For 27 years, the Black Harvest Film Festival privileged Chicago with a panoramic view of the Black experience. Opening on November 5 with the vehicle Will Smith, King Richard, and closes December 2 with a screening of Spike Lee’s 30th anniversary Jungle fever, the series featured 28 feature films and five short film programs that spanned the gamut of styles, genres and approaches. I would challenge anyone interested in cinema not to find something appealing about this programming. For this viewer, the historic offerings were the most attractive this time around.
Part of a multi-film tribute to mathematician Gordon Parks, probably best known as the director of Tree, 2K sound restoration Moments without proper names (1987) is a loving slideshow of the greatest hits. Narrated by Parks and the trio of actors Avery Brooks, Roscoe Lee Browne and Joe Seneca, the film is a testament to the tumultuous moments the artist has witnessed and documented. As Parks asserts at the outset, this is not a linear biographical narrative, but rather a series of fragments of memory. For those unfamiliar with Parks’ work, this hour-long immersion in a long and varied creative career can be a good entry point.
Director Ryan Polomski and a series of friends, family and admirers are working powerfully to bring the subject of the 2021 documentary to life Raymond Lewis: THE Legend in the tradition of Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and Colin Kaepernick, for his sacrifices in favor of athlete rights. Unlike those trailblazers, however, while Lewis’ talent is unmistakably on display in the many archival reels included, his motives and thoughts for holding and refusing to honor a succession of bad NBA contracts are unclear. There is no doubt that Lewis was treated terribly and much of that treatment was due to systematic racism, but without talks with the man himself – Lewis died young, although the cause remains unclear, as so many others in this film are – the viewer is left with a series of memories and speculations of friends and admirers, which, while sincere, are seldom illuminating.
Traci A. Curry and Stanley Nelson Attica (2021) completely devastated me. I was aware of the events of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, but this methodical account, using extensive archival footage and first-hand testimony from survivors, is a heated accusation of the American prison system and, may -be, of the country as a whole. Playing like a slow motion car crash, I always hoped that prisoners, officials, observers, and politicians would come to a peaceful resolution, rather than the bloodbath I knew was coming. Aside from the gruesome images of the victims, what comes to mind is how much this massacre was avoided and the fact that none of the guards who fired the bullets or the officials who gave the bullets orders were not held accountable. Fifty years later, this sequence is only shocking in its topicality.
Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s utterly singular portrayal of a real-life con artist, Chameleon Street (1991), has haunted me since I first saw him in the early 90s. Harris, who wrote, directed and acted, uses the story of a man with a unique ability to transform in what those he comes in contact with want it to be, like a cutting-edge exploration of the black experience in America. The heard, tongue-in-cheek first-person storytelling gives a chilling glimpse of what it’s like to have to meet the expectations of others just to survive. In a story stranger than fiction afterwards, the fate of that film and Harris’ subsequent career proved why the story’s con artist did what he did, rather than trying to get it right by as long as itself. After winning the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, the film failed to find adequate distribution and was ultimately banned from showing on television. None of Harris’ many later projects came to fruition either. I hope this 4K restoration, screening in December at Chicago Filmmakers, will bring him the audience that he has been deprived of so far and that Harris is capable of making more films. He is a great talent that has been royally fooled by an industry that rarely allows independent thinkers to express themselves.
Whether presenting narrative, documentary or hybrid modes, the Black Harvest Film Festival continues to spotlight films that deserve attention too often wasted at strictly commercial rates. Not everything they show deserves praise, but it’s rare that I leave one of their screenings without something to think about. The same can’t be said for what Hollywood imposes on big and small screens.