not outright racist—storytelling. Penitentiary is one of those films.
Making those films is one thing. Getting them in front of an audience on the biggest screen possible is another, and Walker's interested in creating space for a more diverse audience than Portland theaters often get. When I ask him if he feels like he's met that goal, he says it depends year to year, and can be "kind of a crapshoot." He gives me a case study in the form of Straight Outta Compton: When that film opened last summer, says Walker, theaters were full—but audiences were still predominantly white.