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San Diego Black Film Festival: Living Large

In ninth year, event is bigger than ever

The Black Film Festival opens January 27.
Courtesy photo

The beginnings of the San Diego Black Film Festival could best be described as humble. It debuted nine years ago in a 250-square foot room at a Gaslamp hotel, before the Gaslamp really became the Gaslamp. Three films were shown, and about 20 folks showed up.

Fast forward to 2011. The event originally known as the Noir Film Festival (Noir is French for black) is firmly entrenched in the big leagues, not only as one of the biggest black film fests in the country, but one of the top festivals in San Diego, period.

Running from January 27-30 at the Regal UA Theater at Horton Plaza, the San Diego Black Film Festival features a jam-packed lineup of 120 films, covering everything from being African-American in Hawaii (think of the man in charge in the White House) to shorts with LGBT themes to animations.

There's also a party and fashion show, the "Industry Party and Hollywood Blackout", focusing on Old Hollywood (opening night, 9 p.m.), which will draw celebrities and celebrity watchers, as well as other soirees and red carpet events. Rapper/businessman Jay-Z was one of the celebs who showed up last year. If Spike Lee, Danny Glover or Denzel Washingtonwere in the house this time around, it wouldn't be a surprise.

"We have people who just show up,'' said festival director Karen Willis. "You never know who is going to show up. We've got a reputation for people just coming down.''

Stars aside, anywhere from 15,000-30,000 are expected to attend the fest. That's a far cry from a handful of observers in a hotel room.

"I'm not really surprised,'' Willis said. I'm happy to see that we've been well-received. We knew when we started this thing there would be a market for it, and we were right. We're very ambitious.

Willis said the SDBFF has gotten so big that it even draws people from the Los Angeles area to check out the proceedings in often sleepy San Diego.

"They wonder what they're missing in L.A., and they come here,'' Willis said."We have a lot more parties than in L.A.''

Of course, it's about the films, first and foremost. The three inaugural offerings at the then Noir Film Festival were by Oscar Micheaux, considered the first African-American feature filmmaker.

Micheaux, who died in 1951 at 67, was an author and film producer who produced some 44 films between 1919-48, dealing with the black experience in America. His 1924 film, Body and Soul featured Paul Robeson.

Micheaux had a postage stamp issued in his honor last year and was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987.

All that didn't help the Noir Film Festival, because as Willis points out, many people confused Noir Film with Film Noir, which are two totally different things. The name was changed in 2006, and the interested public got it.

"People didn't think of San Diego as that,'' Willis said. "They didn't think that's what was going on.''

Willis was alluding to the fact that given San Diego City and County's relatively small African-American and black populations, compared to other large, metropolitan areas, black culture usually isn't the first thing that comes to mind to most observers, even locals.

"People are surprised there's a black film festival here,'' Willis said. "There are all kinds of festivals here; it makes sense to have a black film festival. It's not surprising a black film festival would be successful. You look at movies, African-Americans are in the mainstream. It's not a niche.''

And what constitutes a black film?

"It would be a film directed or principally acted by people of African descent,'' said Willis. "Or if the subject matter would be considered a black film by us.''

The huge choices at the festival are all appealing. Ask to pick three must-sees, Willis suggested Dog Jack, in which a Pennsylvania slave boy, accompanied by his dog and the Pennsylvania 102 in an attempt to free his mother and sister from slavery; Holding Back the Dream, the aforementioned documentation of black life in Hawaii from a freed slave to Obama; also, A Lot Like You, where a first-generation filmmaker retraces her roots, sending her to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Willis said that she expects the SDBFF to continue growing, but like many enterprises, she'd like to pick up more sponsorships. Still, she and the other organizers can sit back and be proud what they've built.

"I want us to continue to grow even more,'' said Willis. "I'm amazed where we've come.''