Cinephiles look back on the first-ever Black women’s film festival.
In 1976—when Rocky became the year’s highest-grossing movie and Taxi Driver garnered top honors (and boos) at Cannes—a group of Black feminist artists made a different mark on American film history. At the Women’s Interart Center in New York City, they mounted the Sojourner Truth Festival of the Arts, a weeklong event now recognized as the first-ever Black women’s film festival.
Some 47 years later, at the Logan Center for the Arts, scholars, students, and filmmakers—including many who were present at the 1976 gathering—came together to explore and celebrate the festival’s legacy. The March symposium capped off a Winter Quarter course on Black women’s filmmaking of the 1970s to ’90s taught by Allyson Nadia Field, associate professor in cinema and media studies and the College. The event also concluded a nine-week series, free and open to the public, of groundbreaking films by Black women.
Field, who directs the Film Studies Center, co-organized the four-day symposium with University of Iowa film scholar Hayley O’Malley, South Side Projections’ Michael W. Phillips Jr., Sisters in Cinema founder Yvonne Welbon, and filmmaker Monica Freeman, who curated the films at the original festival.
O’Malley’s research helped light the flame for this year’s gathering. In a 2022 article in Feminist Media Histories, she cites the Sojourner Truth Festival as a “foundational moment for Black feminist film culture,” even though the event was long overlooked and never repeated. The 1976 program featured film, visual art, live performances, and readings, revealing the cross-disciplinary networks that influenced Black feminist artmaking at the time. The festival celebrated emerging filmmakers’ work, while making “a radical call for the kinds of sociopolitical and institutional changes necessary for a Black women’s film culture to thrive,” O’Malley writes.
In her research, O’Malley also discovered that archival records and participants’ memories of the event were spotty. Films and videos by at least 16 Black women directors were screened at the festival, but none had been released in mainstream theaters. Some were student projects, and all were independently produced and difficult to find.
Bringing some of the festival’s founding mothers to Chicago was partly an attempt to reconstruct history. Michele Wallace, a symposium keynote speaker, was just 24 when she co-organized the Sojourner Truth Festival with her mother, the artist Faith Ringgold; Freeman; poet Patricia Spears Jones; and writer Margo Jefferson, LAB’64. But “from surviving materials, it would be difficult to piece together, even for me, what happened at the festival,” said Wallace, now an emeritus professor at City University of New York.
At the original festival, Ringgold shared her first multimedia performance piece, The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro; writers Audre Lorde and Alice Walker almost certainly read their poetry. Ntozake Shange attended, just before her play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf opened at New York City’s Public Theater. Shange may have exhibited a video, but the documentation and O’Malley’s interviews don’t confirm that.
Legacy, memory, and film preservation thus surfaced as critical themes at the UChicago symposium. And experts filled the room—the more than 60 invited speakers included veteran directors who spoke about the struggle to make, fund, and distribute films that would tell Black women’s stories.
Among the speakers was Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by a Black woman to have a general theatrical release. Documentarian Madeline Anderson, now 95, addressed attendees via Zoom after a screening of her film I Am Somebody (1970), which chronicles a strike by Black women hospital workers in civil rights–era South Carolina. Revered as a trailblazer, Anderson received a prerecorded video tribute from director Ava DuVernay, who—from a busy film set in Delhi—praised her for inspiring a new generation of socially committed filmmakers and producers.
The message from a powerful industry player like DuVernay generated a buzz, but so did the symposium’s opening night showcase of work by lesser-known directors. Back Inside Herself (1984), a four-minute visual poem by S. Pearl Sharp, delivered a manifesto on independence and identity. Killing Time (1979), a darkly funny student film by Fronza Woods, elicited belly laughs. Cauleen Smith’s 1992 Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) drew sustained applause for its call to action: “The only way I’m gonna get on TV is to make my own goddamn tapes and play them for myself, my sisters, my brothers. We will be seen, and we will be heard.”
In the half century since the Sojourner Truth Festival, much has changed. The artists, audience, and organizers for that event hailed mostly from New York City. And curating the festival was a challenge, Freeman remembered: “In 1976 you found what was out there, and there were very few films out there.”
By contrast, the 2023 symposium drew hundreds of online and in-person participants from around the globe. For her course, Field assigned nearly 80 films, along with a healthy dollop of readings on filmmaking, literary production, and feminist thought. Students introduced and wrote program notes for film screenings and staffed the symposium, soaking up wisdom from their elders along the way.
Today, film and media studies programs abound and smartphones have put a camera in everyone’s pocket, but pioneer filmmakers had limited access to training and equipment. “It never occurred to most of us that we could even be behind the camera,” said writer, producer, and director Carol Munday Lawrence during a roundtable conversation. “You learned by doing.”
Many women said that over time, they found mentors in each other and built community by supporting each other’s work, despite the obstacles. Reflecting that ethos, the symposium sometimes had the feel of a family reunion, and personal stories mingled with academic discussion. “Stay quiet,” joked one scholar on the dais. “Old Black folks are talking.”
During the symposium, participants paid special attention to a clip from a 1979 interview with Julie Dash as she explained why Black women’s stories matter and why she wanted to keep making films: “What we have to say is so personal and so very different, that there’s no way that anyone else can say it.” In the darkened Logan Center screening room, an unmistakable murmur of agreement rippled across the crowd.