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Local filmmakers to host inaugural Chapel Hill Black Film Festival

Michael Washington, founder and CEO of Argyle Rebel Films, stands outside of the Varsity Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022.
Buy Photos Michael Washington, founder and CEO of Argyle Rebel Films, stands outside of the Varsity Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022.

For many, Black History Month serves as an opportunity to celebrate African American artistry and appreciate Black-made creations. On Saturday, three local filmmakers are giving people the chance to do both. 

The inaugural Chapel Hill Black Film Festival, organized by Argyle Rebel Films, will take place on Feb. 12 at the Varsity Theater. Doors open at 1:30 p.m., and all-day passes go for $25. 

The filmmakers featured in the project are Argyle Rebel Films CEO Michael Washington, Speller Street Films founder Christopher Everett and actor and playwright Mike Wiley — each of whom has contributed a film to the event. The festival is being presented by UNC's Black Pioneers, a group comprised of the first Black students to attend UNC.

When Washington put the event on the Pioneers' radar, Edith Hubbard, a member of the group and 1966 graduate, said she and the others were eager to help.

“Our primary role is to be supporters," Hubbard said. “This is a wonderful opportunity. And so we just wanted to help facilitate that.” 

Between each show, there will be a panel featuring the creative teams of the respective films. One of the panels will feature Lana Garland, the curator of the annual Hayti Heritage Film Festival in Durham.

Getting started 

Washington has built a relationship with some of UNC’s Black alumni, such as Hubbard, Walter Jackson and Frankie Perry — who all graduated in the late 1960s and have served as a mentor to him. 

One of their lessons stuck with him, and inspired the formation of the festival. 

“'It's not just about you, it's about bringing people with you,'” he said they taught him. “'It's about uplifting people. Whatever you learn, you should teach people.'”

Washington subsequently recruited Wiley and Everett last fall to collaborate with him for the festival. Everett and Wiley — like Washington — are based in the Triangle area.

Hosting the festival at the Varsity Theater allows for a local audience to experience the work of multiple Black content creators, Washington said. 

“We're better together,” Washington said. “Instead of me trying to put my own movie out there and draw a crowd and help people, why don't we come together and start a moment?”

Specifically, the three hope to start a moment of inspiration. By showcasing their films, the filmmakers hope the festival will give Black creatives inspiration to draw from.

For Everett, he was inspired throughout the filmmaking journey by watching movies from the likes of John Singleton and Marco Williams telling Black stories on screen.

“Attending film festivals prior to making my first film really gave me the confidence,” Everett said. “When I saw other African Americans showcasing their work, talking about their process and networking with those folks as well, (that) really inspired me to do what I'm doing now."

Featured films

Everett’s film, "Wilmington on Fire", tells the story of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. He cited Singleton’s "Rosewood" and Williams’ "Banished" as inspirations behind the production. 

When he began making the film in 2011, Everett said he felt there wasn't much awareness of the massacre and needed to be addressed. 

“You know what, the time is now,” he said. “Someone needs to tell the story about this tragic event in North Carolina. And I decided to do it.”

Everett is also developing a sequel to the film, the trailer for which will be shown during the festival.

Wiley had similar motivations for his film, "Dar He." The film, which he adapted from a play he wrote in 2005, addresses the life and legacy of Emmett Till. Wiley took an ambitious approach to the movie, however, by playing all 36 characters on screen. 

His friend and fellow filmmaker, Rob Underhill, initially proposed the concept of Wiley playing every character. In taking on every role, Wiley hopes to personalize the viewing experience for the audience.

“They see themselves, they see humanity in Emmett, they see the humanity in Mamie Till-Mobley,” Wiley said. “I become every man in the piece in the figurative sense.”

Washington’s film, "Save The Dad Bod", takes an autobiographical approach. In 2013, he discovered he had kidney cancer after his now-wife encouraged him to go see a doctor for an oddity around his core area. 

The documentary encourages men to see a doctor regularly, using his own experience as an example. A 2016 study from the Cleveland Clinic found that only 60 percent of men go to a physician for an annual checkup. 

In his film, Washington provides a testimony of his life to send a message.

“We look at men as a whole, we look at men in a family setting and we look at the individual,” Washington said. “We try to answer the question: why aren't men going to the doctor?”

Looking ahead

The combination of films brings a unique variety to the Varsity Theater. Though they touch on different topics, Everett said they dive into themes and situations relevant to the Black community.

“​​I think that all three deal with the Black experience,” Everett said. “To me, all three fields represent needed dialogue and conversation.”

Down the line, the trio hopes to sustain the event for years to come.

The mission moving forward is for more Black creators to become involved and raise a generation of filmmakers within the community. 

Wiley’s 13-year-old son, Jordan, was commissioned by Washington to make a three-minute short film, set to premiere after "Dar He" at Saturday's festival. As a young filmmaker, Jordan often makes YouTube videos and tells stories in a more digitized way. 

Wiley said his son's early interest in storytelling through modern technology and online mediums like YouTube and TikTok mirrors his own.

“Those stories don't last long, they're two minutes, three minutes, four minutes long,” Wiley said. “But they're shorts. And that's where we are heading as society. We're taking in content that is shorter. And we want to take in content that is not only shorter, but also impactful.”

Washington, Everett and Wiley all expressed their hope to see the festival grow after this year. They want young, Black filmmakers to see representation in the field and further pursue their craft.

The Pioneers share the same sentiment, as Hubbard expressed her excitement for the productions.

"The films are going to be fabulous," Hubbard said. "And it's our way of supporting the real picture of who we are in this area and in this country."

In the future, Washington said that the event would accept applications for people to place their films in the festival. He hopes the festival can even provide a scholarship to an aspiring filmmaker to participate. 

“It's your responsibility to tell your own story,” Washington said. “Because if someone else does, it’s not going to be as good as you would do it … They're either going to tell it wrong, or it's not going to be told at all.”


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