In its twenty-ninth year, the annual Black Harvest Film Festival is well-established as the primary beacon in the Midwest for filmmaking that explores and celebrates the Black, African American and African Diaspora experience.
In its first year since the passing of its powerhouse co-founder, the Hyde Park-raised Sergio Mims, we corresponded right as the final schedule was announced to the public with Black Harvest festival coordinator-curator Nick Leffel and curator Jada-Amina about the evolution of Black Harvest’s mission, the 2023 edition and Mims’ legacy.
I always had the sense that Mims, an old friend and Newcity contributor, saw the industry in a holistic way—building relationships, mentoring, understanding production and distribution—but mostly about stories and people. That is, Black film has a legacy and its own esthetics to celebrate, but also holds the power to work within the larger film world and not to be isolated.
The next generation is here to insure that vision is sustained: Nick Leffel is an Asian and African filmmaker and film curator who assisted in programming the twenty-eighth Black Harvest Film Festival. He’s also a director whose films explore cultural upbringing, linguistics and international politics. “My role as festival coordinator is to foster a space in the Midwestern film scene where visibility for Black excellence is at the forefront. Each role in the Black Harvest family is cross-connecting, in that we all utilize our individual strengths in various ways to make the perfect film festival,” Leffel tells me. He says in the current Siskel calendar that “as a young filmmaker, most of these entry-level years have been spent trying to find and create industry spaces where equity for marginalized creatives is prioritized, while using my own voice to contribute.”
This is not Leffel’s first exposure to the festival. “I had the gracious opportunity in 2022 of assisting the programming for the twenty-eighth Black Harvest Film Festival, and I’m over the moon to be working as festival coordinator for this year’s twenty-ninth.”
Leffel is more than aware of the festival’s larger heritage. “When we face the ever-challenging plight of pioneering any newfound space for ourselves in the film industry, we inherit an absolute responsibility to treat such feats with care. It’s an obligation to inculcate future generations with the understanding that Black cinema presently stands on the shoulders of our cinematic forebears,” he says. “this responsibility is at the epicenter of everything we do.”
The theme of this year’s festival is “Revolutionary Visions.” This umbrella incorporates, the festival summarizes, “the history, politics, and art honoring the remarkable legacy of revolutionary struggle across the diaspora, and the intersectionality of Black experiences worldwide,” including a retrospective of the late pop-culture-pioneer John Singleton, from a 4K digital presentation of “Boyz n the Hood” to “Shaft” in 35mm, along with twenty features and ten programs of short work.
Of Mims, Leffel says, “The voice and legacy of our late co-founder can be found all over this festival. His wishes and aspirations live on due to the progressive hard work of our team, filmmakers and devoted festivalgoers. This year’s experimentally ambitious program honors and gives light to his lifetime of dedicated cinematic passion. The strong connections that new upcoming and seasoned filmmakers will make with intrigued audiences is a hallmark of Sergio’s legacy.”
What does the theme mean to Leffel? “When we talk about revolutions and vision, we voice our programming with the notion that film works beyond the conventions of time and space. To organize this festival meant wandering into a higher dimension and watching our filmmakers redefine Black cinema before our very eyes. We wish for these breakthroughs to inspire future creatives. Thus is cinema, a manifestation of the human condition, and the Black experience.”
Curator Jada-Amina, an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker and curator from the South Side of Chicago, says that her work invokes “the spirit of Black sonic and devotional traditions, they hum and hymn through the post-apocalyptic world through sound video, and collage,” working within “the fragmented essence of memory, where analog and cultural data transcend immateriality, forming conduits to other worlds. Their work evokes the speculative and surreal to navigate the liminal spaces of Black existence.”
That existence is portrayed in the work on screen at Black Harvest as well. “In the ever-evolving journey of Black Harvest, we’ve transformed from a celebration of Black cinema into a global stage that honors the legacy of revolutionary struggle in the Black diaspora,” they say. “We’ve broadened our horizons to emphasize the interconnectedness of Black experiences worldwide and the global impact of revolutionary movements. Looking to the future, our mission is clear: to continue the legacy of Black imagination and storytelling.”
The 2023 edition, “Revolutionary Visions,” Jada-Amina says, “epitomizes this evolution. It’s a unique place where people come to bear witness to critical and cutting-edge images of Black life on screen.” This year’s offerings include “a rich tapestry of experimental films and themes exploring surrealism and otherworldly narratives. We see this as an ongoing revolution because to start a revolution, you first have to imagine that another reality is possible. We are especially proud to feature films that push the conventions of the medium, opening doors to the world of Black invention. One such standout is Katherine Simóne Reynolds’ experimental film, ‘A Different Kind of Tender,’ which is the winner of this year’s Sandor Prize award (for feature length).”
“A life with a legacy is a life well-lived, and Sergio’s legacy shines brilliantly,” Jada-Amina continues. “Sergio Mims, the visionary who planted the seeds for this harvest, is beloved, and his legacy is honored in the twenty-ninth Black Harvest Film Festival. His contribution has cultivated an ecosystem of Black creativity, providing platforms for Black artists and uplifting their voices.”
In recognition of that legacy, the Gene Siskel Film Center helped establish the Sergio Mims Fund for Black Excellence in Filmmaking, to honor his legacy in giving a voice and platform to the next generation of Black filmmakers.
The twenty-ninth edition of the Black Harvest Film Festival runs November 3-16. Complete listings at siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest