Stage & Screen

The Future of Black History

Black World Cinema celebrates Black History Month in Chatham

Courtesy Floyd Webb

As Syanna, a young slave from Martinique, comes face-to-face with her colonial captors, she conjures a golden cadre of cat-women out of thin air. The ensuing battle took place in a virtual world in the animated future, but also appeared projected on a screen in Chatham this February. It was the climactic scene of Battledream Chronicle, an independently produced animated epic, and the screening was the third of four in a weekly series presented by Black World Cinema in honor of Black History Month. Floyd Webb, co-founder of Black World Cinema, describes the series—titled Black Future Month—as a set of weekly explorations in Afrofuturism, which he poetically defined during one screening as “imagination amplified to the point at which it impinges on reality.”

When Webb, on the last night of the series, asked audience members what their favorite of the month had been, a few voices nominated Crumbs, Miguel Llansó’s journey through a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia populated by pop-culture memorabilia, second-generation Nazis, and an encounter with Santa Claus himself. The rest of the audience nodded in agreement. “Did that one stick with you?” asked Webb. “That’s how you know it’s good. Unlike the new Star Wars for example. Twenty minutes out, that movie was gone from my mind.”

Webb made a concerted effort to make the series memorable, curating an eclectic selection that ranged from a self-proclaimed “African Purple Rain Remix” (Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in It), to a documentary championing the tech boom in Nairobi (My Africa Is: Alternative Nairobi), to the meditation on video games and decolonization that is Battledream Chronicle. The subject material and genre varied, but the films were all independently produced, largely international in origin, and representative of a sense of possibility and invention that Webb aims to prove is still alive and well on the margins of the film industry.

Webb was raised in Chicago on a steady diet of art house and international cinema (he points to Japanese film as particularly influential) and spent his adult life traversing the Atlantic as a photojournalist and cultivating a resume that includes founding Blacklight Film Festival (which took place at the film center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1982 through the mid-nineties) and working as an associate producer on Julie Dash’s seminal Daughters of the Dust before co-founding Black World Cinema in 2005. He identifies his influences as “more Tarkovsky and Fellini than Lucas and Spielberg.” He likes the realism and grit of European film. “That flashy stuff does it for some people, but not for me.”

Webb prides himself on being a lifelong fixture of the film industry who has never worked in Hollywood, which he frequently jokes should be referred to as “Hollywon’t” or “Hollycan’t.” His film industry origin story, as he tells it, is a conversation he had at nineteen during a visit to Los Angeles. Webb spoke with a film editor who worked on the Academy Award-winning Midnight Cowboy, who ominously warned, “If you’re here, you better have a plan to get out.” The editor said that he planned to return to his home in Trinidad and start a film school instead of continuing to struggle with the racial tensions in Hollywood. Webb took the advice to heart and moved to Europe a few weeks later. To this day, Webb has little patience for the glacial pace of what passes for progress in mainstream cinema. He was unimpressed with the latest Star Wars film and the attention it received for its inclusion of a black protagonist.

“The brother wasn’t even a Jedi! As a matter of fact, he was a janitor. Out of all the jobs in the military. How come he couldn’t be a guard?” Webb commented.

“They were trying to be realistic!” a voice from the audience interjected.

Webb laughed. “Light years away, they still got that glass ceiling. Another entry within the annals of white supremacy in Hollywood.”
Unsurprisingly, none of the films in the series were products of the industrial movie mill of southern California. The films hailed from abroad, with the notable exception of 1993 science fiction thriller The Gifted, directed and written by Audrey King Lewis. After screening the film, Webb called Lewis on speakerphone and chatted in front of the audience. Lewis worked on sets in Hollywood in the late eighties, a time and place where she notes that it “was not popular to be a black woman.” With the knowledge and connections she had gained from her years in Hollywood, money she had saved, and a plotline which came to her in a series of visions, Lewis undertook the independent creation of The Gifted. The result of her efforts is a carefully plotted and surprisingly well-acted low-budget sci-fi horror movie based on the secret of the Dogon people, a tribe in Mali which purportedly possesses uncannily accurate astronomical knowledge.

Lewis is an early exemplar of the do-it-yourself ethos that Webb championed in this series. Battledream Chronicle is a richly animated on a minuscule budget, with a single creator’s name listed under half the credits. My Africa Is: Alternative Nairobi celebrates the technological ingenuity of a generation of Kenyans, such as one engineer who builds drones completely out of recycled parts in an attempt to solve the country’s poaching problem.

“People see that it’s time to stop waiting on someone else to do it for them,” Webb responded when asked about the current state of the film industry. “That’s the most exciting thing to me. And that people have access to technology.”

“If you really love film, you’ll be making films on your phone. If you love the form, then you’ll do a lot.”

Black World Cinema was co-founded by Floyd Webb and Alisa Starks in 2005. Regular screenings take place on the first Thursday of every month in Chatham, showcasing “seldom seen classic features and new films from around the world” with “compelling content and a human dimension seldom present in mainstream cinema.” Screenings take place at Chatham 14 Theaters, 210 W. 87th St. $6. blackworldcinema.net 

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