Musical highlights at the fifth annual BlackStar Film Festival - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Syl Johnson from Any Way The Wind Blows | via

Since launching five years ago, the BlackStar Film Festival has made a major impression on the arts and culture scene here in Philly. The four-day independent film festival showcases artists of color doing incredible work in an industry that – like most, sadly – is still predominantly white, predominantly male.

This past spring, the #OscarsSoWhite conversation on Twitter underscored the need for events like BlackStar in purely representative terms. Beyond that, in the turbulent era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, listening to creative voices from communities of color is as important as ever. As organizer Maori Karmael Holmes said in a recent interview on Okayplayer, “I used to say ‘Oh I hope that BlackStar doesn’t have to exist in the future. That this work is part of the mainstream.’ Now, in this moment where we’re seeing that these social justice and civil rights issues have not really improved, I just want to maintain the space for recognition.” And with greater recognition and visibility, hopefully, comes greater opportunity – the process of affecting change for black and brown filmmakers.

This year, the fifth annual BlackStar Film Festival will screen over 60 films at International House and a variety of other venues around Philadelphia between August 4th and August 7th. They range from dramas to documentaries, comedies to experimental, feature-length to short…and several of them feature music in a big way. In that spirit, here’s a guide to your musical BlackStar experience, beginning with the opening day celebration of an unsung hero of soul.

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows – 8/4, 1:05 p.m., International House

In the 70s, Syl Johnson was a struggling musician working out of the midwest. He had some hits to his name — “Different Strokes,” “Come On Sock it To Me” — but didn’t ever break out. In the 80s, he retired and began to work in the restaurant industry, until his songs began to show up as hip-hop samples. You can hear Johnson in the work of Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and more. Directed by Rob Hatch-Miller, this doc takes a then-and-now look at Johnson.

Dreamstates – 8/6, 1:50 p.m., International House

Musician and poet Saul Williams stars alongside director Anisia Uzeyman in this road movie revolving around two central characters who forge deep bonds while on tour with their band. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Dreamstates is a 75-minute meditation on love and life

9 Rides – 8/7, 7 p.m., International House

Director Matthew A. Cherry is known for his work in the music video realm, helming shoots for Jazmine Sullivan, Bilal, Common and more. 9 Rides is his second feature-length film, and it rides along with an Uber driver making the rounds in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, the busiest night of the year.

In This World – 8/6, 10 a.m., Pearlstein Gallery

This short doc introduces us to Courvosier “Vosiey” Cox, a talented singer, actor and comedian who yearns more than anything to be onstage. This short by Kelly Creedon contrasts his talents with the struggles of adolescence.

Timbre of the Hour – 8/6, 11:45 a.m., International House

Numa Perrier, Joel Brody, Che Ayende unpack feelings of loss and regret to a moving musical accompaniment in this black and white experimental short by Nina Fleck and LeRoy Kangalee.

Forgiving Chris Brown – 8/5, 8:50 p.m., International House

This provocative dark comedy pits a character named Rihanna against a character named Chris, and while similarities might be purely coincidental, the name of the game here is revenge. Set in Joshua Tree and Malibu, Riri and her friends Halle and Tina pay back their tormenter in a big way. Bonus: this short by Marquette Jones screens with the excellently-titled rom com How to Tell You’re A Douchebag, which looks simply awesome.

See Me on the Beat – 8/4, 11:00 a.m., International House

This dance-oriented short film by Philip Asbury traces the journey of two strangers who meet on the floor of a salsa club.

The Grandfather Drum – 8/4, 3:30 p.m., International House

A drum with healing powers is at the center of this animated short by Michelle Derosier, a look at generational history in the context of a modern fable.

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