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Eighth Annual Black Film Festival Explores Roots

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Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild which will screen at the Eighth Annual Black Film Festival this weekend. 

By Tessa Raebeck

On screen, he played the evil overseer who raped her character, the helpless slave. Off screen, they were dating.

“Imagine how hard it was,” said Tina Andrews, recalling her experience playing Aurelia in the hit 1977 mini-series “Roots.” Along with director John Erman, Andrews will discuss the groundbreaking television series at Southampton’s 8th Annual Black Film Festival Thursday.

Started in 2006 by the newly formed African American Museum of the East End in order to get the organization’s name out there, the festival has grown from a one-day event to a four-day experience. This year’s line-up features live jazz, spoken word poetry and panel discussions, not to mention an array of diverse, thought-provoking films. The featured filmmakers range from renowned documentarian Ken Burns to Kareema Bee, a 2013 scholarship recipient at Stony Brook Southampton.

“Opening night, we generally have a screening and panel discussion on a really important topic that needs to be shared,” explained Brenda Simmons, a co-founder of the museum and festival organizer.

The festival begins Thursday with a screening of “Central Park Five,” a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. The award-winning film covers the background, investigation and aftermath of the Central Park jogger case, a notorious crime that made waves in 1989 when five Latino and African American male teenagers were arrested for the rape of a white woman in Central Park. They were proven innocent when a convicted rapist and murderer confessed to the crime 13 years later. Following the screening, a panel discussion will include Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, and four experts in related fields.

On Friday, Charles Certain and Certain Moves, the museum’s “house band,” will perform “jazz, rock, funk and R&B with everything in between — all with a smooth jazz twist.”

Local up-and-coming jazz singer Sheree Elder will also perform Friday evening, along with guest poets who will present spoken word poetry in a café type setting.

“We like to promote people who are starting out, give them a chance,” said Simmons. “Especially local people.”

Another young artist the festival is excited to feature is Kareema Bee, the 2013 scholarship recipient for the 20/20/20 film program at Stony Brook Southampton. On Saturday, Bee will screen “Tug O War,” a short film she wrote, directed and edited.

Also on Saturday, the festival will feature “Beat the Drum,” a family film.

“You have to understand how to deal with diverse, controversial issues,” said Simmons. “It’s a great film for young people.”

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including a nomination for Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee in history, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will screen Saturday.

Closing out the day Saturday is “I Am Slave,” a film based on the actual experience of Mende Nazer, a Sudanese girl who was abducted at age 12 and sold into slavery.

“It’s a thriller, but it’s a powerful, powerful movie,” said Simmons.

Academy Award-winning director — and longtime East Hampton resident — Nigel Noble will present two films Sunday, “Voices of Sarafina!” and “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.”

“It’s very serious, but it’s very light,” said Simmons of “Voices of Sarafina!” Noble’s  documentary based on the 1987 Broadway musical. “The singing and the dancing in this film is extraordinary.”

In its world premiere Sunday, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” is sure to move audiences. Drawn from footage shot over a six-month period in Iowa State Penitentiary, it is one of eight documentary short films that will compete in the 86th Academy Awards in 2014.

“I can’t even tell you how awesome it was to see that movie,” said Simmons. “It made me cry, it made me think; it is such a dynamic documentary.”

In addition to exciting newcomers, the festival will feature the Emmy award-winning second episode of the “Roots” first season. The Q&A with Erman and Andrews follows, during which Andrews will explain the emotional experience of playing a slave.

“We’re going to do it in a very interesting way,” said Andrews of the Q&A. “It’s going to be from both a black and white perspective…[It was] a very unique perspective for us because it conjured up the ghosts of all of our ancestors.”

Prior to “Roots,” the complete story of those ancestors, from being taken from Africa through the Middle Passage and onto plantations and being sold into slavery, was never told, said Andrews, who splits her time between Manhattan and the North Fork.

According to Andrews, the actors on the show — black and white — faced immense difficulty in coping with the emotions brought on by playing both the oppressed and the oppressors.

“Most of us who were black actors on that show who were playing slaves, we would drive up in our Mercedes and we had our homes in the hills and we had our fabulous lifestyle and then we had to go in and don these rags,” she recalled. “The actors who were playing plantation owners or slave owners, they had a hard time playing those characters, a hard time using those words.”

“It was one experience that I will never forget, it is why I am a writer today,” said Andrews, who wrote the critically acclaimed CBS mini-series, “Sally Hemings.” “It was just the hardest thing for these actors, to go from joking around with us, going out later and having a drink with us, then they’d have to put on these characters and play these roles to you — who they’re looking at and saying the ‘N word’ or beating you or stripping you naked — that’s a hard thing to ask an actor to do. The ancestors showed us who we had to be.”

The 8th Annual Black Film Festival will be shown on November 7, 8, 9 and 10. For tickets and more information, call (631) 873-7362 or email info@aamee.org