Black Harvest Film Festival 2023: Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, Black Barbie: A Documentary, We Were Meant To, Burnt Milk

With the arrival of the 29th annual Black Harvest Film Festival, I am once again reminded of the spirit of the late, great Sergio Mims. This is the first year of a lineup not composed by him, the founder of the festival. And yet, BHFF remains just as resilient as the seeds Mims planted. Of the wealth of features and shorts, I’ve compiled four titles that fulfill the revolutionary desire set by the festival and expected by the devoted attendees who have filled the Gene Siskel Film Center to take in the nourishing programming. Though not expressly compiled with a theme in mind, these titles are bound together by their shared ability to record histories and see inspiring futures.    

The cinema’s bard for the Civil Rights movement, filmmaker Sam Pollard, returns with a documentary co-directed with Ben Shapiro. “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” offers a subtle new angle for Pollard. Usually when he teams with another director it’s because he began as a producer or editor and later came on in a fuller role. But the subject of Max Roach, the legendary Jazz drummer, is a deeply held combined passion for both creators. Back in 1987, Pollard did his first ever filmed, sit-down interview with Roach. At the same time, the musician was also collaborating with Shapiro for a narrated memoir of Roach’s life. Decades later, Pollard armed with his footage and Shapiro supplied with his recordings, have merged their long gestating projects for a revealing documentary about the iconoclast drummer.   

Through Roach’s sprawling career, the filmmakers note his far-reaching importance in the rise of bee-bop, as a composer, bandleader and political figure. The latter of which became a lifelong calling, particularly when Roach married singer-actress Abbey Lincoln. Both were prominent figures in the Civil Rights movement. Through interviews with Roach’s children, we also get a glimmer of his personal life, particularly his violent side. Many attribute these outbursts and flurries of anger as symptomatic of him mourning for his friend Clifford Brown, who died tragically in a car crash.  

Through these triumphs and valleys, Pollard and Shapiro take note of Roach’s stature as a hip-hop pioneer collaborating with Fab 5 Freddy. It’s a briskly paced recounting of the drummer’s life that captures his many innovations but never really answers why he isn’t more well known today. Still, through the crisp assemblage of archival footage—particularly of his performances—and a story of his life told in his own words, “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” is another towering and imperative installment in Pollard’s dedication to recording the titans of Black life.    

Another film interested in Black pop culture’s seismic moments, is writer-director Lagueria Davis’ “Black Barbie: A Documentary”—a ruminative interrogative of the unreachable beauty standards wrought by a singular doll. It’s a film about why white womanhood is perpetually seen as the paradigm of feminism; it’s about the need to be seen and the limitations of representation. Of course, with the release of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” a film that attempts to confront the inequities of Barbie as a totemic figure, these questions have grown even more pertinent.

Due to its production timeline—this film’s production predates Gerwig’s “Barbie”—Davis’ route to the subject is a personal one. Though the director initially professes that she hates dolls, they actually run deep in her family. Her 83-year-old aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell worked at Mattel for 44 years; she knew Ruth and Elliot Handler; she saw the creation of Barbie and the integration of Black creatives into Mattel’s corporate office. Through her aunt’s memories, Davis chronicles the winding path Mattel took to creating the official first Black Barbie, and the impact she’s had ever since. 

Davis’ historical recordings, which gives credit to pioneering Black designer Kitty Black Perkins, are balanced with discussions about the negative impact of white Barbie on people of color, especially Black girls who were left to interpret blond hair and white skin as the sole signifiers of beauty. A few talking heads, particularly some doll collectors, also wonder aloud what representation really means. Does the mere fact of having a Black Barbie equate to progress? 

In one fascinating sequence these speakers deconstruct the Barbie tv series, and how Black Barbie remains a sidekick. So many contemporary feminist films are solely composed around white femininity, with Black folks still relegated to the Black best friend: which only amounts to a  tipping of the cap to Black existence in service of white singularity. “Black Barbie: A Documentary” touches on those subjects and more for a searing critique of what it actually means to be seen in mass media.     

Not only did Black Harvest Film Festival feature a band of boundary pushing features, there were also smart, imaginative shorts too. Tari Wariebi’s “We Were Meant To,” which initially premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2023, comes out of the AFI Conservatory. The film elegantly mixes fable with political subtext through a community of Black men born with wings. One such man, a kid, really, is Akil (Tim Johnson Jr). At 18-years old, Akil is finally old enough to go to flight school. But it does come with risk: several years ago his father’s wings were clipped by authorities. Now, his embittered dad locks himself away in their home. He warns Akil not to fall to the same fate. 

Part coming-of-age film, in “We Were Meant To,” Akil vies for the attention of Jasmine (Jordan-Amanda Hall) by flying. Apparently, her parents met at her dad’s first takeoff. Through supporting characters like Jasmine, Wariebi performs nimble world building. Black women like Jasmine, for instance, have healing abilities (their hands glow when they perform such deeds). Through dialogue, we also learn that the government is enacting no-fly zones; thereby relegating Black folks to specific areas, or else they’ll suffer the consequences. 

Wariebi’s short, however, is most evocative of the seemingly boundless freedom felt by Black youth. Dappled in idyllic golden hues, Akil and his friends live in defiance and with joy. They can’t fathom racism walking through their door because it’s more theory than a looming threat. The free-floating lens suggests such frivolity in the face of doom, as does Johnson’s unbound performance. When reality finally does strike, it comes with near-crushing force. Wariebi thankfully doesn’t allow these Black men to remain grounded. He pushes them to soar, and, in turn, the crowd-pleasing “We Were Meant To” powers toward Black euphoria. 

Winner of the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Black Harvest Film Festival Short Prize, Joseph Douglas Elmhirst’s “Burnt Milk” is a visually sumptuous and spiritually aching film blending magical realism with wistful memories. Played by Clover Webb, voiced by Tamara Lawrance, Una (Clover Webb) is a Black midwife returning home from work. Bathed in melancholic blue tones, she stares out her window as the train bustles by. While standing in her kitchen, she begins boiling a closed can of milk and thinks back to Jamaica. 

Through Lawrance’s spellbinding narration, her rhythmic Jamaican accent providing a kind of incantation, Elmhirst peers into her longing for the traditions of home. In her recollections, the film switches to a jungle landscape composed in metallic monochrome hues. The patois she uses takes on the characteristic of a shared dream language. “There are splinters where our dreams were sleeping,” is one of many abstract, poetic phrases uttered by her that have concrete meaning for anyone far from the culture, foods, sights, and sounds they know so well.

Elmhirst’s film also takes great pleasure in the body: gyrating chiaroscuro bodies dance to a soundless music, telling the story of a way of life through the kinetic splendor of their movements. In that respect, “Burnt Milk” often reminded me of Jessica Beshir and Isaac Julien’s thought-provoking work, engaging in a timbre that merges the humanist, with the lyrical and the beingness of existing through the traditions of kin and memory.