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KSanders writesUnsung Heroes: Insightful Documentaries at the Chicago International Film Festival

by Kyle Sanders

In the turbulent times we're currently living in, sometimes it helps to travel back to the past for comparison.

Every time I read a news article these days, it's like my heart can't help but sink, letting go of any shred of hope I had left in this lifetime. But then I think back to when my parents were kids, experiencing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It helps me to understand that no matter how many bad things take place on this earth, it never stops the world from turning. My parents thought the world was ending after Kennedy's murder, but here we are, almost sixty years later, still spinning--yet still wondering if the end is nigh. 

Apologies for such a bleak beginning to this post, but it leads me into something good: documentaries! This year, the Chicago International Film Festival has provided us with dozens of documentary features and shorts to choose from. You've got your pick of profiles ranging from Pete Buttigieg, Julia Child, and The Velvet Underground, to a four year adventure chronicling the life of a bovine named Luma (Cow).

These informative documentaries span a multitude of topics as well, anything from explorations of gay sexuality (Acts of Love), post-prison probation programs (Any Given Day), the dangers of escaping Taliban rule (Flee), and the ecological threat of disappearing indigenous tribes (The Last Forest).

Two documentaries I had the opportunity to check out were not only profiles on history makers, but were also included in this year's Black Perspectives program at CIFF. 

The first one is about tennis star Arthur Ashe, aptly titled Citizen Ashe. Known for becoming the first Black man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, Ashe not only broke barriers during the Civil Rights Movement, but became a symbol of hope, fighting oppression in the U.S. and South Africa.


Citizen Ashe

As an athlete "floating within himself," Ashe overcame the racism of his southern upbringing and the criticism of his activist contemporaries to become a legendary champion both on and off the tennis court. Using interviews from tennis legends like Billie Jean King, Lenny Simpson, and John McEnroe, plus Ashe's own words in archived clips, Citizen Ashe is a portrait of a stoic individual who strived to be remembered for being more than just an athlete. 

Another portrait of an important Black figure is Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking. Before the commercially and critically successful likes of Black filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Ava DuVernay, there was Oscar Micheaux, the most successful African American director of the Silent Film era.

He was a DIY filmmaker: writing, producing, and directing all forty-four of his films in his broad-ranging career. Born in Illinois, Micheaux sought greater opportunities whenever he had the chance, finding himself making films that served to admonish the racist cinematic portrayals seen in such films as The Birth of a Nation.


Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking

Nearly forgotten, his legacy has considerably grown in recent years thanks to film conservationists and Black Artist Movements, with the help of those interviewed, such as Chuck D., Morgan Freeman, Kevin Wilmott, and Micheaux biographer Patrick McGilligan.  

While both men are considered groundbreaking Black individuals who cleared paths in their own respective mediums, I was intrigued at how their intent to show the possibilities of what African Americans can accomplish was initially looked down upon by their own brethren.

Ashe witnessed firsthand the Civil Rights Movement but never got involved for fear of discrediting his family's name. To be a Black man competing against white tennis players required a strict discipline of internalizing his frustration and anger, because he believed if he were to react to the racism he experienced, he would be severely judged by all, costing him future opportunities to play.

He could never get away with the bad boy behavior of someone like John McEnroe (who was coached by Ashe early on), because he didn't have the same privileges of a white male tennis player. Only later on, was Ashe saluted for showing unflappable courage in the face of repression. 

Michaeux has few contemporaries of the Silent Era of film, and wanted to use cinema to give Black Americans a visual sense of all they could become. With his film Within Our Gates, not only was he directly responding to the incredibly racist depictions featured in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, he also wanted to celebrate true narratives of the Black middle class.

Even though there was segregation in the film industry at the time, he used it to his own advantage, providing Blacks their own cinema with films otherwise not part of the whitewashed mainstream. Like Ashe, Michaeux's films were completely disregarded during the Civil Rights Movement, as Black ideas were changing into radicalized expressions. His positive portrayals of complex, fully dimensional Black characters--in an era when black face and minstrel shows influenced negative stereotypes no less--were completely forgotten.

There are voices in history that resonate, only to turn prophetic as decades continue to pass. Arthur Ashe and Oscar Micheaux were two of those voices. Ashe's passive stance during the Civil Rights Movement might have been seen as fruitless at the time, but his legacy echoes in the protests of current Black athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James.

Oscar Micheaux was the only Black presence during the early days of cinema, but continues to influence more Black voices to pick up a camera. In the turbulent years they lived, they kept going, and that perseverance is just what we need at a time when our hope seems lost. Documentaries serve not only to inform, but remind us that hope is always present.

The Chicago International Film Festival runs October 13 - 24. For more information, check out chicagofilmfestival.com and follow @chifilmfest for other updates!

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Categorized: Movies

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