The Portland Black Film Festival: “Black Images Matter”

The 5th annual Portland Black Film Festival took place at the Hollywood Theater on NE Sandy Boulevard, starting on Thursday, February 9th, and ending on Wednesday, February 22nd. The Black Film Festival aims to bring the underrepresented African American experience to the forefront of Portland moviegoers’ attentions by exhibiting typically underappreciated black cinema in what has been justifiably called The Whitest City in America.

The festival this year featured films, lectures, and documentaries covering a variety of topics, issues, genres, and historical figures, including screenings of a film about Prince’s 1987 Rotterdam Music Hall performance directed by Prince himself, a documentary concerning black athletes in the hockey industry, and the 1973 blaxploitation classic Coffy, accompanied by a special guest appearance by the film’s leading lady, Pam Grier. One of the principal people responsible for orchestrating the Portland Black Film Festival is David F. Walker, a leading scholar on African American cinema and an award-winning comic book writer, journalist, filmmaker, and professor. A former screen editor and film critic for the Willamette Week, he teaches at Portland State University and offers lectures and presentations on a range of topics.

I attended a lecture as a part of the Portland Black Film Festival titled “Black Images Matter,” given by Mr. Walker himself. The lecture was focused on the presentation of African Americans in the film industry and the images of blackness put forward in pop culture throughout the years. The lecture began with a thirteen-minute video of spliced-together clips from films featuring black characters. The video included scenes from the 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. Also shown were clips from the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South featuring James Baskett, the 1992 movie Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington in the title role, Star Wars installments The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens featuring Billy Dee Williams and John Boyega, respectively, the Bad Boys films starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, and nearly a hundred more.

Walker’s lecture explored the consequences that these presentations of the black image in popular culture have in the real world. He began by discussing The Birth of a Nation, whose portrayals of black people, some played by white actors in blackface, would solidify the way African Americans would be shown in cinema for decades. He spoke about “integration” films, such as the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, which he asserted to be efforts to pacify black audiences. “Black audiences were and are infantilized, treated as young children in need of pacification,” he explained. This media phenomenon is even more relevant today: while a record-tying number of black actors were nominated for Academy Awards this year (with Moonlight taking home the award for best picture!), systemic racism continues to show itself in real and ugly ways. Just weeks ago, on the morning of the opening of the Film Festival, a young black man named Quanice Hayes was killed by police only three miles from the Hollywood Theater.

Walker discussed how the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, whose cultural background he is intimately familiar with (the late ‘80s California rap scene), exaggerated portions of the narrative it centered around in order to make the film seem more relevant to contemporary issues. This, he described, is a prime example of Hollywood’s efforts to pacify black audiences without making any real, constructive moves toward ending discrimination and racial subjugation. He expounded the issue of “oppression through omission,” which he called “Hollywood’s greatest weapon.” He told the audience about his childhood memories of watching films like The Wizard of Oz and Superman and failing to see any black munchkins, Ozians, or Metropolis citizens within them. “I hated those movies,” he confessed, “because I realized that there was no place for me in those worlds.” Walker’s acute analysis of black representation in film, interspersed with powerful personal anecdotes, established an important argument for the crucial need for more positive, realistic, humanized portrayals of the black image in cinema and in broader pop culture.

In the wake of national affairs, including the 2016 election and the first month of the Trump presidency, racial tensions and the resultant atrocities experienced by ethnic minorities for centuries are suddenly called to the attention of white America. David Walker’s lecture was a relevant and important dialogue for all in attendance. I encourage everyone, people of color and allies alike, to attend the Portland Film Festival when it comes around next February. This lecture and the Black Film Festival itself have provided a vibrant and pertinent communal space for communication, publicization, and empowerment much needed in today’s society.