Resilience and courage: Film festival delves into America’s racist past


Photo courtesy of Meghan Dayton

Meghan Dayton and Erin Harper

Some of the most beautiful and artistically creative scenes in movies may not always come from Hollywood blockbusters starring acclaimed actors and actresses or written by world-renowned directors. Oftentimes, meaningful films are featured in high or low profile festivals that celebrate the love for the art of film itself.

One such festival is the Smithsonian African American Film Festival presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the nation’s largest cultural museum dedicated to showcasing the African American story and impact on American and world history. This year was their inaugural film festival, which featured over 80 African American films throughout the four-day period. From October 24 through October 27, these films were hosted at different museums around DC, including the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Gallery of Art.

On October 26, we headed to NMAAHC to see a juried competition of documentary shorts. After viewing three short films, we were presented with a ballot to vote on which film reigned supreme, a task that is more challenging than it seems. Although we originally were not aware that the films were competing, for the price of $10, it was a good bargain.

The first film we viewed was “Respect and Love,” directed by Angelique Webster. The film was narrated entirely by her mother, Gloria, who was devastated when she learned that her then-sixteen-year-old daughter has been sexually abused by their priest. Thirty years later, they sit down for the long-awaited conversation discussing motherhood and decision-making. Though the chat was brief, the director showed complete strangers her most vulnerable side as the audience learned of an atrocious past which some viewers may relate to. The most outrageous piece of information we learned was that the priest only received a 20 year suspended sentence.

Following a roar of applause for the first film, “Black 14” started. Directed by Darius Monroe, the 15-minute historical story followed 14 Black college football players at the University of Wyoming in 1969 who were denied the right to protest and were evidently kicked off the team. The players planned to wear black armbands in an upcoming game to protest the Mormon church, who then did not allow Black men to be priests. The coach, Lloyd Eaton, quickly dismissed them, telling them to “shut up” and leave. The film followed the racist reactions from community members, and how the football players fought back. This film brought a vital pocket of history to light while using purely original 1960’s footage. Monroe chose to use original film in order to give voice to the 14 Black men that never had a platform. 50 years later, these football players were finally listened to.

The last film, which came all too soon, was “The Changing Same” directed by Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster. This film focuses on a small town in Florida, Marianna, and the horrific buried history of Claude Neal, a 23-year-old Black man who was lynched in 1934 for allegedly raping and killing a local white woman, 19-year-old Lola Cannady. On October 26, the day we attended the festival, it had been exactly 74 years since he was murdered. The film follows a local poet, Lamar Wilson, who decided to run eight miles that finished at the town courthouse where Neal was sentenced, in order to remember, honor, and shed light to Neal. It is currently his third year of doing so, and at this point, people warn him not to, scared someone will try to hurt him while running. He portrays the racism that is still ever so present in the town and talks to other villagers to get their opinion on the matter. After the movie, we felt more aware of our reality. This is America.

 As the lights went up and everyone was taking a moment to let the three films sink in, six chairs were put on the stage; the directors were here! Their arrival added so much to the experience, as hearing the directors talk first hand about their works of art helped our understanding of each story grow. All of the directors first talked about their films, then opened up the floor to the audience to ask questions creating a unique connection which most films lack.

The directors ended the event in a call to action: where do you stand in this battle? If you are a white person, you must talk to other white people, you must fix your culture from the inside. Films like these are helping to heal the Black community, and now you, as a white person, need to do your part.