LANGSTON’s Newly Rebranded Seattle Black Film Festival Moves Online to Celebrate Black Cinematic Brilliance

by Vee Hua 華婷婷

Celebrating the diversity of Black cinematic brilliance, the 17th-annual Seattle Black Film Festival (SBFF) begins Friday, July 10, and runs through Sunday, July 12. Hosted by LANGSTON, a hub for Black arts and culture in the Central District, this year’s festival will be presented online for the first time, in partnership with the independent film screening and music platform, Couch-a-thon. It comes three months after the festival was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Creatives need their works to be shown more than ever and to connect with other filmmakers telling Black stories. We feel the acute need [to show] solidarity and amplify voices,” explains SBFF Director Andrea Stuart-Lehalle. “This is really an important moment for Black creatives, so I’m really happy we found a way to keep our platform going.”

Formerly known as the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, SBFF changed its name earlier this year after a public survey process and consultations with local Black partner organizations, such as Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas and Sankofa Society. The dialogue confirmed what the festival’s leadership had long suspected: the festival needed a rebrand to better distinguish itself from LANGSTON (housed in the Langston Hughes Performing Art Institute) as a physical space and to more accurately represent its evolution.

“For the past several years, festival leadership found the LHAAFF name less and less reflective of the festival official selection films that were depicting not just the African American experience, but the Black experience across the diaspora,” says Stuart-Lehalle.

This year’s festival will feature more than 30 official film selections from throughout North America, as well as countries as distant as Nigeria, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. Highlights include the presentation of the award-winning feature film Nine Nights, a woman-centered narrative that explores the intersection of youth, tradition, and grief, directed by London-based filmmaker Veronica McKenzie. A number of curated short film blocks will also be sprinkled throughout the festival to highlight up-and-coming Black filmmakers.

“One of the most important parts of our festival, to me, is for Black people to see themselves depicted on-screen, in a variety of narratives that show the breadth and depth of our existence. Not typecast or token-cast,” explains Stuart-Lehalle. “It’s simply difficult to see the level of excellence in Black storytelling, with any real consistency or variety, outside the context of a festival like ours. Official selection filmmakers from years past have pointed out year after year the parts of their film that fell flat in festivals around the world, but when they screened their film at our festival, it was the perfect fit.”

In addition to short and feature film screenings, SBFF will also host a master class entitled “The Storyteller’s Toolkit,” a discussion on media literacy in the age of Black Lives Matter, and a showcase of short films made by youth ages 9–12 in partnership with Seattle International Film Festival.

During the festival’s opening night on Friday, July 10, SBFF will host the Black and Brilliant Short Film Showcase and Panel, with directors joining in from across the country. A number of local filmmakers will be in attendance to showcase their animated and live-action films, which step into surreal universes just beyond our fingertips or heighten the fantastical qualities of our existing world. Six of these filmmakers are highlighted below, with a synopsis of their work and commentary from the creators on why SBFF plays an important role for Black filmmakers at this time.

Film still from Black Champagne.

Black Champagne (2019) 

The first episode of an animated music video series titled Melanogenesis, which traverses epic landscapes and continents.

“Having grown up in the Seattle area, I think it’s very meaningful to have our work recognized and featured by peers from our own hometown. The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute played a pivotal role in giving artists like myself a platform for creative expression as a hip-hop artist in the ‘90s. That creativity has evolved over the years, and I’m excited to now present the culmination of this work as my first animated music video.” —Musician and Animation Director Jeremiah Williams

RESPEK (2017) 

A minimalist black-and-white video poem that dissects the detriments of respectability politics.

“Having my videopoem in SBFF bears significance for me because I get to add my experience and narrative to a burgeoning genre. My hope is to introduce videopoetry to my community as another avenue for our creativity and expression, while highlighting the insidious nature of respectability from an African American lens.” —Filmmaker Kamari Bright

Film still from Headless Into Night.

Headless Into Night (2019) 

A fantasy short film in which a young Black woman must interrogate her own fears and biases when her hyper-conservative father wages war against neighboring activist mystics.

“As an emerging filmmaker, it’s a great honor to have my work seen and appreciated by my local communities. The works highlighted in this festival attest to Black culture, creativity, and resilience. Now more than ever, I hope folks watching the festival are inspired to ask themselves ‘What’s my call to action? What can I do to shrug off complicity and support oppressed groups?’ Collective resistance creates roles for all of us; we all work in this space together.” —Writer and Director Nifemi Madarikan

Film still from RETCH.

RETCH (2019) 

“I am really grateful to have been involved in RETCH, and I hope it reminds folks of the expansive space that science fiction opens up for stories about racist acts of violence. I love the truths of those films set in ‘fictional’ worlds. I hope people see the horror in RETCH matching the horrors of racial violence in the world and get angry and active.” —Director Tifa Tomb

“Every day and night, protestors fight for our rights in Seattle. I can’t join in for health reasons. What I CAN do is write. I strive to illuminate injustices and make people think with film. Having my film in the Seattle Black Film Festival right now allows me and everyone involved with the film to contribute in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have been able. RETCH delves into how unchecked biases and fears can harm us. I hope my film and others in the festival encourage communication among viewers about the consequences of racism.” —Writer Nicole Pouchet

Film still from Our Troll.

Our Troll (2019) 

“I think at this time as a community, we’ve been focusing on spreading the message that Black lives matter, and in support of this, we’ve been focusing on Black pain, rage, and death. Sharing unique Black stories shares Black love, Black joy. It gives us more avenues to show that our experiences, and art, are multifaceted. I hope non-Black people leave this event understanding how diverse the Black experience is. And I hope Black folx (myself included) leave the event excited to see what a post-pandemic world holds for the next gen of Black stories.” —Writer, Director, and Producer D.J. Walker

All screenings for the 17th-annual Seattle Black Film Festival are paywhatyoucan, and while no tickets are required, donations to LANGSTON will support the nonprofit’s mission to “Cultivate Black Brilliance.” SBFF 2020 is hosted in partnership with the Seattle-based online independent film screening and music platform Couch-a-thon, which will help adapt the festival to a fully online experience. See the full festival lineup here.

Vivian Hua (華婷婷) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares stories of observations through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! and is a Co-Founder of the civil rights film series, The Seventh Art Stand. In 2018, she released her narrative short film, Searching Skies — which touches on the controversial topic of Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States — and plans to soon begin production on Reckless Spirits, a comedic Asian American series. She is passionate about researching efforts to preserve cultural space and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures.

Featured image: 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.” (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)