Maupintown Film Festival

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 53 • July 2017 • Charlottesville

Inspired by a rich family history of storytelling, this burgeoning event highlights the importance of African American culture in today’s turbulent times.

Above: Lorenzo Dickerson, founder of the Maupintown Film Festival | Photo by Tristan Williams

In western Ablemarle County in the small community of Ivy, there’s a seemingly mythical land, accessible only by a densely wooded trail dripping in green vines. This special place, called Maupintown (MAW-pin-town), serves as the meeting grounds for a prominent local family knowns as the Black Maupins. Just outside of Charlottesville, this Shangri-La of sorts is where Lorenzo Dickerson’s grandmother and her family would gather to spend time together, celebrate with each other, and tell stories. It was this history that would later inspire Lorenzo Dickerson to start the burgeoning Maupintown Film Festival.

Founded in 2015, the festival hosts three days of the best in classic and contemporary black film and documentaries. It specializes in films that are underground and underappreciated, stuff that you may not already know, but definitely should. The 15 featured this year offer a rare look into the black gold lying just under the surface of the mainstream film industry.

Still from Afro-Punk

The theme for this year’s festival is Black Goes with Everything: The Diverse Experiences of Descendants of Africa, which is fitting, as Dickerson explained, “since descendants of Africa are in every corner of the world and experiencing all different kinds of things and every different aspect of life.” A featured film that exemplifies this kind of far-reaching scope is We Are Humanity, a documentary providing an exclusive look into the tribal life of the African-originated Jarawa people living in near isolation on the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean. Other features include sociological studies such as By Blood, which examines American Indians of African descent; Afro-Punk, which explores racial identity in the punk scene; and Black Like Me, a gripping account of a white journalist who temporarily darkened his skin at the height of the civil rights movement in the segregated South.

An Albemarle County native, Dickerson is a busy man. By day, he manages the web content and social media presence of Albemarle County’s school system. By night, he runs Maupintown Media, a documentary film studio that delves into local black history. Their most recent project, Albemarle’s Black Classrooms, combines his two vocations to take a critical look at the state of race and education in the county as it approached desegregation.

For those curious as to why an Afro-centric film festival is needed right now, one only has to look back to the 2016 Academy Awards. As widely documented at the time, the Silver Screen isn’t the most colorful of canvases. Last year, all twenty acting nominations went to white people, a seemingly incongruous situation, given that critically acclaimed films like Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation ruled at the box office. That monochromatic lineup drew vast scrutiny, and the problem was addressed at this year’s Oscars ceremony, resulting in the most diverse list of nominees in the academy’s history. This dynamic begs the question: what other remarkable films are being overlooked outside of the Hollywood system? The Maupintown Film Festival seeks to provide a suitable answer.

Poster art from By Blood

Beyond award ceremonies, Maupintown also is a reflection of today’s cultural landscape. “African American filmmakers, directors, and writers are really coming to the forefront now,” Dickerson noted, referencing the rise of black creatives such as Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Ava DuVarney with Selma, Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) with Get Out, and Barry Jenkins with the Academy Award-winning Moonlight. The small screen has seen a similar rising tide with the likes of Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Shonda Rimes’s Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder. These projects, along with other ethnically diverse ensembles as seen in Master of None and Dear White People, signal the increasing normalization of casts that are as racially varied as their audiences.

Finally, this year’s festival comes at a time when the race debate has heated up throughout America. “It’s of increasing importance in the times that we're living in,” Dickerson said, “especially now with the issues that we’re seeing locally and nationally.” The controversy surrounding Confederate Civil War monuments speaks to those concerns. A recent motion by Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park resulted in white nationalist protests that garnered mainstream media coverage. As emotions still run high, the national chapter of the KKK has planned a protest rally in Charlottesville on July 8, much to the chagrin of community organizers like Dickerson.

We want learning about African American history to be the norm for them, not just an optional thing or a separate thing that they learn at a certain time of the year.

Lorenzo Dickerson

In spite of these controversies, the hope is that the Maupintown Film Festival can offer people a venue to work through the pressing issues of the day. The discussions that follow many of the films provide the opportunity for attendees to address subject matter that is often uncomfortable, but increasingly vital. Dickerson explained, “I want to allow the opportunity for everyone to really hear each other. That’s really the reason for having the discussion versus you just watching the film and leaving.”

Of course, the festival isn’t all about oppression and despair. Day two of the festival starts with Saturday morning cartoons, Dancing in the Light and Garrett’s Gift, narrated by Chris Rock and by Queen Latifah, respectively. A short Q&A will follow via Skype with the films’ creator Karyn Parsons, best known from her role as Hilary Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These two films were chosen not only because they’re fun and animated, but also because of the lessons they impart. “We really want kids to be able to hear these stories and to understand them and to be interested in them at an early age,” Dickerson said. “We want learning about African American history to be the norm for them, not just an optional thing or a separate thing that they learn at a certain time of the year.”

That last point is one that really sticks out about this festival. Hosting it in July gives these films a certain “additional space” beyond the annual remembrances during Black History Month. As Dickerson noted, “A lot of times, we hear about black history in February, then we don’t hear about it again until the next February.” And he’s right, after all, as these aren’t films about the traditional stalwarts like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman. These are new stories for a new era, ones that speak to the modern renaissance in black culture.

Book cover for Black Like Me

The Maupintown Film Festival will be held in Charlottesville at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on July 14–16. Admission is free. To learn more, visit maupintown.com.

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