D.C. Black History Film Fest Offers Voice for Change

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Actor Lamman Rucker returned to his hometown Feb. 26 as an ambassador of sorts, using his star power to promote the 2017 D.C. Black History Film Festival, an event he sees as a vehicle for social change.

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Actor Lamman Rucker said he promoted the Black History Film Festival in D.C. in an effort to bring about change. (Courtesy photo)

The free festival had been in Atlanta since 2010, and debuted in the District last year. Sunday’s festival featured 13 films directed by Africans and Black Americans, some with local ties.  The movies targeted several topics, including immigration, food deserts, gentrification, Woolworth’s sit-ins and the impact “ghetto names” have on the people who own them.

The 45-year-old actor grew up in Southeast D.C., graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and knows Mayor Muriel Bowser from his college years in Pittsburgh. Rucker now stars in “Greenleaf,” a mega-church drama airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He sees the arts as a natural outlet for people to express themselves and was delighted to jump on the festival’s bandwagon.

“When things need change, when things need to be done, when the community is speaking, when people are speaking, they speak through art,” Rucker said. “They speak through protests, they speak through all of the things that we don’t really have to ask permission to do, because it’s who we are and it’s inside of us.”

Marvin Arrington, a county commissioner in Fulton County, Ga. founded the film festival and asked Rucker to help him promote it in the District and Atlanta, since Rucker has ties to both areas — “Greenleaf” is shot in Atlanta.

Arrington created the film festival to help the next generation learn about Black history while empowering them to build on that legacy. He hopes to add Chicago and Oakland to the roster next year.

“Now we’ve got to really take our future in our own hands,” Arrington said. “We just had Obama and a lot of inspiration and a lot of hope and now, people kind of feel the opposite of that. And so, this kind of gives us the chance to take it and put it in our own hands.”

More than 1,000 people reserved tickets for the festival, held this year at the historic Lincoln Theatre. When the festival originally hit the District in 2016, it premiered at Busboys and Poets, a much smaller venue, and attracted just 100 people, Arrington said. Rahman Branch, executive director of the District’s Office on African-American Affairs, secured the theater this year, capitalizing on the buzz the festival generated.

“One of the things that the mayor’s Office on African-American Affairs is committed to doing is, one, addressing a lot of the issues that do plague our community in D.C.,” Branch said. “But the second thing is definitely to celebrate our excellence.”

The films, varying in length from four to 90 minutes, tackled several issues through a local lens.

“Brick by Brick” by Shirikiana Aina Gerima follows Black neighborhoods in the District that started gentrifying in the 1970s.

“Breakfast at Ben’s” by Chuck Wilson was set at the fabled Ben’s Chili Bowl and told the story of a man who escaped from poverty to become a NASA engineer, seeking to aid others in need.

Two students from Howard University were represented as well.

Alexa Imani directed “Loose Chains,” a movie that focused on life at the historic school during today’s socio-political climate.

Meanwhile, Macey Nicole Williams directed “Wild and Blue,” a cautionary tale about a female Howard student who suffers the consequences of falling in with a hard-partying crowd.

Williams, a Baltimore native and a junior at the school, said the film, her first one ever, is loosely based on the experience she and her friends had when they indulged in the campus party scene.

“We were really living real dangerously. I looked around and said, ‘This is not okay and I just want to speak on it,’” Williams said, adding that she was excited, yet nervous about debuting her movie in such a large venue.

Attendee Teddi Lowery of Landover, Md., said he was appreciative that the festival exposed her to different elements of Black life in Morocco. For example, the non-fiction, short film “Amchakab” followed a female journalist’s quest to travel on camel back through Morocco. Another Moroccan film, “Hidden on a Dune,” showed a girl surfing in the desert.

Given that the media often depicts women in the Islamic world as being oppressed, the films highlighting independent women were a breath of fresh air, Lowery said. She’s thankful the festival’s film directors took a risk in opening their movies to public scrutiny.

“It takes a lot of guts to put your work and your ideas in front of a lot of critics,” Lowery said.