Film fest caps 20 years of celebrating Black storytelling

Janae Bates
Photo by Charles Hallman

​It’s been two decades since the Twin Cities Black Film Festival (TCBFF) became an annual fall fixture for films, shorts, documentaries, and other cinematic projects by Black filmmakers. “It doesn’t feel like… I can’t believe I’ve done it this long,” said TCBFF Founder-Director Natalie Morrow during a break at the Sept. 16-19 festival held at the Northside’s Capri Theatre and the W Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. 

 “I’m very happy that I have [done this] all these years…when you think about all the movies and people that we’ve met in the 20 years, and our growth,” she told the MSR. “I’m happy and I’m glad that we are going in the right direction for that.”

Over the years, Morrow’s TCBFF has brought in the famed actors like Hill Harper, Nate Parker, Sterling K. Brown and Cory Hardrict, among many others, to make appearances and participate in Q&As—not to mention the countless filmmakers, the majority of whom are Black or people of color present to discuss their projects.

“I learned a lot from the filmmakers,” continued Morrow. “I love it when they come through. The year right before the pandemic [2019], we had 15 of the filmmakers come from out of state, and that was the most we ever had in 20 years.”

This year, several filmmakers, all first-timers, appeared with their films and spoke afterward. Christina Thurston directed “Boldly Beautiful Ethnic Hair on the Great Plains,” which focused on the issue of Black female hairstyles. “It takes a bold person to be a Black woman and walk into a predominately White space,” Thurston told the MSR. 

“It is important [that] we have the conversation in Black communities as well, because we’re constantly learning the different textures of hair [relating] to different products.”

Janae Bates was among a group of multimedia storytellers and community organizers that produced “Mine,” an animated web series that explores the theme of community versus individual survival. 

“It touches a little bit on immigration. It absolutely touches on climate justice. It touches on gender justice, or even generational justice,” said Bates, who works for ISAIAH, a multiracial statewide, nonpartisan coalition that advocates for racial and economic justice.

TCBFF annually features films of many genres—drama, comedy, suspense, nonfiction, topical documentaries, and live-action cartoons. “It is intentional,” explained Morrow. “I tried [each year] to have a balance.”

Such as Karla’s “Magic Soil,” a cartoon about a Black teenager who develops special soil samples: “I think it was just so refreshing and cute and adorable,” said the founder-director. “A really sweet animated film.”

“Hopeless Hills,” a tale about a Good Samaritan’s early morning stop to help a disabled motorist that quickly became a deadly game of cat and mouse, “was a horror [film], and we don’t always get those,” noted Morrow.

Meanwhile, “Don’t Block Your Blessings” featured an elderly Black woman with Alzheimer’s disease who was lost from her family for almost 24 hours. “That was absolutely wonderful,” said Morrow, “because it hit home in a few different ways. Alzheimer’s is something that’s prevalent” among Black elders and others. Her grandmother suffered from the disease, she recalled.

“I thought that we had a really good balance of subjects, because it’s all about the subject. It’s all about just the execution of that film, and I thought [this year’s films] were a good variety, a good balance.

“One thing [about] our festival is, I want to educate. I want it also to be something refreshing and also to inspire.”

(l-r) Natalie Morrow, Christina Thurston
Photo by Charles Hallman

Morrow estimated that over a thousand films have made the cut and been shown at the TCBFF over its 20-year existence, exhibited at local theaters, colleges and hotels around the Twin Cities.

“It was definitely intentional just to bring diversity,” said Morrow. “I also want us to have these upscale places like the W Hotel for people to see what we can do, and don’t just limit yourself to your community.

“Bringing it to other people, that’s really important to me—make it personable and make it comfortable so that people feel like being themselves.”

However, if there has been one disappointment for Morrow in staging the TCBFF over the years it has been her inability to attract more Blacks to come and watch the films she and her committee select for screening.

“I often wonder what I’m not doing to get everyone,” she said. “I feel I’m missing groups of people within my community. I have had some of the best support from some of the same people over and over, like the Spokesman-Recorder and HBO for 14 years out of the 20. 

“There are pockets of people that for some reason I’m not able to reach, and I don’t know what I would do, or what I can do to reach out and let them see what a great opportunity this is.”

The filmmakers do appreciate the opportunity to show their work: “I see myself as a filmmaker,” said Thurston of her first-ever directorial and producing effort. “Thank you for the Twin Cities [Black Film Festival] for making me a filmmaker,” she told the MSR.

Finally, the 2023 TCBFF is tentatively scheduled for October 19-22, 2023. Morrow said she hopes that her dream of a permanent location will be achieved by then.

“The next step for me,” she said, “is to really find a space where we can have a boutique theater, have a space for the creatives to rent out, and also have a coffee shop where people can network and connect.”

Next week: A conversation with first-time filmmaker Darius Arbury

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