INTERVIEW: KARAS LAMB | ART: DONTE NEAL
Representation matters. It matters behind the camera and in front. It matters in discussions of equity in communication. It matters because the power of media as a tool for the masses is discussed sparingly beyond viral videos, hashtag activism, and mainstream platforms for traditional reporting. It matters because people outside the halls of power should always be reminded that they, too, still hold it. So what does media access look like in communities where people have historically been othered and robbed of agency in telling their own stories? How will these communities change as the United States endures a very public and painful adolescence? What does resistance look like through the lens of narrative film? How do storytellers disrupt or simply do better than the previous generation? Is it still about upsetting the setup or creating something entirely new? Are there platforms for filmmakers of color to present original cinematic works outside of the heavily financed Hollywood system? Are those films, television shows and web series just as good as or better than what Hollywood produces? The answer, to the last two questions at least, is yes. As independent content creators and artists of color enjoy greater visibility, the old trope of “representation matters” has begun to resonate. Sandwiched between an increasingly violent socio-political climate and an artistic boom many are comparing to the great days of Harlem, filmmakers of color are assaulted by stimuli and charged with translating themselves and the pivotal moments of their lives in uncertain and arguably marvelous times — marvelous if only because instability is one heck of a muse. Filmmaker, curator, and founder of the BlackStar Film Festival, Maori Karmael Holmes, has created an intersectional, feminist space for filmmakers of color to exist, converse and screen their creative output every year in Philadelphia. To speak, specifically, to the myriad experiences that define and inspire them. To explore the art of the moving image in all of its manifestations and take ownership of that. To show up. On the big screen, of all places. Hers is a movement that is not about jockeying for a seat at the table but building one. More concerned with creating community than grassroots activist work, her commitment to safe spaces for filmmakers of color has arguably made something as simple as going to the cinema into a revolutionary act.– Karas Lamb
Philadelphia Printworks: As an artist, filmmaker, cultural worker and director of the BlackStar Film Festival, you wear many hats. Looking back over life to your first experiences with civic engagement and artistry, what were some of the formative moments?
Maori Karmael Holmes: A lot of my art training came from people who were from marginalized communities in one way or another, so I think that having a ballet teacher who was a Holocaust survivor and having a gay jazz teacher — being with people who were in some way survivors of something — I think it was an expectation. I think my mother really fostered her children to be artists. She had studied painting and wanted to be an artist. She always had us involved in the arts — I don’t remember a choice. I definitely remember getting concerned about financial security later, as a teenager, but as a child, it was never really a question. I was always dancing and painting and drawing and acting. I always had an internal sense of justice and I remember arguing with my friends growing up about things. I remember people making homophobic jokes and I would always be the one — like in eighth grade — to say “don’t say that” and that kind of stuff. I was hanging around hip-hop dudes who were deeply entrenched in their homophobia and in some ways I was afraid to even speak up because I didn’t want them to think I was gay. I wasn’t, but I spoke up anyway because I also had this sense of things being just. I remember participating in this protest with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement — it must have been in 9th grade — around environmental injustice in Alabama. This was, I guess, pretty formative. At the time I thought I was going to be a photographer and I would carry a camera everywhere. We were in this youth-led march on MLK holiday. This was in the early 90s. I’ll never forget because Dorian Missick, the actor, was there and some of our mutual friends. All of the people who were 18 got arrested and it was Dorian’s 18th birthday. I thought, “This is how you get welcomed to America.” I never forgot that moment. He had just turned 18 and got arrested.1 We were housed in the 16th Street Baptist Church where the bombing of the four little girls occurred — that was where we went for shelter because when we were approaching the City Hall we got sprayed with mace.
PPW: Was it ironic to you to be sheltered in a church that had been bombed?
MKH: It was completely. Also to be in that space, which you read about, but I had never been there. To be in the basement of that church with all of the historical markers — there’s an exhibit there. That, to me, was surreal. And I remember feeling like “We are not wanted here.” In a way that had previously been intellectualized for me, but I had not felt it in the way that my grandparents or my mother had felt it. In that moment I felt it because it was a peaceful protest. We weren’t doing anything. We were kids who were becoming politically conscious because of that experience, but also the music we were listening to. My mom also had a sense of justice and exposed me to lots of things. The whole Native Tongues moment — X-Clan and Public Enemy — all of that. Then Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X coming out. Just the early 90s. I remember answering my mother’s phone “Free The Land.” She was like, “You don’t pay these bills, that’s gonna end right now.” But, I was what they would say now is “woke.” At 14, I was really on one. I had another incident at my high school. My rebellion was to try to be normal because my mom was a weirdo and I was around weirdos. So, I was straightening my hair and trying to be all American. I was participating in all these clubs at school. I was a cheerleader. I was really trying to be normal. That only lasted two years because in 9th grade I became my school’s first black queen – not homecoming queen. They had another pageant that probably existed to feed state pageants and that sort of thing. I was the school’s first black queen and they stripped me of all the duties. The queen is supposed to introduce the king. They are supposed to lead this parade and do these other things. Then, all of a sudden, none of those things applied to me. At that moment I started being like “Fuck this shit.” Seeing that kind of micro-aggression compelled me to stop hanging out with people at my school. I started hanging on the weekends with people that would get together to hang and read African texts. I joined the Zulu Nation. I started finding another place for myself outside of school and that really changed things in terms of my politics. I can definitely say that studying certain things and having a different mindset have shaped me, but even in those spaces I felt outside because I would be arguing with those folks about homophobia or colorism or sexism or other kinds of things that were happening in those circles. Sexism abounds as you can imagine, in spaces where there aren’t many women. Everyone was older than me. I was this headstrong girl around all these dudes. So, I continued to feel like an outsider. I was searching for this other community. I did not find it there. That may be why I’m so obsessed with creating community.
PPW: Is your primary interest, then, rooted in creating community as opposed to just belonging to something? Do you feel more comfortable being the architect of something that other people can arrive at?
MKH: That’s not my intention when I do it, but I have, in some sense, not felt like what I wanted existed. So I created it. I don’t think I’ve thought about it as community when I set out to do it. I’m thinking of these ventures and then community emerges. With BlackStar and even Black Lily, to some extent, I have been trying to create what I now have the language to say is intersectional space. Because it hasn’t existed for me. You know, you’d just end up hanging out with different squads. And that was literally me high school at lunchtime, flitting from table to table. It was the artists and the black kids and the jocks — I was literally part of all of those scenes in some way and did not have a crew.
PPW: How have your activist interests and efforts evolved since then?
MKH: I don’t see myself as an activist because I don’t feel like I’m out doing the hard work of organizing around anything. I wouldn’t call myself that. I feel like I have a certain kind of politics and I have tried to infuse those in the work that I do. Of course, I’ve worked at radical organizations, but I haven’t been out rallying for anything specific since the early 90s.
PPW: As a festival organizer, creating this safe space for POC during the first year of the Trump administration, what is most important to you? What messages feel the most important? How do filmmakers of color and more specifically, the BlackStar Film Festival, contribute to activist movements — especially now, in obviously fraught political times?
MKH: That’s such a hard question because I think it’s always really personal. I think everyone has different things that they need to deal with at a certain time and so that becomes their issue for the moment. I’m invested in representation in a certain kind of way and making sure people are resourced to tell the stories that they need to tell — and having an authenticity around that so they are telling their own stories and someone isn’t telling them for them badly, inaccurately or inauthentically. That is what is important to me right now. In terms of our current administration, one thing that is emerging from the films that we have watched is the idea that this is not a new moment. It feels really, really awful because this person is so inelegant and brash and we have never seen anything like that, but in terms of the policies that we are assuming will happen, this is not the first time. We have more access to him and in some ways, are responsible for him. If people had not followed him on social media and thought he was interesting or funny or whatever, things may have gone differently. This is the presidency that Twitter makes and we are all responsible for that. Every person that repeats the story or shares the story — we are all culpable and that is reflected in our current moment, which is a narcissistic one for all of us. I try not to create such a hard schism that I remove myself from him because that is not real. And that is dangerous. It is just as dangerous as he is. Also, if we had other things in place, he would not exist. If we really attacked white supremacy or capitalism or the electoral college — if we didn’t have these issues, then he couldn’t exist. So, that’s what we need to focus on. He’s a distraction from what the real issue should be. You think about Nixon or you think about Reagan. It’s interesting, we have films from the 60s, after the murders of MLK and JFK. And we have films from the 90s, after the beating of Rodney King. And now we have these films from Ferguson. We have to remember that Ferguson happened during the Obama Administration. So all the stuff that exists is not about the presidency, but about the state of our union. And the state of global politics. It’s scary and I don’t have an answer. I’m just analyzing it and trying to find something useful in looking at it historically instead of just being reactionary. I think that’s also dangerous — that we are really reactionary instead of thinking beyond. I think it’s really sad that a lot of people don’t get upset until it gets personal. Instead of getting upset when it affects your neighbor. It’s not my nature, but I guess it is some aspect of human nature and I wish we could be more compassionate.
PPW: Is there cross-pollination occurring between artists and activists and the work that they do? Does one inform the other?
MKH: Absolutely. There’s no movement that we know about now without artists being involved. They archive it. Even if it’s as simple as photography — and I don’t say photography lightly — we wouldn’t know about these movements and be impacted by them if someone wasn’t there to document them in some way. Write down those stories. Share those stories. We think about plays during certain eras. The power of something like RENT, which shifted people’s entire perception of AIDS and HIV. People can’t see themselves and then this play enables them to see themselves. There’s The Cosby Show and people being able to relate to black people because of this show. So there’s this power, particularly in narrative work. Being able to move someone’s life is really powerful and so, they need each other. Absolutely. One of my favorite documentaries is Life and Debt, about how the World Bank, The IMF and the IADB basically undid Jamaica. It is so powerful. I’m not an economist and I don’t understand the world through that lens, but the way that the director unpacks globalism, the structure of these banks and then the structure of post-colonial society — it makes sense. It’s not just this info, she’s also got a Nyabinghi circle. It’s really rooted in the culture of the place, as well. There is this one scene where they are pouring milk out because they don’t want local milk to be sold. They want milk to be imported. I cried. It’s pure evil.
PPW: We live in an era where documentation of lived experiences runs the gamut from professional, big-budget productions to citizen journalist smartphone footage. Do you think that access to tools for capturing and sharing visual media has been helpful in amplifying narratives that are reflective of people of color, their unique communities, and experiences?
MKH: I think there’s some really innovative storytelling that’s happened because of cell phones. Being able to make people feel comfortable with smaller cameras has definitely allowed more intimate stories to be told. People act differently when they see a camera. I’ve definitely seen some films where because the camera person was using a smaller device, you could tell the person on screen was more relaxed. If it had been some big rig that required more than one person, that might have changed the subject’s response. I wouldn’t call it leveling the playing field, but it has added another dimension of intimacy to certain kinds of stories. I think those things are really powerful. I’ve definitely seen a shift in much younger people’s work — people whose entire high school and college experience has been shaped by Instagram. They have a completely different eye. For me, it’s mostly good, but it doesn’t mean they know how to tell a story. That’s the thing that still has to be taught. But it is really interesting to watch the capacity to compose and the thought process around it shifting very rapidly.
PPW: Piggybacking on that, with films like TIME: The Kalief Browder Story and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, do you think that filmmaking represents an opportunity to present facts and seek justice given the ways in which the judicial system systematically fails black and brown people?
MKH:Sometimes. It definitely seems that sometimes people are able to find some semblance of justice by presenting their stories. I imagine that that must be healing. I don’t know, but I imagine so. There’s this couple that was doing a series of plays with people who were exonerated because of DNA evidence. I know that for a lot of the formerly incarcerated people who participated in that, just telling their stories was a form of catharsis.
PPW: The 2016 election of Donald Trump prompted the Women’s March on Washington this fall. Since then some straight, queer and trans women of color have essentially accused cisgender white women of wearing pussy hats, performing activism and being ineffective allies. Of being disingenuous about the work of affecting policy for the good of all women. What do you think of that assessment?
MKH: I feel two ways about it. I think that anything that encourages people to be more active and to speak out against injustice is a good thing. I don’t think that that march was for everybody. Though I don’t think that means it should not have happened. I think that people who felt compelled to act and invigorated and optimistic because of that? Good for them. I hope that that encourages them to continue learning and being active. I do think there were some things that happened that were sort of tone deaf. I definitely had some experiences of my own leading up to the march, after the election, where I felt like there were lots of people who I perceived to be upper middle class and white and educated and progressive, who were sad and depressed. And I wasn’t feeling that way. I was really blown that we had elected this person and this was going to happen. I was hoping that something would happen where it would be shaken, but I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel like anything had been taken from me and I felt like these people genuinely felt like something had been taken from them. To me, it was really clear that we’ve been living in different places. In the same way that Barack Obama’s election made some people feel American for the first time. Suddenly it was possible for people to feel like they belonged in this country. So this was the opposite. I remember feeling uncomfortable with these people and their mourning because I felt like they needed me to comfort them. Like I’m some mammy. I remember being angry, myself, and I didn’t have words for it in the immediate aftermath because people were looking to vent and I wanted to be like, “This is our whole experience. Every day.” That doesn’t mean I wasn’t available to them, but that was a difficult experience. The other thing is that people want to be absolved of culpability. We know who voted him in. All of the numbers push in one direction and not others. So, this idea that certain people didn’t organize well enough. It’s like, “No. You need to organize in your own backyard.” Which people never do. That’s the kind of stuff that it brought up for me. It was less about the march and more about the conversations around the march — the conversations around the post-election environment that were really, really challenging for me. I know I developed a lot of language later, but those first two days I didn’t really know why I was angry. It was also very clear that if we needed to be fearful of what was going to happen right away, it wasn’t going to happen to those people that were in mourning. It was going to happen to queer people. It was going to happen to Muslim people. It was going to happen to brown people. It was going to happen to brown people that people think are Muslim. It was going to happen to brown people that people think are Mexican. Those are the people that are going to be affected, so why are you crying? This is not about to affect you. Your life is not at risk. So that was also part of what made me angry because it was tone deaf.
PPW: How can people tackle difficult conversations and differences more effectively as activists working toward a common cause? Is it a matter of leaving your baggage at the door, leaning into the work and ignoring the noise, or is there something else?
MKH: I actually think you need to bring your whole self to the work and be ready to be wrong and be ready to apologize and be ready, to be honest. I think a lot of us are not willing to do those things because we are culpable for whatever it is. If it is classism or racism or ableism. Whatever. I think that a lot of people don’t want to do that because it is uncomfortable. So, I don’t know how we do that without being really honest. I don’t think it’s leaving yourself or your stuff outside. I think we really need to bring it because that is where our commonalities are too. If you really brought all of yourself and weren’t pretending that we’re post-race or pretending not to see color or anything of that kind of bullshit, then I think you start to become honest. This idea of inclusivity versus diversity is really about the wholeness of where people meet. There are so many stories to be told. People don’t know who the people living around them are. We think in a black/white binary or male/female binary when there are all of these other people who live in this country and think and live outside of that. My mother used to say to me that the thing that made the Panthers dangerous, is that they were cross-race organizing. It wasn’t that they were black radicals. They were organizing poor white people and Asians and Latinos and that was the danger of it. Seeing people at the intersections where we all meet makes it clear that there are so many stories that need to be told. When we don’t, we don’t know that people exist. A lot of black people and Latin people have had an opportunity to amplify their stories, but then we forget about everybody else. We’re not thinking about the Indigenous people or the Asian people or the Arab people whose stories aren’t on screen. Or the other versions of us that aren’t on screen. I’ve been in spaces where the presence of black people onscreen or being nominated for awards has been celebrated. I said, “You know that’s great. But it’s still not good. Where are the Asian people, where are the Arab people, where are the Indigenous people?” And these people responded, “We don’t care about those people.” These are black people saying this. That is a problem. The way you were prevented from getting to the table? Now, you are preventing others from getting to the table. That’s not how we move forward as humans. But, that’s the training, right? The training is to be individualistic — to worry about yourself.
PPW: Coming off of Moonlight’s Best Picture win at the 2017 Academy Awards, can you speak to the significance of the win and film itself?
MKH: I thought the film was beautiful. I have very few problems with it. It was shot beautifully. It was acted beautifully. Everything about it worked really well. I’m very surprised that it won. Films like that don’t usually win, no matter the race. An intimate portrait is typically not an Oscar film. So that was really fascinating that it won and I’m glad it did. I think it’s too soon to tell what that means, though, because there are always aberrations. I’m very happy for Barry Jenkins’ career and the actors’ careers — the careers of everybody that was a part of that film. But in terms of it being a moment for the rest of us, we’ll see. Next year you could just go back to a typical Oscar win. I can’t think of the number. I think it’s something like twelve black people that have been nominated for Best Director, ever. I can’t think of the exact number. Between documentary and narrative, it’s about twelve, and six of them were nominated this year in the eighty-five-year history of the Oscars. So, part of me is feeling like this is a reactionary moment. I’m always wondering how sustainable this is and what real change is happening structurally. Last year or the year before last when #OscarsSoWhite happened, they brought a bunch of new members into the voting board of The Academy but the number is so small. I think they brought twenty new people on and that’s now maybe five percent of the Academy. So if that continues to happen, and the Academy starts to actually become representative, then I think we would start to see some actual change. I’m always concerned with how long things will last. I’m happy for Moonlight in the moment, but it doesn’t mean it is a movement or a shift until it happens next year and the year after. It has a real impact on people’s careers in the industry. Because that film did so well, you know that the conversation for the last twelve months has been, “How are we going to make a Moonlight?” All of these studios are thinking about what the next version is.
PPW: Were there other films or shows by or about people of color this year that really stood out to you? Which films? Why?
MKH: I think that there are a lot of filmmakers that I’m a fan of and I think that’s clear in the work that we do with BlackStar. I see my own training coming out the L.A. Rebellion, so the work of those filmmakers like Julie Dash and Haile Gerima. Then the people who were then influenced by them. So, I’m exceptionally proud of Bradford Young and his work as a DP. Now he’s directing and I think the way that he’s managed to be authentic and really dedicated to his craft is something I marvel at. He’s so clear and I’m astounded by that and really impressed. We were both sitting, watching film screenings during freshman year of college. He was clear back then about what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be. That twenty years of building his craft has resulted in this amazing work. It’s been a delight, as a curator, to work with Terence Nance and to see his work evolve. He has a whimsical way of thinking that I really appreciate. Part of me feels, though, like I haven’t seen THAT film yet that really captures me. That makes me want to make stuff. I had a conversation with Sonia Sanchez, and she asked if I was still writing. I said no and she said, “You have to write, my sister.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’ve been walking around for the past few years carrying this screenplay that I need to get out and that is annoying. I have to get it out. There are other things that I feel really compelled by outside of film. I’ve been into Master of None, which is brilliant. I’m into lots of existential things.
PPW: You have spoken before about the 1993 Julie Dash film Daughters of the Dust and its presence in your life as a film that you return to often. Why is that? What about that film resonates with you?
MKH: I first saw that film when I was in high school. It completely missed me. I didn’t get it. I saw it again as a freshman in college and I remember being completely stopped in my tracks. I had never seen anything like it. As I was coming into watching films, I was really into period films and it felt like the things I had seen in that space, but it had black people and it was set in the United States of America. It also was a story that I don’t think a lot of us really knew. Thinking about the Gullah people and the history of resistance that they had — I didn’t get all of that at the time, but it starts collecting in the back of your brain. Then, of course, the film was beautiful. There were so many different types of black people. I just loved it and then I started to study it and grasp it. I watched it over and over again and every time I watch I learn something else. Then I read the companion book that Toni Cade Bambara wrote the foreword to. Bell Hooks breaks down the script to look closely at the layers — there is a lot of Yoruba culture infused in there and the kind of signs and markers that come along with that. It became magical because it was such a densely layered film. I can’t say it made me want to be a filmmaker, but it made me really passionate about how stories could be told with complexity and specificity. I had a moment in my childhood where I just wanted to be from somewhere else. I wanted to have some other identity. I felt like people from elsewhere in the diaspora had a really strong sense of cultural identity and being American, as a kid, I never felt that. That film helped me to really see the beauty of the things that come together to make our Americanness. Also, owning it. Thinking about how challenging it must have been for those enslaved people to retain the stories about who they were and retain humanity and all of these other things. The part of the film where they go through all of the names and there’s “I Own Her” and “My Own” — I’m just imagining these mothers. The lives of their children are so precarious and it just gave me a deeper appreciation of identity that I hadn’t had before. I took for granted my grandparents’ lives and where they came from. I never asked. So, I think seeing that film and Sankofa, amongst other things, really fostered in me an appreciation for my own life. I feel really strongly about that because we are African, but we don’t know where we are from. You want to talk about diversity? You take Nigeria alone and unpack the number of different people and languages and religions and all of the things that are just there. We know we came from that whole coast, including Nigeria, but we identify with a couple of cultures and say that’s who we are. We have no idea. When we talk about other black people in the Americas, they have the same history. Whether they are from Jamaica or Guyana or wherever. They are the same people. So I really thought, I need to be proud of being from Oklahoma or Alabama. What is the culture of that? To be dismissive of it is unfair to our ancestors.
PPW: As a woman filmmaker of color and former organizer of the Black Lily Film & Music Festival for Women, what are some of the difficulties you have faced as a woman working in film and arts advocacy?
MKH: The few times I directed things, I felt like people aren’t listening to you and they are questioning your decisions. I have heard other women say that, as well. That there’s a real serious issue with authority. I’ve experienced that as a professor — people thinking that I’m not the one in charge just because of how I look. So, that’s been challenging. I have not tried the Hollywood path of trying to secure funding or any of those other things so I can’t really speak to film in that way. Conversely, I feel like the independent documentary world that I’m in actually has a lot of parity because there are not a lot of commercial dollars. I’m sort of in a privileged space in that way. I don’t feel like I have the space to be awkward and shy and go out and raise money for this festival. I have to be on and approachable and that is because I am a black woman. I have to be exceptional in order to make things happen because people don’t find those things quirky in black women. They find them off-putting. The difficulty, I think, is putting on this armor in interactions with other people all of the time. I’m much more comfortable with my authority now than I was ten years ago.
PPW: Has the feminist spirit of that creative platform translated to the run of BlackStar Film Festival?
MKH:I think that BlackStar also seeks to be feminist and intersectional when we look at films. I’m feminist and I think most of the people that we’ve brought on would identify the same way. I would say that it’s definitely there. I don’t know if that comes directly from Black Lily, but I think as a curator and organizer, that’s how I’m always thinking. So, in that way, the feminist spirit of that space is still a presence.
PPW: What are your biggest concerns as a U.S. citizen, living and working and creating in this country at this particular point in history? How are you dealing?
MKH: I’m currently fine. (laughs) A lot of great work comes out of discomfort because you’ve got to find light somewhere. So, I’ve definitely seen a lot of great work lately and I know it is because people are thinking more deeply in a sensitive space. That’s the only thing that I can say as it pertains to what I’m witnessing. I’m anxious about changes to our budgets at arts organizations and things like that. I don’t know what that means for us. I don’t know what is going to happen, given the way that our system is organized to be dependent upon wealthy donors and funders. I don’t know how the climate is going to shift. People could get really radical or they could get really scared. Who knows? And that is frightening when you are beholden to other people. I wish we were like a lot of countries in Western Europe, where the state allocates money and people can be freer with the work that they produce. But I know that that also has its drawbacks — you can’t make work about the state. There’s always a buyer. Sometimes people talk all this empty rhetoric about how they don’t want to go commercial or be a part of the Hollywood system, but that funder is no different than a major entertainment conglomerate. And, in fact, they are probably the same if you trace the money back far enough.
PPW: What would you be doing right now if you had the time and space to take on new creative projects?
MKH: I feel like I’ve got films still, to direct. I got pretty discouraged after Scene Not Heard. I also got distracted. I started doing Black Lily and that went really well for a couple years and I didn’t make the space in that time to start another project. Since then, I think I’ve just told myself I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t find the funding — just all of the nonsense that you start telling yourself. But I have stories that have not gone away, and I have characters that have not gone anywhere. Then I have things that I want to adapt. Several things that I really see. I see the scenes all the time. I’d be making films.
1. Per Dorian Missick, he was held but never charged.
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