Black Alphabet Film Festival

Photos Courtesy of Black Alphabet Film Fest

In the inaugural launch of the Chicago-based Black Alphabet’s debut event, the community-based group is launching its first annual Black Alphabet Film Festival (BAFF) on July 2nd and 3rd at the Center on Halsted and Inn of Chicago, respectively. Featuring a combination of nearly twenty shorts and features from around the world, the two-day event marks one of the first exclusively black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) and same gender loving (SGL) film festivals the city has seen in recent memory. BAFF also boasts a handful of screenings receiving their official Chicago premieres, including: Friends of Essex, a documentary meditation on the continuing influence of poet activist Essex Hemphill; Glitterboys & Ganglands, a documentary about transgender life on the South African beauty pageant circuit; and I Didn’t Know Mark Carson, a short on the recent New York City gay hate crime slaying. Co-sponsored by Affinity, the Center on Halsted (COH), and Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus (CBGMC), the event is expected to be one of the highlights of this year’s annual Chicago Black Pride festivities the week of July 4th.

“Established this year and named precisely because of the mouthful naming LGBTQ/SGL inclusivity can be, Black Alphabet is a creative and entrepreneurial collective of black sexual and gender minorities committed to art, culture, health and entrepreneurship in the “Black Alphabet” community. Events like BAFF exemplifies the collective’s goal of promoting, highlighting, and discussing the ways the black lives of sexual minorities are celebrated and represented in various creative forms across the African Diaspora, from film to theater, music to literature,” said L. Michael Gipson. sat down with the Black Alphabet organizers, Janelle Allen, Brenikki Floyd, Sanford E. Gaylord, L. Michael Gipson, Carol Harris, Tim’m West as well as newest member Langstan Smith to find out what inspired them to embark on this new venture.

PRIDEINDEX (PI): The “Black Alphabet Film Festival” is a collaborative event organized by LGBTQ promoters/artist, etc. How did this collaborative effort come about?

JANELLE ALLEN (JA): The film festival came about as a result of several collaborative efforts. Initially, I contacted Amir Dixon in regard to screening his film, Friend of Essex, here in Chicago. To my surprise, Amir mentioned that he was already in talks with Sanford Gaylord and Tim’m West.

SANFORD GAYLORD (SG): I met Amir Dixon earlier in January at the 2013 National African American MSM Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS. At the Forum Amir screened his documentary “Friend of Essex,” homage to the prolific writer, producer and activist, Essex Hemphill. I was thrilled to know that the documentary had garnered a planned screening in Chicago scheduled for early spring. Unfortunately there were some challenges and the screening didn’t happen. Because Amir is my chosen nephew, I felt the need to step in and ensure that people of Chicago and the Midwest would be able to see this incredible documentary. So I reached out to Tim’m and he to Janelle and Brenikki…

TIM’M WEST (TW):   Brenikki and I Co-chair the Sports and Culture Division of United Black Pride and felt that there was a larger spectrum of black queer folk, many of them transplants to Chicago, really interested in rejuvenating Black Pride in Chicago…

JA: …and as we had been brainstorming about the various culturally-oriented events and activities that we would like to see take place in our community the idea of having an LGBTQA film festival came up.

TW: When we met with Janelle and others, we saw the promise of energy; we saw fresh ideas that   mirrored our own. We were adamant about the inclusion of black people who identify beyond the LGBT or SGL, we saw the possibility of a broader more inclusive collaboration. Black Alphabet enables the possibility of both existing and emerging identities.

JA: We all came together and decided that an opportunity existed to not only screen Amir’s film, but also create Chicago’s first Black LGBTQ film festival.

BRENIKKI FLOYD (BF): Frankly, I don’t believe in coincidences. We were all operating among similar interests and passions.

L.MICHAEL GIPSON (LM): My participation came about organically through my decade-plus friendship with Tim’m. He recruited me to the team when he was starting to work with Black Alphabet at the formative stage. I in turn recruited him to my program committee at Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus. I think I got the better part of the bargain. Having met and gotten to know so many on our team, I think our collaboration is kismet. We’re the perfect mix of skills, talents and knowledge to come about at the perfect time to highlight the best of our creative community.which allowed for this great group of energetic people to come together to build this great event.

LANGSTAN SMITH (LS): I had an organic induction as well. I was also recruited by Tim’m to create what is now the event and organization logo. I guess they liked what I had to say beyond that and the next thing I know I was being included in emails, teleconferences and meetings. It is very true what L. Michael says, there is a great wealth of positive energy and talent in this group.

JA: It’s been a pleasure and an honor collaborating with so many members of our talented community.

PI: Briefly describe some of the obstacles that were faced to get this project off the ground, and what specific steps you followed to overcome them.

JA: The biggest challenges have been funding and structure. We self-funded this project because we all strongly believe in the mission.

CAROL HARRIS (CH): I agree, we began this project with no budget or financial resources available. This has made it difficult to rent equipment and pay for program printing, etc. The solution was to pool our individual funds together.

JA: Additionally, we quickly realized that we were more than just a film festival; we  wanted to form an organization to ensure the future of Black Alphabet. We’re currently formalizing our business structure and mission as an organization.

LMG: Funding is always a challenge, one we’re still working and visioning through as we determine our structure long term. Time is another.

TW: Exactly, a big obstacle has been the short amount of time in which to make magic happen; and the reality that, with the exception of Carol, Sanford and Langstan, everyone else involved is fairly new to Chicago. L. Michael, though raised here, just moved back after many decades away.  We are all perfectionists who believe in high-quality execution, so it wasn’t about throwing something together quickly. To that end, creating a strong   collaboration for Black Pride…

LMG: Also, making time as in-demand leaders, educators, researchers and entrepreneurs is tough. We all still have to eat. So, we’re respectful of those realities. We also work around those challenges to achieve a shared vision by being honest enough with one another to say “hey, we aren’t ready to take that on just yet; let’s pace ourselves for the long haul.”

SG: I think that this has been done successfully and we have a group of dedicated and passionate professionals who saw the benefit as well as future opportunities down the road that could be built upon.

BF:  We also want this event that we are creating for the community to be “of” the community.  So in addition to giving community organizations and businesses the opportunity to support BAFF as sponsors, we offer the opportunity for the community to promote their organizations and businesses by purchasing ad space in the event program booklet. This is a great opportunity for both BAFF and the community. I hardly ever quote rap music, but as Drake’s song says, “we started from the bottom, but now we’re here,” making strides to grow Black Alphabet and the community. Did I really just quote Drake?

[Groups laughs]

PI: Per your mission statement, “Black Alphabet symbolizes the unity and sexual diversity in the Black community.”  Why do you choose to limit your scope of this festival to the African American gay community rather than to all gay people regardless of color?

CH: I don’t believe we are limiting our scope, but simply concentrating on a specific group within our community that rarely gets this type of cultural attention.

LMG: It’s an interesting question that I don’t think is ever posed to Jewish or Asian organizations, but always to black ones who dare to want to represent the best of ourselves to and for ourselves.

JA: For generations, various communities have chosen to support and recognize their own. By choosing to tell our own stories, we self-affirm and self-actualize. It’s important to note, however, that all allies are welcome to join in our celebration.

TW:  People of all colors are welcome to celebrate Black Pride, but Black Pride exists in the first place because of historical exclusion and marginalization by majority white gay communities. I work in Boystown, so the ability to have positive and affirming programming highlighting black diversity is critical to self-affirmation.

SG: Exactly, sometimes one needs to find cultural and sexual identification from the group that they belong. I think it’s imperative to create those safe spaces to affirm. I think the scope can be broadened and always be inclusive, but as people of African descent we need to stay true to that and nurture the generations that follow us all.

BF: For many years there was a paucity of Black LGBTQ cinematic work in mainstream America. As a consequence, I think for many people there has been a void of images that truly reflect real people in our community.

LMG: There are other spaces for—and organizations devoted to—a broader, multicultural lens, ones we’re glad exists and whose arbiters we’ll collaborate with as those chances arise. But, in these entrepreneurial times, we think it important to demonstrate what we can do for ourselves as a community by bringing something to the table that honors and celebrates our creatives’ artistic visions.

BF: Fortunately, there are many new independent film makers of color who are making documentaries, movies, and web series to fill people’s love and need for media that they can relate to. Additionally, we want to provide an opportunity for everyone to be able to see works that they either have never heard of before or would not have had access to otherwise.

PI: What’s the significance of the name, “Black Alphabet?”

SG: Janelle introduced the idea and mission. Other members provided perspective and it encompasses us all.

JA: It means Unity, inclusiveness and community.

CH: Yeah, unity among the African American Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer or Questioning, Same Gender Loving community.

JA: Black Alphabet is a term of endearment that I use with my partner when referring to our Black LGBTQ community. When it came time for us to select a name for the film festival, I casually mentioned “Black Alphabet” as a means of being inclusive and it was an instant hit. As a community, we often get lost in acronyms, unintentionally excluding many for the sake of few; our aim is to celebrate all individuals within our community and remind ourselves that when all the letters come together, we are one.

LMG: We thought rather than risk leaving anyone out, we’d let everyone in. I think Black     Alphabet does just that.

BF: It captures every corner of our community without one getting tongue tied when referencing us.

TW:  Plus, it gets hard to try to remember what is beyond LGBTQRSTUV… [Group Laughter] Black Alphabet is a way of saying: “However you identify, you can come home here.”

LS:   Randomly I played with tag lines while creating the logo and there was at first a strong need to stay away from any attachment to the rainbow. And we did try several treatments , but the rainbow would not be denied. [Group Laughter] But we needed something that said that there was even more to us, so I came up with the tag line…”Telling our stories beyond the rainbow.”

PI: Do you plan to make this an annual event?

JA: Absolutely!

TW: As a collaboration with United Black Pride and during Black Pride, I’m hoping that next year we can even host an entire week of events. I’m loving the momentum among people excited about our first year

SG: Of course, the goal and intent is to make the Black Alphabet Film Festival be an annual event.

BF: Indeed! We’re looking forward to growing this event in the years to come.

CH: With even the possibility of a monthly film series.

LMG: From your lips to God’s ears!

LS: I think, the answer is yes.


PI: Tell us more about the films that will be screened at the festival.

SG: Our curators L Michael Gibson and Carol Harris have done an amazing job in identifying films and film shorts that will provide an inter-generational experience or snapshot of the African American LGBTQ experience, from historical works to current works.

LMG: The films screened will be reflective of the best our global Black Alphabet community has to offer from around the world, some right here from Chicago’s own. We tried to focus on lesser known, but artistically valuable works to entice people to come out from behind their computer screens and in front of their TV sets to see some works not always readily accessible through traditional media channels. We’re fortunate enough to have a few Chicago premieres and a couple of bonafide award-winners mixed in with a couple of relative oldies, but goodies from the last decade that the younger generation might have missed. As co-curators, Carol and I really worked to strike a balance with what’s available to ensure lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered audience members each got to see themselves reflected on our screen over both days. The audience will tell us how successful we were and we’ll listen for the next time.

TW: I’m especially excited about films by Debra Wilson, Seek the Poet, Adam McMath, or Yolo Akili, because they are friends I’ve gained over the years: in Oakland, Houston, Atlanta, and here in Chicago, among other cities. I know that L. Michael and Carol are breathing archives for provocative and well-executed film, so a great deal of trust went into stepping back, even after making recommendations, and trusting them to really represent the spirit of diversity implied in “Black Alphabet”. They’ve done an amazing job.

BF: All I can say is that there will be something for everyone!

CH: The films were specifically selected to represent all of the “Black Alphabet”.

LS: I know Adam McMath in a completely different capacity as it pertains to music management and production, so I am very excited about his film, Miss UnderSTUD. Also with Gay marriage currently at the forefront, I am very much looking forward to Debra Wilson’s “Jumping The Broom: A New Covenant” One film that I found by chance and suggested , “Cherry Waves” looks really good as well. I am so glad it was added.

PI: Are there going to be film offerings that address the concerns of the transgender or intersex community? Why or why not?

JA: Of course. We celebrate the experiences and accomplishments of our transgender community. We would be remiss to do anything less.

LMG: Yes, because they are our community too. Politically, we couldn’t have gotten this far without transgender contributions, so, of course. Black Alphabet is about making sure more seats are at the table, not less. Of course, our festival offerings are only as good as the works available for any of the Black Alphabet identities we aim to represent and making sure we chose quality over token representation was and is important to us. We were lucky this time in having options; it’s up to tomorrow’s filmmakers to ensure we will again next year.

BF: We felt it is important to be inclusive and we want to be a model of just that – inclusivity in our community. Anything short of that doesn’t make sense to me when wanting to build community.

PI: Any celebrity appearances planned?

TW: We’re a new film festival who is more concerned with elevating and bringing to prominence people in our community who probably should be famous but who aren’t.  I don’t believe that we present a product of lower quality just because “celebrities” aren’t there. No celebrity appearances planned, but we hope to produce the kind of festival that even famous people look forward to participating.

JA: We plan to make this an event to remember! There will be several notable performers…

LMG: Amazing talents who are certainly celebrities to art nerds, tastemakers, and Black LGBT aficionados like me, sure. Musical guests like Out Music Award-winner Nhojj, hip hop’s Drow Flow, singer/songwriters Ken J. Martin and Storie Devereaux, and at least one other we’re still negotiating with. Ultimately, Black Alphabet is about celebrating us in all our creative expressions, not just in film, but other artistic mediums as well.

PI: What is the one thing you hope to accomplish with the Black Alphabet Film Festival?

JA: As a collective, our goal is to celebrate and inspire creative expression in our community. My personal wish is three-fold: that we celebrate our history and triumph, that we inspire future generations of storytellers and that we provide a positive cultural outlet.

LMG: We hope folks show up and show out to have a good time and leave feeling good about what some of our best, brightest, and most creative were able to accomplish. We want them to walk out feeling good about themselves. My personal aspiration is that we will also inspire that aspiring Black Alphabet artist in the room who has been nursing that idea to act on it and know that there are those among his or her Black Alphabet tribe who will support and uplift that excellence when it’s fulfilled. That’s key to me.

SG: I hope that people of African descent that identify as LGBTQ have a rich history and legacy  that they can be proud of and know that we should all build upon the legacy for the generations that follow us so they too can carry the torch.

CH: A continuous showing of support to black LGBTQ/SGL filmmakers with a monthly   screening series to begin as early as October.

BF: Community building is the one thing I hope to accomplish with the BAFF event. This event is a unique opportunity for everyone in our entire community to come together and partake in the rich and varied culture our community has to offer and network.

TW: Beautiful reflections of beautiful people. More affirmation and visibility of filmmakers who’ve worked so hard to represent our community; and of course, bigger and better festivals in the year to come. We’d also like to hold events throughout the year (e.g., Black Alphabet recommends…).

PI: Is there anything else you would like add?

JA: Black Alphabet is a long-term vision for me. Two years ago, I had a vision of creating a cultural “space” for our community. A cultural renaissance, if you will. Black Alphabet is the realization of that vision. Beyond public health and entertainment, there is a need to empower and educate ourselves in all arenas: art, health and fitness, financial and entrepreneurial. If I do nothing else in my time on this earth, let it be this work.

BF: Hopefully, these films will satisfy everyone’s need for laughter, consciousness, and knowledge. But if nothing else, my wish is that everyone has a great time!

CH: I have a deep passion to promote visibility, ensure inclusion of and give attention to films written, produced and directed by lesbian filmmakers of color.  Currently, I am engaged in securing more collaborative efforts between Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian communities, hence producing collaborations for several local cultural projects including the upcoming Black Alphabet Film Festival.

LMG: We can sometimes be guilty as a community of complaining about what isn’t happening for us and what isn’t being represented about us. We all know the issues and more or less what needs to be done. To me, Black Alphabet is us responding in our humble way to this age of rolling up your sleeves and doing something about what we want for ourselves as a community, as a people. For us it’s in the creative and representational realm, for others it may be wherever their hearts lay, there is room for work in all of it. But, now it really is time to pool together our collective talents, however varied, and resources, however limited, and balance that scale in our favor. Black Alphabet is our way to answer that call. As a people, we can no longer afford to do anything less.

LS: I am happy to be a part of and to have contributed to the success of this venture in any way. I hope that the promotional materials have been more than enough to draw the eye of our community and guide them to our doorstep so that we may grow this event for the future.

SG: We are humbled and honored to show that the community can come together and provide a cultural outlet for our community. We hope that you can join us for this historic milestone in Chicago.

Accordingly, the opening night will feature a Q&A discussion with Friends of Essex filmmaker, Amir Dixon, and each evening of films will be rounded out with live performances by musical guests Drow Flow, Ken J. Martin, Storie Devereaux and GLADD and OutMusic Award-winning singer/producer Nhojj. In a nod to its community health mission, free rapid HIV and Hepatitis C screenings will also be offered by community partners COH, CBGMC, and Testing Positive Awareness Network (TPAN) on both nights.

Tuesday night’s proceedings begin at 5:30pm at the Center on Halsted on 3656 North Halsted at the Hoover-Leppen Theater, in partnership with COH’s LGBTQ young adult program, and Wednesday night rolls out more adult fare at the Inn of Chicago on 162 East Ohio from 6:00-9:30pm. The two-day unity and affirmation performance event is free and open to the entire Chicago community. Expecting a high turn-out in the hundreds for this rare Windy City venture, BAFF organizers are urging people to arrive early on both days, enjoy the shows.

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