The Denton Black Film Festival started as a conversation among friends about movies they loved over the years — dramas starring Sidney Poitier, blaxploitation movies, classics like Carmen Jones.
Mesha George said they missed those movies. Titles like Lilies of the Field don’t pop up on cable networks’ on-demand menus nearly as much as new releases and blockbusters. And festival board member Harry Eaddy said the film buffs wished they could see some of the titles again.
“Around April of 2014, we just all started talking about films that we’d come to appreciate over the years, and we were kind of lamenting that so many of them can’t be seen any more,” said George, the chairwoman of the Denton Black Film Festival.
Soon enough, George and Eaddy started talking about what it might take to make those films available. The Denton Black Film Festival was hatched.
The group decided to screen black films, and in this festival, black films are documentary and feature films either by black directors and producers or about black lives and experiences here and abroad.
Research yielded choice movies for such an occasion, and Eaddy said the first pool of films was organized along a timeline. Could they screen the 1929 movie musical Hallelujah! — the first all-black major studio musical made in Hollywood? What about the lauded 1959 film Imitation of Life, which deals with the light-skinned daughter of a dark-skinned mother and the conflict that arises when the daughter means to “pass” as a young white woman?
Then there was the incomparable Poitier, who provided emotional an intellectual heft in movies such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir, With Love, and A Raisin in the Sun. Then there is Driving Miss Daisy, the 1989 film starring Morgan Freeman.
Eaddy and George said the group had the makings of a survey of black film as they planned. There were recent titles in the timeline they saw.
Eaddy said he could name some new films that come to North Texas cinemas for just one weekend.
“A lot of these films don't stay long in theaters,” said Eaddy, who is the president of the Denton African-American Scholarship Foundation, and a self-described film lover. “I wanted to see Top Five here recently. I put it off and it was gone. I missed it.”
Top Five stars Chris Rock, who also wrote and directed the film. Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who is weary of blunting hard truths with punchlines and is hoping to become a dramatic actor. Rock is a substantial player in American entertainment, as a performer and a producer, yet his films don’t always get wide distribution or traditional theatrical release schedules.
George said the committee discovered films as they researched titles and availability.
“We started with this lineup of classic films that are difficult to find, and you might find in a vault somewhere and dust them off and they are still worthwhile,” George said. “What we found was that there was so much more content out there that we ever knew about. We started that journey, looking at not just these films that we knew about but things that were out there that we never knew about. It was like a maze. We just kept turning corners and turning corners.”
Eventually, the committee selected some major award-winning films that enjoyed international distribution. The festival will screen the 2013 British drama Belle, inspired by the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who emigrated from the West Indies as a child to England with her father, Capt. John Lindsay, in 1765. The film and its lead actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, was nominated for a host of awards and won a few.
The committee selected the 2014 drama Wolf, which chronicles the erosion of a black family when they discover their teen son has been sexually abused by a religious leader. The festival includes international titles: The Forgotten Kingdom, about a young man who returns to his home in Lesotho, South Africa, and Half of a Yellow Sun, the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about two sisters returning to Nigeria in the 1960s, on the brink of civil war.
The festival will also bring When We Were All Broncos back to Denton, one year after its 2013 debut at Thin Line, Denton’s documentary festival. David Barrow’s documentary revisits the athletes and students who played (and cheered) for the Denton High School football team in 1972. The team played a pivotal role in the quiet but purposeful racial desegregation of the Denton public school system — without a mandate from the civil courts.
George said the film festival formed as its volunteers did due diligence to test the waters for the city’s readiness for a black film festival.
“Initially, we looked at how to shape or form this, and we ended up doing it under Black Chamber of Commerce,” George said. “We talked to a lot of people and a lot of groups.”
George said the committee involved a diverse group of Denton leardership as it planned the festival: members of Trinity Presbyterian Church, which co-founded a Christian women’s interracial fellowship in the 1970s to bridge the communities separated by Jim Crow, and community leaders Ellen Painter and former Mayor Euline Brock. The festival hosted a booth at the Denton Blues Festival last year, something Eaddy said was invaluable.
“It was at the Blues Festival that we got so much feedback from people — really great feedback about what people were interested in,” he said.
The committee decided to present the festival under the auspices of the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce, and to dedicate proceeds to the Denton African American Scholarship Foundation, which has been helping local black high school graduates continue their schooling for the last 30 years.
As for the festival itself, George said organizers wanted to screen films in one spot — the Campus Theatre — over two days. Receptions and mixers will bring volunteers and festivalgoers together. Some filmmakers will attend the festival, too.
“We’ve said our mission is to entertain, educate and inspire,” George said. “I think we have a festival that will do that. We feel like this has been a long time coming, and that this is the right time and place for this festival.”
Eaddy said the organizers will measure success through attendance. George said the festival has been busy marketing the two-day event.
“With the big films we’re bringing, Belle and When We Were All Broncos, we’re hoping that will bring people out,” she said.
Eaddy said restaurants around the downtown Square will be involved, and he hopes attendees will talk about the films over drinks and food during the festival.
Denton Black Film Festival films
Note: Additional titles are being added to the lineup.
Belle — This award-winning major motion picture chronicles the coming-of-age of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a biracial girl who immigrated to England in 1765 from the West Indies with her father, naval Englishman Capt. John Lindsey. Dido grew up with her cousin, and was educated and raised to be a free woman of means by her aunt and uncle. 2013. Rated PG, 104 minutes.
Cowboys of Color — A documentary about the past, present and future black cowboys in America. 2014. Not rated, 29 minutes.
The Forgotten Kingdom — Atang leaves the slums of the big city to bury his estranged father in the remote, mountainous village where he was born near South Africa. 2013. Not rated, 96 minutes.
Half of a Yellow Sun — Sisters Olanna and Kainene (Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose) return home to 1960s Nigeria, where they soon diverge on different paths. As civil war breaks out, political events loom larger than their differences as they join the fight to establish an independent republic. 2013. Rated R, 111 minutes.
Steps of Faith — Faith is sure God is leading her to work with children and therapy horses, but not even her own family believes her. 2014. Not rated, 90 minutes.
When We Were All Broncos — This documentary examines how the athletes on the 1972 Denton High School Broncos football team helped racially desegregate the public school system — a process that began a few years earlier and without a mandate from the civil courts. 2014. Rated G, 90 minutes.
Wolf — A family is devastated when it comes to light that their son has been sexually abused by their pastor. 2014. Rated R, 87 minutes.
DENTON BLACK FILM FESTIVAL
What: A two-day film festival honoring movies by black filmmakers and celebrating films about black lives and experiences, presented by the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce
When: Jan. 30-31
Where: Campus Theatre, 214 E. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors and $6 for children for single and paired show times. For tickets, passes and more information, visit www.dentonafricanamericanfilmfestival.com.
PASSES, with presale rates available for passes bought through Jan. 25:
VIP all-access passes cost $100 for adults, $90 for students and seniors (presale prices are $90 and $80).
All-access passes $75 for adults, $65 for students and seniors and $55 for children (presale prices are $67.50, $58.50 and $49.40, respectively).
Day passes for Friday, Jan. 30, cost $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors and $14 for children (presale prices are $18, $14.50 and $12.50, respectively).
Day passes for Saturday, Jan. 31, cost $55 for adults, $49 for seniors and students and $41 for children (presale prices are $49.50, $44 and $37, respectively).
Friday, Jan. 30
6:30 p.m. — Opening ceremony
7 p.m. — History of black cinema (6 minutes), followed by Belle
9:15 p.m. — Wolf
Saturday, Jan. 31
9 a.m. — The Forgotten Kingdom
11 a.m. — Cowboys of Color, followed by When We Were All Broncos
1:30 p.m. — Steps of Faith
3:30 p.m. — To be announced
6:30 p.m. — Half of a Yellow Sun
8:45 p.m. — To be announced