Siskel’s Black Harvest, Aug. 1-28, best ever at 20

It was 20 years ago that Gene Siskel Film Center director of programming, Barbara Scharres, first launched the Black Harvest Film Festival that continues to be the main theatrical exhibition vehicle for the underserved African American independent film market.

“We identified a cultural need in Chicago, and have been working to serve it ever since the first Black Harvest,” Scharres says.

“The festival is always a work in progress. We keep trying to meet the challenge of doing it better, and reaching more audiences every time.” 

The 20th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival runs Aug. 1-28 at the Siskel Center.  Ch. 5 reporter LeeAnn Trotter hosts opening night, when the Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership will be presented to Chaz and, posthumously, Roger Ebert. 

Danny Glover headlines closing night, with From Above on Aug. 28.  Bill Duke appears with a new 35mm print of his 1991 picture A Rage in Harlem.

Featured local movies, with filmmakers attending, include Daniel Nearing’s Hogtown, Deri Tyton’s Finding Forever in Love, Joshua MacNeal’s The 4th Meeting, and Derek Dow’s Condoms.

International and American black films showcased

Scharres founded the festival in 1994 after the dissolution of the 1982-1993 Blacklight Film Festival at venues including Siskel and the DuSable Museum of African American History. 

Remarking on Black Harvest’s 10th anniversary in 2004, she said “Our philosophy then was the same as it is now, to present films of the African Diaspora, not only new films from Africa, but the strongest selection we can assemble of international black films as well as African American films.”

Chaz and the late Roger EbertScharres says that over the years the festival has increased its focus on African American independent film, particularly local work, while maintaining a strong international component.

In 2004 Scharres noted the uptick in local and independent productions, lauding the presence of six Chicago films in that year’s fest, a number that seems less remarkable today. “There seems to be a really vibrant and growing African American film movement in Chicago,” she said then. 

That wave of grassroots production has only grown in the ensuing 10 years, even as industry support for African American film has remained relatively elusive. 

“We’ve seen the number of young and emerging directors increase tremendously over the years,” Scharres says today.  “The digital revolution has been a key factor in empowering new filmmakers. 

“We never cease to be astonished at the number of filmmakers we encounter who have made features completely with their own resources and no support systems of any kind other than friends and family.”

The Black Harvest Community Council has introduced programs to bring out new audiences, like date nights and parties.  In an effort to reach audiences that might not make it downtown to the Siskel Center, the festival has brought past festival selections to Chicago Public Library branches. 

“We plan to increase these extras,” Scharres says.