ONCE WORD spread that legendary actress Pam Grier—the star of films such as Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown—was coming to the Portland Black Film Festival for a Q&A and a screening of her 1973 blaxploitation landmark Coffy, tickets for that showing sold like hot buttered biscuits. What a wonderful “Happy Black History Month” gift to us from David F. Walker, the festival’s curator.
“The first show was already sold out. We had to add a second show,” Walker says. “I’ve met so many people over the years whose work has inspired and entertained me, but [Pam]’s one of the few that I’ve never met. And just the opportunity to have a conversation with her, and the challenge of not becoming a total geek [or] total fanboy while we’re on stage together is... that in and of itself is, ‘Hey, that’s a challenge worth taking! Let’s see if I can do that!’”
Even if you’re not one of the lucky individuals who will get to bask in Grier’s glorious presence, there are still A LOT of great films you should see this month. “The one I think I want everyone in the world to see is I Am Not Your Negro, which is Raoul Peck’s film about James Baldwin,” Walker says, citing Baldwin as one of his favorite writers.
As busy as Walker is with writing comics for Marvel, teaching classes at Portland State, working on a book, and crafting a spec TV pilot, he still finds time to curate the festival, which he’s been involved with since it began five years ago.
As for this year’s offerings, Walker says Yoruba Richen’s The New Black (which examines how the black community grapples with the gay marriage movement), and Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise are the ones he most wants to share. If those sell out, Soul on Ice could be the most interesting hockey movie since D3: The Mighty Ducks—it’s about black hockey player Jaden Lindo, chasing a dream of playing in the NHL.
Alternately, if you’re in the mood for something joyous, I recommend getting an appropriate level of stoned and snatching some tickets to Soul Train Express—a program that promises classic Soul Train performances from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Ike and Tina Turner—or the Prince-directed 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times.
If there’s anything positive to say about 2016, it’s that the year marked a plethora of diverse, dignified, hilarious, and just too-damn-good black TV and filmmaking. From Shonda Rhimes’ takeover of ABC with her Grey’s Anatomy/Scandal/How to Get Away with Murder marathon, to Ava DuVernay’s punch-you-in-the-gut-fantastic Netflix documentary 13th; and from Donald Glover’s Atlanta to Issa Rae’s Insecure to the true story of unsung NASA sheroes in Hidden Figures, the list goes on to the extent that it’s challenging to keep up with all these stories—in a good way!
But while Walker is ecstatic about Oscar-nominated films from black directors, like Denzel Washington’s Fences and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, he has no plans to watch the awards show.
“I have no vested interest in the Oscars,” he says. “In the broad scheme of things, they don’t mean much, other than they are artificial indicators of progress.”
The Portland Black Film Festival, on the other hand, provides actual opportunities to increase your knowledge of black history and artistry. In addition to hosting discussions after each screening, Walker is scheduled for an infotaining lecture, “Black Images Matter,” in which he’ll use film clips to examine depictions of African Americans onscreen.
Here in the country’s whitest metropolis, I hope black folk aren’t the only ones who’ll come out to these events and actively listen to these voices during Black History Month. After all, black history is American history, and now is a great time to brush up.
“Don’t be afraid of movies that might actually engage you,” Walker says. “We have been emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually damaged and injured, especially in the last several months. Here’s an opportunity to start healing ourselves.”