Black Harvest Film Festival sees history with style

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From Aug. 1-28, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents recent features and shorts, dramas and documentaries, all “celebrating the stories, images, heritage and history of the black experience in the U.S. and around the world.”

Vintage titles in the 20th annual Black Harvest Film Festival include a 35mm print of “A Rage in Harlem,” a 1991 film based on a 1957 crime novel Chester Himes penned in Paris. Director Bill Duke is scheduled to appear at the 5:15 p.m. Aug. 24 screening. The cast of this black film noir includes Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover. Glover is tentatively scheduled to appear on Aug. 28 for the closing night film “From Above,” directed by Norry Niven.

The opening night celebration Friday will be emceed by NBC 5’s LeeAnn Trotter, who will bestow the annual Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership on Chaz Ebert and Roger Ebert, her late husband and Sun-Times film critic. After a screening of shorts, there’s a reception across the street at Joffrey Tower (8 E. Randolph) with music by Chicago Sinfonietta members

The fest offers two free workshops: “The Realities of Screenwriting” on Aug. 10 and “Action! The Real Deal About Filmmaking: Money, Casting, Production, and Distribution” on Aug. 16. Rashayla Marie Brown, director of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion at the School of the Art Institute, curates an art exhibit titled “Fresh Juju” in the Siskel lobby.

Here are some highlights of the screening lineup:

Aug. 1

6:15 p.m. “A Black Harvest Feast”: Diverse shorts include Delmar Washington’s broad comedy “Chris’s Briss,” wherein a rabbi hands his future son-on-law “A Schmuck’s Guide to Judaism.” More subtle and sober is Elizabeth Myer’s “Strange Fruit,” an experimental essay on the Aug. 7, 1930, lynching of two black teens in Marion, Ind. From Martinique comes Maharaki’s “Vivre,” a schoolboy’s dire forecast of his future as an astronaut. “Perfect Day” stars Daniel Kyri in a wondrous discovery of love in a high school hallway, with a tragic finale. Filmmaker Derrick Sanders cites as inspiration the Sept. 24, 2009, killing of Derrion Albert, a Fenger High School honors student.

Aug. 3

5:15 p.m. “Jayhawkers”: Kevin Willmott fantasized black history in his earlier “Destination: Planet Negro!” and “C.S.A – The Confederate States of America.” Now he takes a factual tact to revisit Wilt Chamberlain’s stint at University of Kansas, leading up to the 1957 NCAA Championship Game. The black-and-white cinematography and period perceptions are all-around winning. Wilmott will appear at both screenings. (Also, 8 p.m. Aug. 4)

Aug. 5

8:15 p.m. “Melvin & Jean: An American Story”: In 1972 AWOL soldier Melvin McNair brought along his wife and their two infants when the Black Liberation Army hijacked a jet from Detroit to Algiers. Filmmaker Maia Wechsler documents the couple in their adoptive France, where they reunite with the Delta pilot. Emotions, not militant politics, are the focus. “Freedom Road,” the accompanying short by Shane Vermooten, presents a more revelatory vignette about a South African woman and the torturer of her late husband. (Also, 6 p.m. Aug. 6)

Aug. 7

8 p.m.: “Lord Thing” & “The Corner”: The Chicago Film Archives restores two documentaries: DeWitt Beall’s 1970 “Lord Thing” and Robert Ford’s 26-minute “The Corner.” Both aim for impartial ethnography, as their informants relate street customs of West Side gangs back when they were known as “clubs” and claimed movie theaters as turf. Members re-enact fights (called “humbugs” back in the day) on camera and contribute an oral history via voiceovers. A panel discussion follows with speakers on youth violence, street gang prevention and prison reform.

Aug. 8

8:30 p.m. “The 4th Meeting:” Chicago siblings Josh MacNeal and Cy Weisman will attend two screenings of their insightful, assured debut drama about a woman handling the aftermath of her husband’s death. A distracting younger sister is the unlikely catalyst for healing. Deft cinematography frames eye-catching nightscapes along Lake Shore Drive in this redemptive drama. (Also, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 14)

Aug. 10

6 p.m. “Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till”: Rob Underhill directs actor-playwright Mike Wiley as he channels the infamous 1955 disfigurement and death of a 14-year-old from Chicago in Money, Miss. The uncanny performer, who specializes in one-man shows on black history, takes on 36 roles here, including Till, his accused killers and a Look Magazine reporter covering the trial. (Also, 8:15 p.m. Aug. 11).

Aug 12

8:30 p.m. “Unsound”: “If I was crazy, could I have raised you?” asks the schizophrenic mother of a fledgling documentary-maker. Darious Britt directs himself as that son in Tucson. He records video of her increasingly dangerous conduct. State mental health rules thwart his attempts to help. Britt may share the autobiographical backstory after both screenings. (Also, 6:15 p.m. Aug 13)

Aug 15

6:15 p.m. “Shorts Program: Love African American Style”: Women with mental wounds figure in several Black Harvest films. That theme is key to “Contamination” by R. Shanea Williams, who tags herself a “self-aware cosmic nerd,” A romantic setback imprisons a young New Yorker within her phobias. Intimacy is like a germ from the outside world. (Also, 8:15 p.m. Aug 21)

8:30 p.m. “That Daughter’s Crazy”: Elzbieta Szoka adopts the point-of-view of her subject, Rain Pryor, by sampling her autobiographical cabaret act stocked with passable impersonations. This daughter of comic Richard Pryor and a Jewish go-go dancer reminisces about a zany upbringing. “Her show is not a documentary, her show is a show,” offers her diplomatic mother. (Also, 8:30 p.m. Aug 16)

Aug. 17

5 p.m. “Cass”: Hugh Schulze creates four characters undergoing soul repair in Detroit. David Dastmalchian, the DePaul alum co-star in the recent “Animals,” plays a self-exiled artist squatting next door to an African-American family. The title girl is a 15-year-old aspiring photographer who secretly picks the erudite loner as her mentor. Her younger brother fantasizes a career as an astronaut, wishing for isolation in space. Meanwhile, their father desperately seeks the why to his wife’s recent death. (Also, 8 p.m. Aug 18)

Aug. 19

6:15 p.m. “A Little White Lie”: Lacey Schwartz inquires into her parentage with a poignant outcome. Raised Jewish and white, she always heard her darkish complexion came from a distant Sicilian in her lineage. “If you looked too closely at it didn’t make sense, so we didn’t look,” she narrates. “We found ways to see what we wanted to believe.” The degree of denial can only be called blinding. (Also, 8:15 p.m. Aug. 20)

Aug. 22

8 p.m. “Hogtown”: My favorite entry is Daniel Nearing’s outstanding whodunit about a detective investigating the disappearance of a movie theater millionaire in 1919 Chicago. Audacious styling mixes chiaroscuro lighting and onscreen verse. This follow-up to his 2010 film “Chicago Heights” places Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Jack Dempsey, Gloria Swanson and Mayor William Hale Thompson in supporting roles for an epic tragedy of race. Nearing and some cast and crew will attend both screenings. (Also, 8:15 p.m. Aug. 25)

Aug. 26

8:15 p.m. “The Forgotten Kingdom”: Andrew Mudge, one among the fest’s white filmmakers, directs the first feature shot in the Lesotho language. A directionless lad in Johannesburg takes his late father back to his roots for burial. That errand launches a second journey, a rite of rebirth into his own manhood. This U.S/ South Africa co-production is intently designed with vistas and archetypes of a Western. (Also, 6:15 p.m. Aug 27)

Aug. 28

6:30 p.m. “From Above”: In this warm romance– formerly titled “Chasing Shakespeare”– the son of a farmer truly runs after a fan of Shakespeare, a Native-American classmate. Lightning strikes and “Romeo and Juliet” lines resonate. Screenwriter James Bird and director Norry Niven may overdo the sentimental metaphysics, though. Danny Glover, playing the teen late in life, is tentatively scheduled to come to this Closing Night screening that includes a reception hosted by Whole Foods Market. Check fest site for an update.

What: 20th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

When: Aug 1-28

Tickets: $11; $7 students; $6 Film Center members (six-film pass, $50, includes one free small popcorn per film)

More info:

Tickets for the opening night benefit are $25; students $20; members $15. (Other passes do not apply.)

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