A first stop for black films

Blac Docs, a D.C. nonprofit, provides venues for works with serious subjects


October 07, 2007|By Lisa Troshinsky | Lisa Troshinsky,Special to The Sun

Hot Ghetto Mess made its debut on the BET network this summer, but its path to national exposure started in a lesser-known venue.

The unusual hybrid of satire and documentary on black style debuted in July 2006 on the screen of Blac Docs, a nonprofit, Washington-based organization that showcases African-American filmmakers whose works are sometimes overlooked by mainstream venues.

For Hot Ghetto Mess creator Jam Donaldson, the experience was a chance to gauge audience reaction to her now-controversial project, she says.

"It was well-publicized and was one of the biggest screenings we have had in terms of audiences," says Donaldson, whose 54-minute DVD was a finalist in the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 2006.

Donaldson's show -- renamed We Got to Do Better after promoters and the public protested the content of the show -- had a successful six-week run this summer on BET.

But it was the grass-roots efforts of Blac Docs that helped give the show buzz. And in two years since the organization began, founder Corey Jennings says its mission -- turning relatively unknown films and filmmakers into household names -- continues to grow.

"We didn't know documentaries would be that big of a hit, since they are noncommercial, serious and based on narrow subjects," Jennings says. "But we had to turn away 200 people at the first screening" at Washington's Landmark E Street Theater.

Jennings credits his project's popularity to a dire need to give a voice to films related to urban lifestyles and issues.

"The media and mass marketing [for young, professional African-Americans] mostly deals with clubs and happy hours and partying, and I didn't like that," he says.

"There is a need in the community at large for intellectual, useful activities like the kind we were exposed to in college."

A lawyer by day, Jennings runs the series on the side as a fund-raising mechanism for his family's nonprofit charity, the Next Generation Awareness Foundation Inc., which helps African-American communities.

The Black Docs Film Series is one arm of NGAF's film programs, which also include the nationwide Urban Film Series Tour, the Urban Film & Discussion Series and the Black History Month Film & Discussion Series, which began in 2004 and is the oldest of the series.

NGAF expanded its film-related pursuits beyond the Black History Month program because of the overwhelming positive response and because of the abundance of filmmakers who were looking for a venue to target urban communities.

The organization, which charges a fee for each film showing, receives some of its funding through corporate and public grants.

Jennings plans to bring the Urban Film Series to Baltimore in February. He also hopes to produce a film festival for young adults.

Black Docs aired Hot Ghetto Mess, the controversial, comical commentary on urban black life, after it was turned down by some film festivals.

"We knew we needed to make use of films that had a market niche, but didn't fit into our Black History Month Program" or other venues, Jennings says.

Blac Docs also screened Project Wow, a documentary that explores the lives of black men "on the down low," or secretly homosexual.

The film focuses on HIV in the black community and has been picked up by the Hollywood Film Festival.

Black Docs, which will show other movies through October, this year screened Monique Woods' Finally Sayin' What I Really Mean, a documentary on hip-hop that won the 2006 Audience Choice Award at the 2006 Atlanta Hip Hop Film Festival.

The film featured artists Saul Williams, Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Martin Luther and David Banner.

Woods interviewed musicians and poets on how they define "good music" and how the music industry represents hip-hop and rap artists.

"When rap artists get interviewed on MTV, they are not asked about their creativity and the music. They don't get to express why they made a song. My film is a venue for them to talk about what their music means to them," she says.

Woods says she hopes that her film's screening by Blac Docs will help her get it aired on television.

Screening these type of films facilitates a discussion that is sometimes difficult, Jennings says.

"We need to get back in touch with people, find out what people are interested in, and air things that are critical for our community," he says.

"We, as a community, need to talk through controversial subjects and hear different perspectives."


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