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BlackStar: Shaping a new visual language and pushing the needle on inclusion and representation

August 4, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongMediaPurpose
Founded here in Philadelphia in 2012, BlackStar has been a harbinger for independent, avant-garde and emerging media from creators of marginalized identity and has grown to become one of the premier sites for Black, brown, and Indigenous cultural production internationally.

It is therefore apropos that the former International House located on the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philly campus held the festival during its formative years. Since then, the BlackStar brand, known as BlackStar Projects, has expanded its reach beyond the festival to also include clothing and merchandise, year-round screenings and programming, exhibitions, production and filmmaking labs, a visual journal, podcast, talk show and more.

Last year, both the sale of International House and the impact of COVID-19 caused the festival to introduce a hybrid model with films and panels available via streaming as well as a number of select outdoor in-person screenings and events. This year’s festival also follows the hybrid format with a total of 80 films from 27 countries in the program.

Ten Years of BlackStar

Part of the exhibit at Philadelphia International Airport that documents BlackStar’s 10-year legacy. (Courtesy photo)

How could one measure BlackStar’s impact over the past 10 years?

On the cusp of the rising ubiquity of social media and streaming services, BlackStar came on the scene in 2012 and created a unique and countercultural space for Black creatives seeking a home and each other.

In the years since, BlackStar has earned its place as part of the timeline of Philadelphia’s Black sociocultural history that includes the Philadelphia Negro, Sound of Philadelphia, MOVE bombing, and Neo-Soul era. A part of this legacy has been helping to shape a new visual language and pushing the needle on inclusion and representation in the entertainment industry.

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While its merit does not lie within the recognition or acceptance of historically exclusive institutions, it is notable that for the first time in its history, short documentaries and narrative films shown at BlackStar may now qualify for the Academy Awards.

Last week, the Philadelphia International Airport premiered an exhibit of highlights of the ten years of BlackStar. Photos from all the previous festivals, select musical recordings, and film clips are included in the display located in the A-terminal checkpoint.

In the exhibit, BlackStar CEO and Artistic Director Maori Karmael Holmes is quoted:

“We prioritize visionary work that is experimental in its aesthetics, content, and form and builds on the work of elders and ancestors to imagine a new world. We elevate artists who are overlooked, invisibilized or misunderstood and celebrate the wide spectrum of aesthetics, storytelling and experiences that they bring. We bring that work to new audiences as well as place it in dialog with other past and contemporary work. And, we curate every aspect of our events to be intentional community building efforts, connecting diverse audiences in a Black-led space centered on joy and thriving.”

While it may be hard to exactly quantify BlackStar’s impact on Philadelphia, here are five more ways to contextualize its influence:

  • Black, women, and queer affirming. From its inception, BlackStar has been a Black-, woman-, and queer-led and/or centered effort. Being clear and unapologetic about affirming the most marginalized voices has both grounded and guided its vision and allowed for authentic and organic growth from there.
  •  Activation of space and creative placemaking. BlackStar has been a pioneer in activating and utilizing venues and spaces across the city in fresh, innovative, and accessible ways from pop-up yoga at the ICA or Drexel Square to outdoor screenings at the Mann or Eakins Oval.
  • Tourism and talent attraction. Although COVID has put a damper on most travel, BlackStar has consistently been a summer attraction that has drawn audiences and artists alike to the Philadelphia area. Beyond the numbers, the celebrity of some of the guests and brands brought to the region has helped elevate Philly’s cultural clout.
  • Collaborative spirit. Even as BlackStar’s influence has grown internationally, its Philly roots have continued to deepen through intentional community building and strategic partnerships with institutions and organizations locally.
  • Mentorship and talent incubation. A pipeline and community of creators of color has been incubated and nurtured through programs like BlackStar Pitch, William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar, production labs, and other educational and networking opportunities for those trying to pave a way into the industry.

2021 program

Screenshot from BlackStar’s film festival website. (Screen capture)

Having expanded from a 3-day to 5-day event in the past few years, BlackStar has something for almost everyone including, plenty of free offerings like daily panels streaming on Facebook, nightly screenings at Eakins Oval Wednesday through Saturday, and morning yoga at Drexel Square over the weekend.

The opening party is August 4 at 8 p.m. at Bartram’s Garden and is free with RSVP.

Pass holders can look forward to a full-day of screenings at the Mann on Sunday including the closing night world premiere of Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, a documentary that will stream on HBO Max on August 19.


A full schedule, tickets, and details can be found here.


BlackStar Film Festival

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