Black Star Film Fest showcases queer cinema

“Legendary: 30 Years of Philadelphia Ballroom” profiles the local ballroom community.

The 9th edition of the annual Black Star Film Festival showcases a number of queer features, shorts, and documentaries. The festival, which will take place virtually August 19-26, will screen more than 80 films from 20 countries. (Note: some programs may be geoblocked). Tickets for both individual days ($5) and passes for the entire program ($100) are available at Here is a rundown of what to watch.

“Unapologetic” profiles activists Janaé Bonsu (pictured) and Bella Bahhs.

One of the more topical films screening at the festival is the cogent documentary “Unapologetic,” (August 20, 7:30 pm) which profiles Janaé Bonsu and Bella Bahhs, two queer Black women in Chicago who are part of the Black Youth Project 100 activist group. The film opens with a powerful action of the BYP100 disrupting white brunches to protest police violence. The women seek justice in the case of Rekia Boyd, a young Black woman who was shot and killed by an off-duty cop. Filmmaker Ashley O’Shay also shows Janaé working on her dissertation and visiting her queer mother, Stacey. Meanwhile, Bella, a rapper, contends with the trauma of family members in prison and seeks a grant to organize full time. “Unapologetic” provides an uplift as Bella leads protests or Janaé speaks out in meetings. Their efforts to serve and represent their community — which has long felt unheard and oppressed — is inspiring.

Set in Jamaica, writer/director Gibrey Allen’s feature debut, “Right Near the Beach,” (August 20, 9:30 pm) is a lyrical drama, expanded from the filmmaker’s 2011 short, “Excuses for Jeff.” Mr. Jones (Granville Allen) is a farmer whose son Jeffrey, a star sprinter, is murdered. The killing, which appears to be an anti-gay hate crime, sparks discussion on the radio as callers espouse opposing views on homosexuality. While a Detective (Andrew Allen) investigates, the film is less about whodunnit and more about the impact Jeff’s death has on the community. When Mr. Jones’ other son, Mike (Gibrey Allen), who has his own complicated backstory, returns home, his father avoids talking about Jeff’s death. “Right Near the Beach” is a moody character study with folkloric touches and some impressive sequences, such as Mr. Jones experiencing moments of rage or being tormented by the voices in his head. This film may be a bit experimental, but it rewards patient viewers. 

“Making Sweet Tea” (August 25, 10:00 am) is an insightful documentary chronicling Dr. E. Patrick Johnson’s interviews with various Black gay men in the South about their lives and experiences. His findings were published in his 2011 book, “Sweet Tea,” but Johnson later developed a stage version. Directors John L. Jackson, Jr. and Nora Gross intercut scenes of Johnson preparing his production with interviews with a half dozen men Johnson depicts on stage. The men discuss topics including coming out, race, interracial relationships, class, gender roles, family, the church, and HIV/AIDS, with candor and sometimes cattiness. But this documentary speaks to the value of telling these stories. One of the most heartfelt moments has Charles, a hairdresser, reacting to Johnson’s performance of him. This is a compassionate documentary about men whose voices resonate. 

There are moments of magical realism in “A Day with Jerusa,” (August 25, 9:30 pm) a Brazilian drama about Silvia (Débora Marçal), a lesbian market researcher, who visits the 77 year-old Jerusa (Léa Garcia) in her home on her birthday to conduct a survey about washing powder. As they talk, Jerusa recounts stories of enslavement and ancestry while Silvia gets her period and has flights of fantasy. The conversations between these women, such as one about preserving colors or getting rid of stains, are compelling. A touching scene has Jerusa braiding Silvia’s hair while they discuss views on homosexuality. “A Day with Jerusa” may be a bit stagy — it could work as a play — but writer/director Viviane Ferreira’s film transports viewers to the Bixiga neighborhood of São Paulo and features lively music along with a few colorful supporting characters, like a street preacher Jerusa photographs. 

There are a handful of queer shorts screening at the Black Star Film Festival. Arguably the best is “Wash Day,” (August 23, 11:00 am) director Kourtney Jackson’s fantastic short documentary about three Black women talking about their bodies and their hair and how it has determined their self-worth. Transwoman Eve explains she has come to accept who she is and what she looks like even though people make her feel different. Kyera and Magda echo these sentiments in her taking care and ownership of their hair and bodies. Jackson films her subjects in the shower and applying makeup, and she uses a clever visual technique to emphasize the film’s theme of re-evaluation. 

The shorts program “Kinetic” (August 22, 7:30 pm) opens with “Origins of Hair” a nifty, 65-second animated piece about curls and queer identity. It is followed by the non-narrative short, “In Hot Time,” directed by Leah Solomon and the non-binary Jesus Hilario-Reyes. The film employs split screens, mirrors, filters, and editing to create a whirlwind. Their captivating mélange features dancers, musical scenes, film clips, and costumes. The visuals are dazzling and allow viewers to parse out the meanings and messages about Black culture. In addition, the program includes “Legendary: 30 Years of Philadelphia Ballroom.” Made by three members of the staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer, this short is an affectionate, entertaining portrait of the local ballroom community featuring engaging interviewees and fabulous images.   Other shorts, screening in different programs, include: “Cover/Age,” (August 23, 1:30 pm) directed by gender non-conforming Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, profiles trans activist Héctor Plascencia-Juarez, who is working to secure health care for undocumented and uninsured people in California. The film contrasts the #Health4All activists’ efforts with the testimony of Emma, a 60 year-old Filipino caregiver, who would benefit from such coverage that is denied to her by the Affordable Care Act. “Safe Among Stars,” (August 25, 7:30 pm) by the non-binary Jess X Snow, has lesbian Jia (Poppy Liu) delving into a fantasy world to cope with trauma as well as the pressure her traditional mother (Leah Cai) projects on to her. This short is visually dynamic, with scenes of Jia teleporting, before climaxing in an emotional moment. Lastly, “tender” (August 26, 5:30 pm) written and directed by Felicia Pride, depicts the slightly awkward but intimate morning after an encounter between the uptight Kiana (Farelle Walker), as she acknowledges her attraction to Lulu (Trishauna Clarke). The short is extremely well acted by Walker, whose myriad of expressions convey her character’s barriers breaking down as she finds a sense of acceptance and self-worth with same-sex love.