BlackStar Projects Is Building A Legacy In Philadelphia And Film

BlackStar Projects Is Building A Legacy In Philadelphia And Film

Founded in 2012, the festival is a space for Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists to showcase films that are not always welcome in the mainstream.

Written by Shantay Robinson

Philadelphia is increasingly becoming known as the home of the BlackStar Film Festival, a sacred space for filmmakers. Founded in 2012, the festival is a space for Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists to showcase films that are not always welcome in the mainstream. The title of the film festival was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s shipping line, Black Star Line, which was intended to transport goods and eventually people throughout the African diaspora, a key component of Garvey’s Back to Africa movement. BlackStar Film Festival began with a focus on Black film and filmmakers being given the opportunity for experimentation and communion, but the festival has pivoted from focusing solely on the movies of Black people to presenting the work of the world’s global majority. 

Like most leaders, including filmmaker, writer, and curator Maori Karmael Holmes, who serves as the chief executive and artistic director, pivoting in troubling times is essential. Holmes grew the BlackStar Film Festival from a one-off event in August into a yearlong organization supporting non-mainstream artists’ work to a global audience. 

As a graduate student at Temple University, Holmes studied documentary filmmaking. Though she majored in history, focusing on film and music, during her undergraduate studies at American University, she was always thinking about documentary films. She’d always been surrounded by the arts, performing with a theatre company while in high school in Atlanta and having a mother who works in theatre. Her trajectory was not a straight line, but, to her, it was also not circuitous. These experiences have led her to the work she’s doing right now.

After graduate school, Holmes began working with the neo-soul music duo Jazzyfatnastees on the Black Lily Film and Music Festival, becoming enmeshed in the city’s arts and culture scene. It wasn’t until she left the Philadelphia area for a stint at another graduate program that she ultimately discovered the calling that is the BlackStar Film Festival. Upon her return to Philadelphia, she started curating an art social justice film series, which indirectly turned into the BlackStar Film Festival. She had some dates reserved at a space for August, so she decided to do something for Black August and the African Diaspora.

The festival has been a revered space for filmmakers and film lovers. The now global festival recognizes filmmakers often overlooked in the mainstream and confined to genre conventions that don’t align with their visions. Part of its mission statement reads: “We prioritize visionary work that is experimental in its aesthetics, content, and form and builds on the work of elders and ancestors to imagine a new world.”

There is something sacred about the festival. Holmes says, “The number one thing I hear from attendees is that it feels like a family reunion. And I think what people mean by this is that a lot of the same people come every year, and they are casual. And they’re comfortable.”

In the BlackStar Film Festival space, artists get to revel in their artistic abilities, whereas in other spaces, they are required to talk about race. At BlackStar, “One of the things that we’re really trying to do is push for,” Holmes says, “I think oftentimes, artists of color are forced to only talk about or deal with representation. And they don’t get to talk about craft, and they don’t get to think about what it actually means to practice. And I think Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists specifically have such deep, intuitive, ancestral knowledge about making art and making a life that has not been seen.” 

BlackStar Film Festival is committed to giving space for those experiments. At the festival, filmmakers are not only able to present their films but also learn about filmmaking craft and techniques from other filmmakers. But the festival is not only for filmmakers; film lovers also have the opportunity to view films by avant-garde filmmakers. Films by Ava DuVernay, Terence Nance, and Gabourey Sidibe have screened there with panels including luminaries like Spike Lee and Tarana Burke.

The festival is now a global event. The submissions for film screenings have always been accepted from artists worldwide, but with the pandemic, like most organizations, the festival had to pivot online. “It was really an amazing moment to connect globally to so many new audiences because the filmmakers have been coming from all over the globe to begin with,” Holmes says. Though the entire festival was online during the pandemic, this year, only the short film programming will be available online. And the panel discussions are usually recorded and uploaded to YouTube. But for anyone who cannot travel to Philadelphia for the festival, it still provides a glimpse at what Black, Brown, and Indigenous filmmakers are creating.

A thriving film festival is not easy to accomplish. To be sustainable, the festival has grown into a year-round organization called BlackStar Projects. The projects available to a global audience year-round are Seen, a journal of film and visual culture; Many Lumens, a podcast featuring Maori Karmeal Holmes and celebrated Black artists; William + Louise Greaves Seminar, which will take place at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; and Philadelphia Filmmaker Lab, a year-long fellowship for filmmakers in Philadelphia. 

“Our projects are hoping to amplify their work, amplify their voices,” Holmes says. “So, people are getting to talk about their craft, and they’re getting to talk about their journey, and talk about their work or have their work critiqued by their community, which doesn’t happen often.”

In 2023, BlackStar Projects hosted its first Luminary Gala honoring Black, Brown, and Indigenous luminaries in art, film, and creative culture. It’s a fundraising event but also raises awareness of those making significant contributions to culture. “The gala emerged this year as an opportunity now that we have this full-time organization and just trying to think of ways to raise money and raise visibility, and we wanted to have an opportunity to honor more than just one person.” The Luminary Awards started in 2013 with an award granted to the Howard University Film Program. It has gone on to honor RZA, Julie Dash, Ava DuVernay, and others. 

The reason that BlackStar is successful is because Holmes and her team have the opportunity to be creative with experimentation. She says, “There are a lot of really creative and smart people who live here. And so, they became our staff. So, I think Philly has been nurturing in that way that there are so many amazing people.” But under Holmes’ leadership, audiences get to see that film is more than Hollywood. It’s also for other kinds of spaces and purposes aside from solely monetary reward. “To be honest, it’s the way I’m wired. I have been someone really engaged in trying to make the world a more just place for a very long time,” Holmes says. 

BlackStar Projects just wrapped up its fourth year of full-time work. Moving forward, the organization plans to continue refining its programming and finding new ways to make it sustainable. 

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