"The Newark Black Film Festival" returns for its 37th year starting at 7 p.m. at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington St., Wednesday with an opening reception at 5:30 p.m. for the acclaimed 2010 independent film, " Night Catches Us," starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie. The youth cinema series runs Tuesday, July 5, through Aug. 10, with most selections showing Monday mornings at the main branch of the Newark Public Library then repeated on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. at the museum.
Line up early: The 300 seats in the museum's downstairs auditorium fills up fast; there also are 200 more seats in a museum location upstairs.
More about "Night Catches Us," some other festival venues and the plans for this summer in a moment. First, series charter member, Gloria Hopkins Buck, a longtime Newark Museum trustee and past licensed social worker in the Newark Public Schools, goes to the heart of the festival's success — over the years, it has attracted more than 170,000 adults and children.
"What makes this a film festival — something more than going to the movies — is that we frame each screening with introductory, often behind the scenes discussion about the film," Buck said. "Then, after the screening, we have a dialogue with the audience. We embrace the film; the audience becomes invested in it and engaged with the themes raised."
As to the audience, it comes from all over the Newark metropolitan area and has grown diverse during the years. "It's a festival for all people," said Clement A. Price, professor of history and director of the Institute of Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers in Newark and another festival charter member. "The Black experience is now a metaphor for the whole human experience."
"Our audience affirms us, they have grown with us," Buck said. "They know our selection committee will present works that they won't see anywhere else."
Both Buck and Price will host discussions this summer: Buck will be the host for opening film; film director Tanya Hamilton, who took 10 years to shoot the picture in Philadelphia, will talk about its creation. Set in 1976, in the waning days of the Black Power movement, "Night Catches Us" swept the Black Reel Awards with best film, best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay and best score citations.
Price will be both the speaker and the host for the July 27 screening of the award winning "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," (1974) which stars Cicely Tyson as a fictional African-American, born in slavery but living to bear witness to the first breakthroughs of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Other films will include "Cabin in the Sky," (1943) one of the few Hollywood films with an all Black cast — Lena Horne, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and the now too often forgotten Ethel Water, a legendary singer and actress. Hosted by Dr. Miriam J. Petty, also of Rutgers, film historian and author Donald Bogle returns to the festival as speaker. Bogle has a forthcoming book about Waters, has written about Horne and is the authority on the Black Hollywood experience during the golden age of film.
Among the other films playing will be a subtitled Spanish-language film, "When the Spirits Dance Mambo," (2002) on July 13 in celebration of the museum's current exhibit, "Ajiaco: Stirring of the Cuban Soul." (I will review the exhibit in early July). The museum will open that evening at 5:45 p.m. to allow viewing of the art. On July 20, the executive director as well as the director of photography will be present for a showing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) of the documentary "On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Never Heard Of" (2010) with basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
NJIT is among the festival co-presenters, along with the Newark Public Library, Rutgers-Newark and Newark Screens on Springfield Avenue, where the one-time only, Aug. 3, 1 p.m. showing of "The Wiz" with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson is expected to draw a huge family audience.
"The Newark Black Film Festival has been a part of the community for decades, providing a boon to the local economy and serving as a source of pride for residents," said Robert Doherty, Bank of America New Jersey president and one of the festival's sponsors. "Our long-time support of the festival reflects our belief that the arts, in all its forms, should be shared with the widest possible audience."
The festival origins goes back to the 1970s and Newark feeling the pall of the 1967 civil disorder. "Then, the festival was an antidote to the long hot summer of the 1960s," Price said. "We wanted a cultural event that focused on the black experience on film, attached it to history and unified the community."