COVID-19 restrictions have changed its format, but the Denton Black Film Festival goes on
In 2013, Harry and Linda Eaddy were watching a screening of a documentary about goat cheese at the Thin Line Film Festival in Denton when he turned to his wife and made a comment about the lack of Black cinema being showcased. As aficionados of the arts, they’d been supporters of the Denton arts scene over the years and frequented exhibits at various Denton art hotspots such as the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center and UNT on the Square. Though Denton is known for its “independent spirit fueled by diversity,” the Eaddys had noticed a lack of representation. It had been disturbing them over the years. They became somewhat zealous about encouraging the small Black community in Denton to get involved with the local arts scene.
So it was no surprise when Harry told Linda, “We should do a Black film festival.”
Of course, they had never put on a film festival before and weren’t quite sure how to do it but knew that they could do it with the right people. They sought help from two staples of the Denton community: Cheylon Brown and Mesha George. And with the help of the Denton African American Scholarship Foundation, where Harry serves as president, the Denton Black Film Festival kicked off its inaugural event in 2015 at Campus Theatre in downtown Denton.
Six years later, the Denton Black Film Festival has grown from nearly a thousand attendees at Campus Theater to several thousand people across several locations. Along with films celebrating Black culture, the festival now showcases arts, music, and spoken word poetry.
“We knew that even if Denton has a small Black population, the festival isn’t just for Black people,” Linda says. “It is about sharing the culture; that was our intention.”
the COVID effect
And while it has grown to celebrate and showcase Black culture, COVID-19 is forcing the festival to adapt virtually to the COVID reality, which experts claim may be affecting us until next summer, projecting nearly 250 million infected worldwide and 1.75 million dead.
They originally planned to host a hybrid festival in January. But neither Campus Theater or Alamo Drafthouse are allowing in-person viewing due to COVID-19. So the festival will be virtual this year. They’re also expanding their virtual offerings and including a new category: screendance, a new visual language in short film dance media.
The festival takes place virtually from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, but they were still curating films and lining up speakers as of this writing in late November.
“What we really live for are experiences that we offer to our attendees. [We] try to curate great experiences regardless of what medium,” Harry says.
Prior to COVID, the audience would gather in-person for the experience / Courtesy of Denton Black Film Festival
Black Film Festival foundation
The Denton Branch of the NAACP helped pour the Denton Black Film Festival’s foundation more than 30 years ago in 1984. They awarded their first of 340 scholarships to a Denton ISD senior of African American descent, according to Discover Denton, after the scholarship committee developed criteria and began recruiting sponsors, reviewing applications and recommending scholarship recipients.
Five years later, the NAACP Denton Branch formed a 501(c)3 entity for the scholarship. Former Denton mayor Euline Brock, a long-time community leader, headed the newly named Denton African American Scholarship Foundation and began focusing on fundraising efforts to help young African Americans in the community.
In 2009, the former mayor recruited Harry Eaddy as chairman of the foundation. Under his leadership, Harry brought the foundation into the Denton consciousness by hosting galas, Mardi Gras parties, and Valentine balls to raise scholarship money. Over the years, they’ve donated more than $250,000 in scholarships, and the Denton Black Film Festival became a natural extension of their efforts.
“Primarily what the board did, which was a really powerful thing, we wanted to focus on sharing Black culture and building community,” Harry says.
The first year of the festival in 2015, they showcased 13 films over nearly a two-day period at the historic Campus Theatre. Some of the films included 2013’s “Belle,” a story about an illegitimate, mixed-race daughter who played an important role in ending slavery in England; “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a historical fiction about two sisters during the Nigerian Civil War, and “Dear White People,” a comedy-drama about escalating racial tensions at a fictitious Ivy league school. They mostly relied on word of mouth, but they dropped some advertising. They were told that they would be lucky to get 20 people per screening at the festival.
“We were definitely petrified and didn’t know what to expect,” he says.
About 800 people showed up, 75 to 80 people per screening. “A lot of diversity, different races and cultures, people are just eating and fellowshiping and all kinds of things.”
By the second year, the Denton Black Film Festival added art, music, and spoken word poetry to the film roster, followed by comedy, artist-panels and workshops, and film submissions in subsequent years.
They weren’t just growing the festival offerings, but also offering attendees a Black culture experience from a perspective they may not otherwise have had. They began receiving film submissions from all over the world, including France, Australia, and Africa.
“Each year, we are evolving and adding experiences,” Linda says. “Next year is always different.”
Jazzmeia Horn / Stephen Shore Photography | Denton Black Film Festival
the music experience
North Texas musicians began showcasing their art in the festival’s early years, says Frederick Nichelson, the festival’s music director. Then they landed soul-singer Frank McComb from L.A. in 2017. “He was our first foray into national artists,” Frederick says. “He was great; people loved it.”
Since then, they’ve showcased several notable acts, including Grammy Award-winning songwriter Kirk Whalum, and jazz vocalist Ashleigh Smith. Smith won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and also attended the University of North Texas.
“Things kept just falling into our lap,” Frederick says. “Denton and Dallas are filled with good quality artists.”
One moment that fell into their lap involved Grammy-nominated jazz artist Jazzmeia Horn. It was three months before COVID erupted in North Texas, forcing businesses to shutter and North Texans to food banks, and the Denton Black Film Festival organizers were gearing up for their biggest year. About 9,000 attendees would be attending at 12 locations from Alamo Drafthouse to Campus Theater and Dan’s Silverleaf.
Jazzmeia, who’s originally from Dallas, was scheduled to perform at the 2019 Main Street Arts Festival in Fort Worth. Heavy rain canceled it. Nine months later she would be performing at the Denton Black Film Festival. “She had never played a real show in Dallas before,” Frederick says.
And it seemed only fitting for him to contact Jazzmeia’s mentor Roger Boykin, a local piano player who taught her at Booker T. Washington. Frederick says he asked Roger if he’d like to open for his protege.
Roger said yes.
the American resilience
A few months after the late January festival in 2020, COVID struck and rocked the entertainment industry. Music venues and theaters were some of the hardest hit. Linda Eaddy says they noticed everyone was having to pivot to virtual content after SXSW was canceled, due to Gov. Abbott’s restrictions on large gatherings.
“We realized it was going to impact the fall festival and the whole industry,” she says. “We knew we were going to have to do this and [figure out] how to pull this off.”
Harry is hoping to extend the festival to six days, and mentions keeping the virtual content available after the festival ends. “Now you can reach people from all over,” he says.
They already have an ace-in-the hole with the festival’s film offerings: narratives, documentaries, and short films from all different genres. They’ve also increased the number of speakers, added Q&A sessions with filmmakers, and highlighted grassroot issues, environmentally justice, criminal justice.
“We show the breadth of the work, and not all of our filmmakers are black. We just ask that the content, or whoever writes it or produces it, relates it to Black people and offers something significant to the Black community.”
Vector FX / Shutterstock.com
Harry still recalls vividly something significant happening to the Black community when they showed the 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember this House” and narrated by the legendary Samuel L. Jackson. The Denton Black Film Festival was the first one to show the documentary in Texas at two different theaters before it became an Oscar-nominated film. “That film to me did some amazing things for the festival,” he says.
Linda points out that the diversity of the crowd was inspiring. “Black, white, hispanic, everybody there and we had a professor who talked about James Baldwin and a student actor who did a reading from one of James Baldwin’s plays to start it off and the audience was just lovely. Very touching.”
“That was when we realized what we are doing makes sense,” Harry says. “It looked like America.
For more information about the Denton Black Film Festival visit dentonbff.com