Black Harvest Film Festival at its best when examining the past

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Artist Okwui Okpokwasili is profiled in “Bronx Gothic.” | Provided photo

Historical documentaries are the highlight of the Black Harvest Film Festival. From Saturday through Aug. 31, the Gene Siskel Film Center will screen 60 dramas and documentaries about African-American life. Filmmakers attend many screenings of their features and shorts.

Opening night is sold out. The shorts screening “A Black Harvest Feast” (7:30 p.m. Aug. 5) will be followed by a reception. Receiving honors are Donnie Smith, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, and Margaret Caples from the Community Film Workshop.

Closing night reprises the 1997 indie “love jones” (6:30 p.m. Aug. 31). For the 20th anniversary screening, there’s an archival 35mm print of this beguiling romance set in Chicago’s black bohemian scene. A reception follows for director Theodore Witcher, a Columbia College grad.

BLACK HARVEST FILM FESTIVAL

When:Aug. 5-31

Where: Gene Siskel FiIm Center, 164 N. State

Admission: $11; $7 students; $6 members; $55 pass; $30 members

Info:www.siskelfilmcenter.org or (312) 846-2800

Slighter fiction this year includes bougie-indulging “Diva Diaries,” psycho-thriller “Killing Lazarus” and “The Rhythm in Blue” with a wedding cake-tasting tragedy. Workplace drama emerges in made-in-Chicago “Call Center” and the bizarrely toned “Title VII.” A California family implodes in “90 Minutes of the Fever,” a melodrama triggered by toxic hacker riots.

The shortest short is “A New Day in the Chi,” a 2 1/2-minute civic anthem written by OM3 and narrated by Common. From Columbia College comes “Baracked.” A seriously confused young white male uses his wife’s mahogany hardwood eye shadow as a marital aid.

Fest regular Kevin Willmott once again draws on sports history at the University of Kansas, where he teaches film. This year he salutes pathbreaking basketball coach John McClendon with “Fast Break.” Tio Hardiman from Violence Interrupters breaks down black gun deaths in “The Chicago Way.” Unavailable for preview was “Whitney: Can I Be Me?,” a Whitney Houston documentary co-directed by Nick Broomfield, known for profiling Courtney Love, Sarah Palin and Lily Tomlin.

Floyd Norman — Walt Disney’s first African-American animator– gives a master class (1 p.m. Aug. 26) preceding the 3:15 p.m. screening of “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.” Fest consultant Sergio Mims conducts an “Action! The Real Deal About Filmmaking” panel (3 p.m. Aug. 19) and “The Realities of Screenwriting” workshop (1 p.m. Aug. 27).

Animator Floyd Norman works on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” in 1956. | Provided photo

Animator Floyd Norman works on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” in 1956. | Provided photo

The following documentary films are highly recommended:

“Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” (5:30 p.m. Aug. 6 and 8 p.m. Aug. 7): After directing documentaries about Emmett Till, civil rights activists and the Black Panthers, Stanley Nelson delivers a nuanced narrative about historically black colleges and universities. This entry is a fine follow-up to last year’s “Black Students and the Transformation of the American University.”

“Quest” (3:30 p.m. Aug. 12 and 8 p.m. Aug. 14): For nine years Jonathan Olshefski documents a North Philadelphia family. Unobtrusively shooting and recording sound, he chronicles Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine and their daughter PJ. When Trump brays from their TV set, “It is a disaster the way African-Americans are living in many cases,” Christine talks back: “You don’t know how we live.” Olshefski lets us know in this case.

Christopher Rainey and wife Christine in “Quest.” | Provided photo

Christopher Rainey and wife Christine in “Quest.” | Provided photo

“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” (8 p.m Aug. 12): At 144 minutes, the fest’s longest entry is an indelible, nearly encyclopedic documentary examining race in L.A. John Ridley, screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave” (and expected to attend), composes a canvas with powerful photographs and incisive interviews.

“Wilmington on Fire” (6 p.m. Aug. 17): Christopher Everett wrangles a trove of archival evidence to illustrate an unthinkable racial tragedy in 1898 North Carolina. This is a timely backgrounder for today’s political terrain.

“Wilmington on Fire” | Provided photo

“Wilmington on Fire” | Provided photo

• “Bronx Gothic” (8:30 p.m. Aug. 23 and 6 p.m. Aug. 24): Andrew Rossi profiles Okwui Okpokwasili performing her one-woman show designed with collaborator Peter Born. Ian Hultquist contributes an eloquent score to this portrait of a brave, visceral artist.

“On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone” (8:30 p.m. Aug. 25 and 6 p.m. Aug. 26): Shot over 4,045 days, this diverting biopic discovers how ex-star Sly Stone supports himself: $5,000 fees for no-show interviews. Unlike his ex-“humanist” subject, Michael Rubenstone will show up at both screenings.

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