A Look Inside the Black Harvest Film Festival

A Look Inside the Black Harvest Film Festival

A Look Inside the Black Harvest Film Festival

A selection of six film stills

Stills from Black Harvest Film Festival's 2021 selection of screenings. Clockwise from top left: King Richard, Chameleon Street, I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking), Shaft, Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), It's Different in Chicago

Stills from Black Harvest Film Festival's 2021 selection of screenings. Clockwise from top left: King Richard, Chameleon Street, I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking), Shaft, Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), It's Different in Chicago

This past August, the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago reopened its doors after being closed for 18 months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And this fall, they’re welcoming community members back for one of their most important annual events: the Black Harvest Film Festival.

The festival began in 1994, after SAIC’s Film Center staff learned that Chicago’s only Black film festival—the Blacklight Film Festival—was being disbanded. The festival had been a true labor of love for its founder, Floyd Webb, but the work had been overwhelming. Barbara Scharres, then the Film Center’s director of programming, knew that someone—or someplace—had to fill the void.

Scharres reached out to Sergio Mims, a local screenwriter and film critic who had worked on Blacklight. Together, alongside a passionate group of film lovers, they launched the Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center the following year.

“Keep in mind, the idea of a Black film festival 27 years ago was still a very, very new thing,” Mims shared. “Even though there’s always been Black filmmakers and Black cinema, and independent Black filmmakers since the Silent Era. Doing a festival that was devoted to Black cinema ... a Black filmmaker was lucky if he had his film shown at any film festival.”

Two images, one of three women posing in front of a step and repeat; the second of three panelists sitting in front of a screen

Photos from the 2019 Black Harvest Film Festival

Photos from the 2019 Black Harvest Film Festival

From the start, the festival aspired to show the full range of the Black experience. They solicited films from local filmmakers, but also screened films from Africa and Europe, showcasing shorts, documentaries, and narrative films. “We wanted to have a real showcase,” Mims shared. “Because the overwhelming majority of Black films are made by independent Black filmmakers, outside of the studio system.” 

Now in its 27th year, Black Harvest is a larger production than any of its founders could have imagined. It’s grown from a week to a month long, with more than 50 films screened and an annual audience of more than 6,000 attendees. “Now, it’s an international institution. It’s one of the premier Black film festivals in the world. That’s not hyperbole,” Mims said.

Over the past two decades, it’s launched the careers of a number of Black filmmakers. Steven Caple Jr., director of Creed II and the next film in the Transformers franchise, first screened a short at the festival in 2013. Victoria Mahoney, now a prolific television director for shows like Lovecraft Country and The Morning Show, screened her first film—Yelling to the Sky—in 2011.

On the left, a movie poster of a tree half in bloom; on the right, a movie poster featuring a close up of two young women

Posters for Steven Caple Jr.’s 2013 short A Different Tree (left) and Victoria Mahoney’s 2011 film Yelling to the Sky (right)

Posters for Steven Caple Jr.’s 2013 short A Different Tree (left) and Victoria Mahoney’s 2011 film Yelling to the Sky (right)

Local filmmaker David Weathersby, who directed several documentaries, also got his start at Black Harvest. “I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing without the Black Harvest Film Festival,” he said. “Only Black Harvest brings a sense of genuine interactivity between the filmmaker, the audience, and other filmmakers. That's special, and it's extremely necessary for independent filmmakers. It helps you hone your craft and build relationships that are integral to future projects.”

Two images, both of audience members smiling and laughing in a movie theater

Photos from the 2019 Black Harvest Film Festival

Photos from the 2019 Black Harvest Film Festival

As a result of these sorts of connections, the festival has helped strengthen the local Black film community in Chicago. “We talk about the festival as a reunion,” de St. Aubin said. “It really does feel like a reunion every year.” And though the festival screens films from all over the world, it feels distinctly of the city. “It is an expression of Chicago,” shared Weathersby. “An honest unfiltered expression ... People around the world see a side of the city they didn't know about. Even Chicagoans see a side of the city they didn't realize existed. I can't express how important that is to all of us.”

“Only Black Harvest brings a sense of genuine interactivity between the filmmaker, the audience, and the other filmmakers.”

After last year’s fully virtual screenings, this year, the festival is both virtual and in person. As always, an enormous variety of films are being shown, from shorts shot by first-time filmmakers to classics by Melvin Van Peebles to big-budget Hollywood films, like King Richard starring Will Smith. For the first time, the Richard and Ellen Sandor Prize will be given to a feature-length film in addition to a short film.

For those who have been there since the beginning, there’s an enormous amount of joy at being back in the theater again. “I saw the importance of Black Harvest, but I had no comprehension that it would last this long,” Mims shared. “But now, it’s part of me. I’m gonna keep doing it as long as I can.”