Black film festival gets started tonight

Fearless filmmakers are welcome here

May 13, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Rakia Joseph's Black and In the Life is a 37-minute documentary look at five African-Americans struggling with public perceptions of the gay lifestyle and offering their take on the stereotypes they have to live down, dealing with AIDS and the black church's views on homosexuality.

That may not sound like standard movie-theater fodder, but it's exactly the kind of film Michael Johnson wants at his third annual Maryland African American Film Festival, opening tonight and running through Sunday at the two-screen Heritage CinemaPlex, 1045 Taylor Ave. in Towson.

"I want young, experimental, fearless filmmakers," says Johnson, founder and guiding force behind the Heritage. "I want filmmakers ... who don't toe the regular Hollywood line. I want controversy. But I want you to tell a story."

Joseph, of Philadelphia, is happy to fill the bill. She's grateful for the chance Johnson and his festival, dedicated to black films and filmmakers, offer.

"Sometimes, we don't get the distribution deals that the other target audiences get," the 25-year-old actor and filmmaker says. "In some areas, we need a hub, where you can find people who are going to try to help you with your film."

Besides giving young and independent filmmakers a forum, this year's festival will also give audiences the chance to catch up with some staples of African-American cinema. This year, the festival is offering a four-film salute to pioneering actor and director Sidney Poitier.

"One thing about Sidney Poitier, he was a very important [figure] in my life," Johnson says. "He was a writer, director, humanitarian, diplomat ... and he was all those things at a time when only the strong survived."

The salute begins with tonight's opening feature, 1974's Uptown Saturday Night, starring Poitier (who also directed) and Bill Cosby as con artists desperately trying to retrieve a stolen lottery ticket from mobster Harry Belafonte. The supporting cast includes two staples of 1970s black comedy, Flip Wilson and, most memorably, Richard Pryor.

"It's probably one of the best ensembles that came out of that era," Johnson says. "And, once you saw it, you kind of understood where [Poitier as a director] was going. There wasn't going to be abusive language, there wasn't going to be sex, there wasn't going to be stuff like that. He was going to give you a good storyline."

Other Poitier films scheduled for the weekend are Buck and the Preacher (1972), his directorial debut, starring himself, Cameron Mitchell, Ruby Dee and Belafonte in a drama about ex-slaves looking for a new life out west (1 p.m. tomorrow); his Oscar-winning performance in Norman Jewison's 1967 In the Heat of the Night, as a Philadelphia detective forced to win the respect of a redneck Southern sheriff (1 p.m. Saturday); and the British production of Cry the Beloved Country (1951), with Poitier as a South African clergyman wrestling with his moral choices (2 p.m. Sunday).

Also showing at the festival will be two films reuniting Baltimore audiences with stars of the much-missed Homicide: Life on the Street television series. Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Clark Johnson will be on hand to introduce his film Boycott, a dramatic retelling of the story behind the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. And Saturday at 6:30 p.m., Andre Braugher stars in Louisville, about a slow reconciliation between a long-estranged father and son.

Some tickets remain for tonight's opening; call the theater at 410-832-7685 to see if they can squeeze you in or for more information. Tickets for screenings throughout the weekend are $4, except for films beginning at 8 p.m., which are $8.

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