Roxbury International Film Festival opens with a hybrid format

23rd annual RoxFilm features more than 70 films including works by local filmmakers

A film from Zimbabwe, a story of Roxbury high school senior, and a US-made comedy that was overlooked because of the pandemic are among the highlights of the 23rd annual Roxbury International Film Festival, which is slated to run in a hybrid format from June 17 to 26 with in-person screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and online.

“We’re always an in person film festival, like all film festivals before Covid hit. Last year we did our first all streaming, all online festival,” said Lisa Simmons, the festival’s artistic director. Last year’s RoxFilm installment was held in October, but the organizers wanted to get back on the traditional schedule. “This is the time we normally do our festival and we didn’t want to miss a year.”

This year’s festival features more 70 films including narrative films and documentaries, along with “shorts” (a film of any genre that is less than 40 minutes), and animated films. Also slated are panel discussions on BIPOC women independent filmmakers, Black chefs, and Black film critics, and hangouts are scheduled.

(RoxFilm coincides with the inaugural Roxbury Restaurant Week, June 13 to June 19, which was organized by Misha Thomas, general manager of Haley House Bakery Café and is being presented in partnership with Roxbury Main Streets.)

Abbey Lincoln in “How it Feels to be Free,” directed by Yoruba Richen.
Lena Horne is also featured in the opening night film "How it Feels to be Free."

The events get rolling with a double bill on June 17 at the MFA’s Remis Auditorium. First up is “How it Feels to be Free,” directed by Yoruba Richen. The film takes a look at “the unprecedented look at the intersection of African American women artists, politics, and entertainment.” Based on Ruth Feldstein’s book of the same name, the film tells the story of six trailblazers: Lena Horne, the first Black woman signed to a major studio; Abbey Lincoln, the “Black Marilyn Monroe” turned protest singer and activist; Diahann Carroll, the first Black woman to both win a Tony Award and star in her own TV series in a role other than a maid; Nina Simone, the revolutionary musical prodigy; Cicely Tyson, the proud race woman who used her art as a form of protest; and, Pam Grier, the first female action hero. (An online Q&A with Richen takes place June 17 at 7 p.m.)

Friends at the Mandela mural in "Memoirs of a Black Girl."

The second film that night is Roxbury-made “Memoirs of a Black Girl,” about a motivated high school senior from Roxbury, by Thato Rantao Mwosa, a native of Botswana who has lived in the Boston area for more than 25 years and teaches filmmaking at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury. Mwosa’s film tells “the story of an astute and ambitious student named Aisha Johnson as one of the finalists for the coveted Conrad Scholarship. Aisha’s goal is to earn the top prize, but one day when Aisha tries to do the right thing, her life turns upside down, which jeopardizes her future. Aisha must learn to navigate life at home, in school, and on the unforgiving streets of Roxbury.”

This is Mwosa’s first feature film but not her first time being honored by RoxFilm. In 2005, she received the Emerging Filmmaker Award for her short film “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.”

On June 24, RoxFilm will give the holiday comedy “Jingle Jangle” its due with a free, outdoor screening. The all-Black cast film was released in November 2020, but never did any red carpet screenings because of Covid. The “winter-holiday-in- summer” event will include a pre-recorded clip of a Q&A with director/producer David E. Talbert and producer Lyn Sisson-Talbert.

RoxFilm’s closing event on June 26 at 6:30 p.m. is an in-person only screening of Jamila Wignot’s documentary “Ailey,” about the legendary dancer, choreographer, and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

A scene from Jamila Wignot’s documentary “Ailey,” about the legendary dancer, choreographer, and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo courtesy of NEON
Alvin Alley Dance Theater. Photo courtesy of NEON

In addition to screenings, panels include a discussion of the film “The Ghost in America’s Kitchen,” about James Hemings, a slave to Thomas Jefferson, who is the source of a number of American culinary traditions including macaroni and cheese. “We’re screening that film and doing a panel with other black chefs from around the country to discuss being a black chef in American kitchens today,” said Simmons.

This year’s RoxFilm stands in stark contrast from the previous editions but the festival is sticking to is mission of promoting the voices of Black filmmakers and the creative eye of those who are often marginalized in the mainstream film circuit.

“The film festival started because there were filmmakers – Black filmmakers – who were not getting into other festivals because people weren’t necessarily understanding of their films because they weren’t fitting into the traditional pattern of what Black film was in the late ’90s,” Simmons said. “The festival was created especially for local filmmakers to screen their work to an audience.”

She continued: “We obviously went international and have films all over the world and country, but the mission remains the same: to provide the opportunity to filmmakers to share their work and voice with a larger audience. We’ve been screening films about Black Lives Matter & LGBT rights since the beginning. … That’s the mission of who we are as curators, as people, to bring these voices who are underserved so often to the forefront.”

The 23rd annual Roxbury International Film Festival runs June 17-26 with in-person indoor and outdoor screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts and with films streaming online.

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