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Chicago Talent Shines in Black Harvest Film Festival
by Cleve Adkins

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The inspiring dance and rhythms of the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, under the direction of Artistic Director Amaniyea Payne, opened the Ninth Annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video, which ran Aug. 1-14.

The event, which continues to gain a larger viewing audience, was again held at the Gene Siskel Film Center and was sponsored by Target Stores, Marshall Field's Gives and Chicago Public Radio. It was a banner year for some of Chicago's talented directors and cast members, including Pamela Sherrod Anderson, LaTonya Croff, Coquie Hughes, Roderick Kirkman, Keith L. Ransfer and Yvonne Welbon.

During the opening ceremonies, The Siskel Film Center paid tribute to V103 radio personality and Director of Community Relations Bonnie DeShong, who was presented with Black Harvest's first annual Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership. DeShong also served as the honorary chair of this year's festival. Also on hand to share words of encouragement were emcees Merri Dee, WGN-TV Community Relations Director and Richard Steele, a host and producer for Chicago Public Radio.

DeShong was clearly moved as she accepted her award, which she dedicated to her parents.

But the real winners were those who attended the films this year because there was something for everyone. The first film shown was a short romantic comedy, Short On Sugar, written by and starring actress Lynn A. Henderson (ER, Seinfeld, Will & Grace), who joined the audience to introduce and talk about her film. From this writer's vantage point, Henderson definitely has a future in the writing and directing side of the business. Her film was funny and fast-paced—but also one that caused us all to consider the challenges of looking for love.

The opening-night feature, Madame Brouette, by award-winning Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa, featured a feisty woman who defies the male-dominated traditions of her culture and seeks financial independence while raising one child and preparing for the birth of a second from an ill-advised liaison with a town police officer.

Filmed in Senegal, the piece was haunting but difficult to believe. Perhaps times have changed for the women of Senegal to the point where they can envision their lives based on their own terms and shaped by their own hopes and dreams.

While it was impossible to see every film at the festival, there were five that left this writer wanting more and hoping that somehow, these outstanding pieces will find their way either on public TV, in video stores or even on the silver screen.

For jazz lovers, there was the elegant and emotional documentary featuring the amazing vocalist Jimmy Scott in Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, directed by Matthew Buzzell. Scott, nearing 80, still has that magical, almost haunting voice that takes listeners back to those 'real jazz days' when Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton dominated the arena.

Of Men and Gods and A Red Ribbon Around My House, were two other documentaries that attracted a large audience at each showing. The former revealed the daily lives of openly gay men in Haiti—where homosexuality is still taboo—and their voodoo beliefs. The latter was an entertaining, joyful piece about Pinky—a flamboyant South African AIDS activist, wife and mother who is HIV-positive. Her message throughout the film was 'there is power in disclosure.'

The story of a talented basketball player whose career has developed behind bars instead of on the NBA hardwood was told in Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius 'Hook' Mitchell. What made this film worth seeing were the telling testimonies and on-court performances by 'Hook' and his former Oakland friends, including Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Brian Shaw, who each say that in terms of raw talent, the 5'9'' 'Hook' was better than any of them.

And it leads one to consider, 'how many other 'Hooks' are there out in the world—or locked up—whose future could have been so much brighter?'

Chicago director Coquie Hughes contributes a gritty drama in her If I Wuz Yo Gyrl, which unabashedly explores the issue of domestic violence as it affects two interrelated couples: an emotionally cold attorney and her much younger lover and an aggressive, violent butch lesbian and her partner, who has been abused by her father, her husband and now her lover.

Hughes said during the discussion that followed the screening that she hopes to sell the script. But it is this writer's hope that someone will see the real power and value in this film and make it available for a wider audience in its present form.

However, the movie to see was one directed by Matthew Miele, written by Christopher Fetchko, and co-produced and featuring Ernie Hudson, called Everything's Jake. The film tells the story of Jake, a homeless man whose 'house' is New York City. And for Jake, being homeless is a choice—a way of life—that he wouldn't have any other way.

The film does not lead us to feel sorry for Jake or any of his 'companions' but it does make one consider the sometimes unfortunate situations that lead one to become homeless and the often insurmountable odds that one must face to get back on their feet. Also featured were Debbie Allen, Robin Givens, Lou Rawls and Doug E. Doug in a piece filmed entirely in the streets and habitats of NYC, before the World Trade Center disaster.

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