For the third straight year, the Black Bottom Film Festival, presented by the August Wilson Cultural Center, will bring a week’s worth of film and events to celebrate the African American film experience.
This year’s selections brings us everything from a young Florida man seeking purpose in Life And Nothing More (2017); a male prostitute on the run from the law, in Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal “blaxploitation” (and originally X-rated) epic, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971); and Dorothy easing on down the road in the 40th Anniversary of The Wiz.
“This is the third annual Black Bottom Film Festival and this is the first year we’re expanding our footprint in collaboration with Row House Cinema,” Cydney Nunn, tells the Current. She’s the Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the August Wilson Cultural Center, working with artistic director, Joe Lewis. “From the 15th to the 21st, Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville will be screening films as a part of the festival. They’re screening two Oscar-nominated films—Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). So we’re really excited about that collaboration. It’s just part of our efforts to grow the festival and get the news out to as many people as possible.”
This year’s festival is brimming with both Pittsburgh premieres and classics still relevant to today’s issues. Teaming with Shudder, the horror-film streaming service, the Black Bottom Film Festival offers the Pittsburgh premiere of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). An adaptation of executive producer Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire presents interviews with creators like Jordan Peele (Get Out), Keith David (The Thing), Rachel True (The Craft), and Tony Todd (Candyman).
“I think that’s going to be an interesting documentary,” Nunn says. “I know me, personally, you hear ‘the black person always dies first in scary movies.’ So this kind of delves into that, and talks about the history of blacks in horror films and why is the black character always the first to die? How is that changing now?”
Also making its Pittsburgh premiere is Idris Elba’s directorial debut, Yardie, a tough film about honor, duty, and revenge. On the flip side of that, there is the 40th Anniversary screening of The Wiz, the classic African-American take on The Wizard of Oz, starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor. “We’re offering free tickets to anyone under 13. This is The Wiz’s 40th anniversary and the August Wilson Center’s tenth year, so it’s a whole fun anniversary celebration.”
And if that weren’t enough, Nunn points out that the festival is also hosting a variety of Q&As, workshops, and events. Living Single and In Living Color star Kim Coles is running an acting workshop on February 23; screenwriter Gerard Brown (Juice) is running a screenwriting workshop on Feb. 24. “We have recently confirmed Terrence Nance (director of the upcoming Space Jam reboot) is joining us,” says Nunn. “He’ll sit down for a Q&A and we’re screening a short film of his, as well as several episodes of his HBO show, Random Acts of Flyness.”
In a film festival town like Pittsburgh, it can be difficult for one festival to stand out from the others. This doesn’t appear to be the case with The Black Bottom Film Festival.
“We’re showcasing films dealing with themes of spirituality, race, family conflict, honor, duty, working-class struggle, and these are themes also ever-present in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays,” says Nunn. “We’re trying to continue to recognize our own mission, building on the legacy of August Wilson, and still giving a new spin and showing contemporary aspects of these themes. I definitely think there has been growth in the three years since this has been going on. Just the simple fact that this collaboration with Row House attests that we are gaining traction. This definitely helps our efforts to gain more attention and get more ‘butts in seats, [laughs]. If you will.”
It’s not just the power players invited either. This year’s “Pittsburgh Spotlight Filmmaker” falls on Alisha Wormsley, writer and director of the “Afro-futuristic” film, The Children Of Nan, about clones locked away from the world by their creator. Wormsley will take part in a Q&A about the film and is also facilitating the talk with Nance.
What’s most striking about this year’s line-up are the themes we’re still discussing today. With racism still very much prevalent worldwide, it’s telling that one of Lewis’ choices is the 1968 Sidney Poitier film, For Love of Ivy. While not a “race film” per se, For Love of Ivy tells the story about a white family whose beloved black maid has a chance at a better opportunity, so they conspire to fix her up with an eligible bachelor to keep her part of the family. The ignorance in this case is no less ignorant for coming from a place of love, but the racial aspects of the film are not central, which may come as a surprise for many. Instead, it discusses the black experience as the human experience. While the end game is a world without qualifying adjectives, we aren’t there yet.
“Of course we would love to not have a special festival to highlight black culture, but until that day comes we have to create our own platform and share with people and educate and let them know we have so many similarities,” says Nunn. “Seeing people on screen and thinking ‘I can relate to that’, having those moments helps you create that feeling of ‘yes, we are similar and we don’t have to use all these adjectives all the time.’ We’re all doing the same things. We’re all human. The artistic director, Joe Lewis, definitely picks movies with a lot of consideration. The main themes of For Love of Ivy is why it was included this year. We’re repeating ourselves, but we’re going to continue to repeat ourselves.”
The Black Bottom Film Festival runs through February 21 at Rowhouse Cinema and February 22-24 at the August Wilson Cultural Center/various locations. For a full schedule of events, please visit: https://aacc-awc.org/bbffschedule/