Power of Black Cinema Showcased at African-American Film Festival

by Naomi Ishisaka

The legendary poet and writer Langston Hughes once said, “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people – the beauty within themselves.” For the past 15 years, the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival (LHAAFF) has built a home for African American and African diasporic writers, directors, and community leaders to interpret the full range of beauty – resilience, humor, struggle, power – of their communities through film.

Through hundreds of films, talkbacks, panels, workshops, and celebrations over the last 15 years, the LHAAFF is now a critical stop for filmmakers on the Seattle festival circuit. LHAAFF films and conversations have taken audiences on a journey through every topic imaginable and provided an opportunity for local filmmakers to have their work screened before an audience.

LHAAFF Consulting Producer Karen Toering says the festival tells the stories of the U.S. and the world. “Black peoples’ stories are rich, complex and of interest. Period. They are necessary, because they are a part of the American story and our human story.”

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Filmmaker Ava DuVernay speaking during the 2011 LHAAFF filmmakers roundtable. One of Karen Toering’s favorite film festival moments was, “Sitting in the Silver Fork with Ava DuVernay as she shared her vision for what is now ARRAY (which has distributed 17 films so far).” (Photo Naomi Ishisaka)

Central to the festival’s approach is a belief in the wisdom of the community. “The LHAAFF is a people’s festival. Grown by the community,” Toering says. “So many of the films that we’ve screened in the fest have been at the suggestion of the community. ‘This is the Life,’ a documentary about a place that reminded us very much of Seattle’s Hidmo was directed by Ava DuVernay and had its Seattle premiere because of a recommendation by festival friend, Gabriel Teodros. “Lalibela,” a film about the unique, rock-hewn structure in Ethiopia was recommended by Tizita Assefa, a local Ethiopian festival friend.”

This grassroots approach also serves as a powerful proving ground for local and new filmmakers to connect with audiences and grow their craft. “LHAAFF and film festivals, in general, serve as a vetting platform that gives emerging filmmakers feedback and encouragement,” Toering says. “The fest has become a standing event in Seattle-King County’s cultural universe. Many attendees call it ‘the festival,’ because it has become a regular part of their cultural landscape.”

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Consulting Producer Karen Toering is honored for her work by Paul Toliver during the 2013 LHAAFF. (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka)

Beginning in 2016, the film festival became a program of the new nonprofit organization called Langston, housed at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Langston Executive Director Tim Lennon says the festival is a key part of their mission.

“It never ceases to amaze me how powerful and complex the stories of our people and community can be when we can see ourselves represented on the screen,” Lennon says. “There is power in our ability to tell and share our own stories.”

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Actor Robert Townsend shared sage elder advice at the filmmaker roundtable in 2013 (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka)

In this year’s festival, some of those stories include a special Sunday evening celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the Seattle Black Panther Party (BPP) featuring local filmmaker Rafael Flores’ film, “My People Are Rising,” about Seattle BPP leader Aaron Dixon.  

On Saturday, veteran screenwriter Charles Murray (“Luke Cage,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Roots”) will present a writing workshop with Jackie Stone (“Burning Angel Dust,” “Intercept”).

While deep inequalities for African Americans still permeate the world of filmmaking, Toering says with efforts like Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY film releasing network and the success of shows like “Atlanta,” “Queen Sugar” and films like “Black Panther,” some positive shifts are happening.

“We are seeing a change in the people who make African American films and the freedom they are giving themselves to tell their stories,” Toering says.

Langston Hughes African American Film FestivalFull schedule

Schedule highlights:

All events the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute at 104 17th Ave South, Seattle, WA, 98144, unless otherwise noted. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

Friday, April 20

12:30 pm – Matinee Screening: “Behind the Badge ,” a lunchtime discussion and film pairing exploring the Black community’s relationship with law

8 pm – Friday Night Feature Film: “Love and Life,” featuring local filmmaker Nikki Wade’s Seattle Premiere of Charlie “La Vie Magnifique De Charlie”

HepCat Ball – In partnership with the Museum of History and Industry, LHAAFF swings into style, featuring jazzy music, vintage duds with hors d’oeuvres included in the ticket price and drinks for purchase.

Saturday, April 21

12 pm – From Page to Screen Workshop: A writing workshop with veteran screenwriter Charles Murray (“Luke Cage,” “Sons of Anarchy”) and writer/director Jackie Stone (“Burning Angel Dust,” “Intercept”)

12:30 pm – Youth Film Showcase – featuring youth film entries and SIFF Crash youth workshop films

1:30 pm – Virtual Reality Workshop: Exploring Blackness in a Virtual World – SIXN Collective Experience

5 pm – ”Making SkyBreak,” -featuring Zo! “Making SkyBreak” is a behind the scenes look at the creation of Zo!’s latest soul album.

10 pm-2 am – Official After Party – Late night official after party featuring Zo! and Carmen Rodgers “Piano & A Microphone ” at Fred Wildlife Refuge

Sunday, April 22

6 pm – “My People are Rising,” a tribute to the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panthers with the Seattle premiere of “My People Are Rising” documentary with Seattle filmmaker Rafael Flores. This powerful documentary, over seven years in the making, tells the story of a young Aaron Dixon whose initiation, rise and founding of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party is chronicled.


Naomi Ishisaka is a journalist, photographer and designer whose work centers racial and social justice and communities of color. She has photographed the LHAAFF for over 10 years. http://www.naomiishisaka.com

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