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Arts & Culture

San Diego Black Film Festival

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Festival director Karen Huff-Willis says "the event is one of the fastest growing black film festivals in the country with over 100 films being screened in 2008 with use of four theatre screens." This year the festival received the most submissions yet -- 250 -- and will be showing a diverse array of work from around the world and ranging from features to shorts, dramas to documentaries, Christian films to children's animation. Even the Enterprise's communications officer Uhura -- um, I mean Nichelle Nichols -- will beam down for an indie film called Lady Magdelene's , in which she plays the Madam of a Las Vegas brothel that's taken over by the IRS when she fails to pay some back taxes. Nichols, who once sang with Duke Ellington, treats viewers to a bit of singing here and proves there's life after Star Trek.

Nichelle Nichols in Lady Magdalene's screening Saturday at SDBFF (Jesulu Productions)

When I met with Huff-Willis, she was eager to show me the new offices on Market Street for the San Diego Black Historical Society from where the festival is run. Huff-Willis seemed more excited than daunted by the twin tasks of moving into a new facility AND staging a film festival. She says that the new building will have a gift shop, geneology research room and an exhibit space (where she hopes to have a show on Ancient Nubia with a mummy). Huff-Willis, who also runs the San Diego Black Historical Society, came to film from an interest and background in history. She majored in business and law but she says her interest in history led to an obsession with documentaries and ultimately to a broader interest in film.

"Film captures a specific time and place with respect to African American history and culture. Film is very important. Films are like a microcosm of what's happening in a particular time in our society so to have a motion picture of the history of African Americans in this country or blacks all over the world, that's very important, that's the powerful thing about film. So from a historical perspective, as a historian running a historical society you better believe films are very important to us."

Huff-Willis has been with the San Diego Black FIlm Festival since its inception five years ago, and is happy with the way it has grown. For its inaugural event, the SDBFF presented a selection of films with and about Josephine Baker . Then it focused on pioneering black silent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux . But with an increase in entry submissions and black filmmakers becoming increasingly prolific, the festival has happily had to expand its programming.

"Our film festival is sort of segmented," explains Huff-Willis, "we have everything from the Christian films. We have several wonderful Christian films, Too Saved, A Deeper Love , for example, and that runs Saturday afternoon. We have animation for kids, we have Obara and the Merchants, Dex Davis Child of God , so our children's films are very wholesome. And we even have a GLBT section, we've done that for the last three years. We have Blue Point and Dreamboy: My Life as a QVC Host . And we have the Hip Hop Marathon this year. We received so many Hip Hop films, so we decided this year to lump them together and run them Friday and Saturday. We have 30 some Hip Hop films. We have everything from films with LL Cool J to some of the pioneering rap artists like Flava Flav, and from teh south, Ya Heard Me. "

On Saturday night, th efestival will host the world premiere of Kings of the Evening , starring Glynn Turman. He will be receiving the SDBFF's Award of Merit. The award is presented to African American filmmakers and actors whose work is pioneering and embodies greatness and longevity. Turman will be presented with his award during the Awards Party Ceremony, Saturday February 2 at San Diego Wine & Culinary Center.

In a press release, Huff-Willis stated: "We’re proud to honor a great actor like Glynn Turman whose style, personality and method of acting in such films as Cooley High, and J.D.’s Revenge, was pioneering to say the least and he’s an important part of the history of African American cinema. We’re presenting him with our festival’s highest honor, the Award of Merit, not only for his role in these cult classics, but for his longevity on stage, television, as well as motion pictures,”

Turman's an actor who has risen from the ranks of Blaxploitation films such as Cooley High, and was recently seen in a recurring role on cable's The Wire where he plays Mayor Royce. Kings of teh Evening is a period film set in Depression-era America. Five African Americans find themselves thrown together in a boarding house, and as they struggle for survival, they are forced to face their problems and ultimately learn, by way of an unusual fashion contest, that the only thing a man really owns is his pride and self-respect.

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Glynn Turman, who will receive the Award of Merit, in Kings of teh Evening (Picture Palace Films)

One of the documentaries that Huff-Willis would like to highlight this year is Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons . Through a series of interviews, the film explores questions of faith and identity among black Mormons. The film actually serves as a nice complement to the upcoming rebroadcast of the Frontline documentary on on Mormons in America that scrceens in KPBS in February.

The festival will also showcase films from Africa, something that we see far too rarely here in the US, and films from black hispanics. There will be films from Puerto Rico and Brazil for which the SDBFF will be partnering with the San Diego Latino Film Festival .

The San Diego Black Film Festival runs Thursday through Sunday at the Regal United Artists Theaters in Horton Plaza. For more information and a complete listing of films go to www.sdbff.com or call (619) 232- 1480.

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