For 27 years, the Black Harvest Film Festival has favored Chicago with a panoramic view of the Black experience. Opening November 5 with the Will Smith vehicle, King Richard, and closing December 2 with a 30th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the series presented 28 features and five shorts programs which ran the gamut of style, genre, and approach. I’d challenge anyone interested in film not to find something that appeals in this lineup. For this viewer, the historical offerings were the most attractive this time around.
Part of a multifilm tribute to polymath Gordon Parks—probably best known as the director of Shaft, the 2K restoration of his Moments Without Proper Names (1987) is an affectionate greatest-hits slideshow. Narrated by Parks and the trio of actors Avery Brooks, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Joe Seneca, the film bears witness to the tumultuous times the artist witnessed and documented. As Parks states at the beginning, this is not a linear biographical narrative, but rather a series of memory fragments. For those unfamiliar with Parks’s work, this hour-long dip into a long and varied creative career may serve as a good entry point.
Director Ryan Polomski and a series of friends, family, and admirers labor mightily to put the subject of the 2021 documentary Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend in the lineage of Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and Colin Kaepernick, for his sacrifices to promote the rights of athletes. Unlike those trailblazers, however, while Lewis’s talent is undeniably on display in the many archival highlight reels included, his motives and thinking for holding out and refusing to honor a succession of bad NBA contracts is left unclear. There’s little doubt that Lewis was treated terribly and that much of that treatment was due to systematic racism, but without interviews with the man himself—Lewis died young, though the cause is left vague, as so much else in this film is—the viewer is left with a series of reminiscences and speculations from friends and admirers, which, while heartfelt, are rarely illuminating.
Traci A. Curry and Stanley Nelson’s Attica (2021) utterly devastated me. I knew about the events of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in a general way, but this methodical retelling, employing copious archival footage and firsthand survivor testimony, is a passionate indictment of the U.S. prison system and, perhaps, the country as a whole. Playing out like a slow-motion car crash, I kept hoping that the prisoners, officials, observers, and politicians would come to a peaceful resolution, rather than the bloodbath that I knew was coming. Apart from the horrific footage of the casualties, what sticks with me is how preventable this massacre was and the fact that none of the guards who fired the bullets or the officials who gave the orders have been held to any kind of account. Fifty years on, this sequence is only shocking because of how timely it feels.
Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s utterly singular portrait of a real-life conman, Chameleon Street (1991), has haunted me ever since I first saw it in the early 90s. Harris, who wrote, directed, and starred, uses the story of a man possessed of a unique ability to morph into whatever those he comes into contact with want him to be, as a trenchant exploration of the Black experience in America. The knowing, ironic first-person narration gives a chilling peek into what it’s like to have to perform to others’ expectations just to survive. In a stranger-than-fiction afterward, the fate of this film and Harris’s subsequent career have proven why the conman in the story did what he did, rather than try to succeed as himself. After winning the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, the film failed to find adequate distribution and was eventually banned from being screened on television. None of Harris’s numerous subsequent projects have come to fruition either. I hope this 4K restoration, screening in December at Chicago Filmmakers, will bring it the audience it has thus far been deprived of and that Harris is able to make more movies. He’s a great talent who got royally screwed by an industry that rarely allows independent thinkers a voice.
Whether presenting narrative, documentary, or hybrid modes, the Black Harvest Film Festival continues to highlight films that deserve attention too often wasted on strictly commercial fare. Not everything they show is deserving of accolades, but it’s rare that I’ve left one of their screenings without something to think about. That can’t be said about much of what Hollywood foists on screens great and small.