Q&A: Portland Black Film Festival's David Walker
The director of the Portland Black Film Festival talks about the newest addition to a very busy movie month.
For local cinema fans, February is practically Christmas. Not only are we privileged to have the Portland International Film Festival and the Cascade Festival of African Films flickering across our screens, but this month, local writer, critic, and filmmaker David Walker introduces us to the first ever Portland Black Film Festival at the Hollywood Theatre, which runs Feb 6–27 in honor of Black History Month.
The entire thing started with conversations between Dan Halsted of the Hollywood Theatre and myself. We had been talking about everything from getting a bit more diversity into what was shown at the theater, as well as trying to bring in a more diverse audience. Both Dan and I are film nerds, and we talked about movies we wanted to see on the big screen, movies we felt needed to be revisited, movies that to be shared with an audience—that sort of thing. That’s really how it all got started. Finally, Dan called me and said, “Let’s do some programming for Black History Month.”
More than anything, we just wanted to put together some shows that were fun to watch. Having run a festival for five years, I know how hard it is to get people out to see movies they’ve never heard of, and with this being the first Portland Black Film Festival, I didn’t want to work that hard. Rather than showcase new stuff no one has ever heard of, we decided to start off by seeing if people were interested in the concept of a black film festival. The selections were based simply around the idea of showing films that represent some aspect of the black experience in America, which is both very vast, but also intrinsically human. A good movie about interesting characters transcends things like race, ethnicity, and gender.
It is a bit of both, and really depends on the movie. The Spook Who Sat by the Door was just inducted into the National Film Registry, and deservedly so. We are screening Across 110th Street at the PBFF, and I think that film is not only a great blaxploitation movie, it is a great 1970s flick, period. Seriously, I feel it holds its own with movies like The French Connection, and I’m excited to see it on the big screen (projected in glorious 35 millimeter). But I think more than anything, blaxploitation movies, like all other films, are markers of the time in which they were made. I’m really into knowing as much about films as possible, including the historical contexts surrounding them. Dan is always showing kung fu movies at the Hollywood, and audiences go nuts for these movies, but a lot of people don’t understand the historical and socio-political importance of something like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s the same way with blaxploitation. They laugh at a movie like Dolemite, without understanding where Rudy Ray Moore fits into the larger framework of the black experience in America.
Michael Schultz, who will be a guest of PBFF [Feb 9 at Hollywood Theatre] is a true unsung hero amongst black filmmakers. We’re showing a double feature of The Last Dragon and Krush Groove, which were immensely influential on me as a teenager. This entire festival was built around me wanting to show those two movies, and talk to Schultz about his career. In the 1970s he directed movies like Car Wash and Cooley High, and even today, he’s still directing. He recently did an episode or two of that show Arrow. When you look at Schultz’s body of work, and the people he’s worked with, it is mind-blowing. I mean here’s a guy who directed episodes of The Rockford Files and Starsky and Hutch, as well as two Richard Pryor movies (Bustin’ Loose and Greased Lightning), and one of the seminal hip-hop movies, Krush Groove. He even directed The Jerk, Too, the made-for-television sequel to The Jerk that no one remembers. I am a huge fan of his, and so bringing him to town is a dream come true for me.
Well, we've got director Michael Schultz coming to talk about his career, and I’m hoping there will be conversations sparked after all of the screenings during the festival. If the attendance is good, and the Hollywood Theatre is willing, I’d like to do another festival, and maybe even make it an annual event. The Regional Arts and Culture Council gave us a grant, because they recognize the importance of our mission, which is to really bring diversity to both what is one the screen, and hopefully who is in the audience. If there is another PBFF, I want to make that one more of a mix of retrospective showcase programming and newer stuff. There’s a ton of great indie films out there, and many of them never come to Portland, in part because we have a reputation of city where black films don’t play. It would be cool if we could change that perception. Right now, the only newer films we’re showing are in the short film showcase. But what’s exciting about these short films is that all of them are directed by Portland filmmakers, who happen to be black—Elijah Hasan, Liz Vice, Christopher Witherspoon, and myself. As for Portland being the whitest city in America… there’s no getting around that, but again, a good film will appeal to people acrossracial, ethnic, or gender lines. I love The Godfather, but I’m not of Italian decent. Old Boy is one of my favorite films of the last 15 years, but I’m not Korean. A white person in Portland that loves great films will love Nothing But a Man, which we’re showing, because it isn’t a great film, it is a phenomenal film.