I’ve been fortunate to interview some of the up-and-coming female programmers who have come out of Chicago. Earlier this year, I spoke with Imani Davis, who now is a programmer at the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles. Last week, I talked to a poetic soul, and the new lead curator of the Black Harvest Film Festival, Jada-Amina. You can tell she is deeply in touch with the Black community here in Chicago, having grown up with her mom taking her to Black Harvest Film Festival every year.
It seems only right that Jada-Amina would take the baton from my dear friend, Sergio Mims, who touched countless lives before passing away last year. When I spoke with Jada-Amina, I got really excited by the passion she has for her history, community, and how Black women are represented both onscreen and behind the camera.
The Black Harvest Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, November 3rd, and will be screening at its festival’s annual home, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center. This will be the festival’s 29th year, and you can get your tickets here.
What has your relationship been to the Black Harvest Film Festival, and how did you get into this Lead Curator position?
I’m from the South Side of Chicago, born and raised, and that is where I’m based currently. I’ve also lived in a few other places during my adulthood. I think that what’s interesting is that I went away and then I came back. And people don’t do that [laughs]. Some people leave–
–-and never come back.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve really grounded myself here in Chicago. Because I’m from here, my family is from here. They migrated here too. I didn’t end up here for no good reason. There are good reasons why I was born here and my family got here. I used to joke with my grandparents when I was growing up by asking, “Why here?” Because it’s cold as shit. We are Black people and we are typically tropical, so why here? As I would ask that, I had to ask myself, ‘Who would I be if I was from another place?’
The answer to ‘Why here?’ is largely because in Chicago, we are such a strong and passionate Black community. We have this shared history as Black people, from slavery to Jim Crow. In history, there have been wonderful contributions from Black Chicago in creating this new world we find ourselves in.
My mom took me to the Black Harvest Film Festival growing up, and so it’s been a big part of my life. Every year for the festival, I would get my popcorn, go to Theater 1 or Theater 2, and watch these amazing films. Now I’m on the other side of the podium, and it’s come full circle. I have a very non-linear entry into film and this position. I’ve been curating in the arts for some time, and I went to art school. Growing up, I dealt with learning disabilities that were all undiagnosed, but teachers were like, ‘She can draw really well. She is so talented through her art.’ My mom fortunately nurtured that. I felt like I could build new worlds through my art.
When I got to college, I didn’t like what I was seeing. I didn’t feel like there were enough people who looked like me. I wanted to change that, so I got into programming, and film was just one of the avenues in doing this. I am also a songwriter. I do a lot of things, not because I am the best at them, but I feel called to them in order to preserve this history, and I am compelled to be doing this work.
Did you have a relationship with Sergio Mims before he passed? He was a dear friend to me and my husband, and I think it’s amazing that you’re taking up the mantle from an extraordinary person.
I did not have the pleasure of meeting him. I never crossed paths with him in this dimension. But I feel like the baton was handed to me, and I met him through the work. We have the Sergio Mims Filmmaker Fund to raise funds to support emerging Black talented filmmakers. This is the seed of Sergio, and so is the whole festival. I feel very immersed in the work and the liberation of the work.
I’d love to discuss some of the programs you’ll be featuring during the festival. Of course, I was zeroing in on the female filmmaker night, and RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert’s connection to that program.
Two of our shorts programs highlight Black female filmmakers with SISTERS OF THE YAM and PHENOMENAL WOMEN. I’m very passionate about elevating Black women voices, Black Trans women voices, and Queer people’s voices. For the PHENOMENAL WOMEN program, these filmmakers identify themselves as women.
People will choose different genders for themselves and align themselves in different ways, but for this program, we are celebrating women filmmakers, and all of their achievements. Thelma Golden broke down so many doors for Black female filmmakers. I always like to look at the great women curators who came before me. Maya Angelou was the inspiration for PHENOMENAL WOMEN as the title. I’m going to keep it real–I haven’t read the book–but it is on my reading list.
Just thinking a lot about Black women’s stories, it is so terrifying. Because you are Rebecca of Cinema Femme, I think that we can talk about how vital and how necessary it is for one Black women, and women in general, to build their own counter narratives, especially when it comes to Black women’s history. If we left it up to white women and white men, and not Black women to tell our stories–oh my god, who would I be? So we just want to create a space in the theater, because these people are creating spaces, and contributing to our ecosystems. We’re just seeing their final products, and it is an honor to elevate these Black female experiences and voices for folks to bear witness to Black women. We need films like these, and these spaces for people to sit next to one another and bear witness to one another in ways that they may never otherwise do.
What do you think is unique about this year’s festival, and what new aspects are you trying to integrate into the programming?
I really respect my elders and I have a reverence for them. It is important for me to revere the voices that have come before me when I think about what to include in the festival. But there is a subject matter that is very relevant to me. Misogyny exists, especially when it comes to Black women. We see onscreen often this dilemma of a Black woman having to choose between her job or her love relationship. Why can’t we do both? Why can’t we have both? Why are we put in these precarious situations of either or? So we’re not programming it. It can have a home somewhere else.
I always tell this story: I was at a coffee shop, and a woman asked for decaf, and the guy said, “We don’t have decaf, but keep asking for decaf. Because if you keep asking for decaf, management is going to come around and get decaf.” I thought that was actually profound, and I said to the lady, “Ma’am, keep asking for decaf.” If we keep demanding change, we’ll see it.