Brown Cinema Café, a film series showcasing communities of color, debuts tonight

It’s like the 1990s again for the Minnesota film industry. With snowbate incentives bringing in big-budget films, public funding streams boosting local filmmakers, a plethora of film festivals scheduled throughout the year, and more venues than ever that screen interesting and new work, it’s a great time for the Twin Cities film community.

Add to the mix E.G. Bailey and Shá Cage of Tru Ruts, who in collaboration with Intermedia Arts and IFP Minnesota are launching a new film series, called Brown Cinema Café. The screenings will showcase works created by and about communities of color. It launches tonight with a group of movies by local and international filmmakers, plus live music by DJ Sarah White.

Tru Ruts have been developing the idea of a film series focusing on people of color for a while. After a number of conversations with Intermedia Arts, they decided to partner together.

“The Twin Cities has kind of gone up and down with the history of films in Minnesota,” Bailey says. “In the mid to late '90s there were a lot of films here, and then it slowed down here for a while.” As things have recently started to pick up again, he and Cage wanted to create a series “to nurture and help develop the filmmakers of color in the community,” he says.  In one of tonight's films, local filmmaker D.A. Bullock offers a snapshot of the rally that took place last fall the day after five protesters were shot at by white supremacists at the #justice4jamar occupation in north Minneapolis. Bullock’s black-and-white short avoids conventional documentary techniques such as voice-over and interviews, instead lingering on the faces of the people who have gathered in protest. The meditative piece is underscored by jazz music.

Also on the bill is Soko Sonko (The Market King) by Ekwa Msangi, who is currently is based in New York City. The film, which was shot in Kenya, takes on gender roles using charming, comedic storytelling. Starring in the film is Chantel Airo, who is darling in the role of a young girl who has the bad luck of having her dad (Larry Asego) put in charge of taking her to the market to get her hair styled.

Msangi's family is originally from Tanzania, but she grew up in Kenya, and created the film around the 10th anniversary of her father’s passing. “I wanted to write a story that was a celebration of my dad,” she says.

Msangi wanted to explore gender roles, particularly within the neighborhood markets in Nairobi. “Both women and men go to the market, but men go to a specific part of the market where there’s beer and meat and revelry,” she says. “Women go to the other side of the market, which is clothes and hair.” While women sometimes will go to eat, men rarely cross over.

“There’s so much pressure put on women in terms of beauty standards,” Msangi says. Before school, most women in the culture spend hours getting their hair done. “It’s so regular and it’s something most men don’t participate in at all,” she says. “They don’t even know what it entails. I thought I would have fun with that.”

Msangi has created all her major work in film and television in East Africa, partly because she grew up there and has a lot of personal and cultural references. “It’s also a very nurturing experience for me because the market is so open,” she says. There are less rigid structures and genres than in the United States, where “you don’t have the flexibility to go back and forth and try different things,” she says.

She also has a personal mission of capturing stories of actual people in East Africa, because of its long history of wildlife photography and filmmaking, and all the Hollywood movies where white people come to Africa to find themselves amid an exotic backdrop. “There hasn’t been much depiction of actual people and their lives,” she says. “People are much more familiar with the Serengeti and the natural preserves than what people look like and sound like.”

Msangi says that programs like the Brown Cinema Café, which supports work by and about communities of color, are important because so many of the big-name film festivals are predominantly white. “Most of those traditional festivals don’t allow a lot of space for filmmakers of any color unless they are super exotic, or unless the film’s government paid for the film,” she says. “If you are just an independent filmmaker, to even get into those places and have someone screen your film is hugely difficult.”

With the advent of digital filmmaking, there’s been a huge shift in the number of film festivals that have sprouted up. “You don’t need billion-dollar equipment in order to have a screening,” Msangi says. “That’s really liberated the industry and made a whole lot of space to participate.”

CRYSTAL LAKE tiny excerpt #1 from Jennifer Reeder on Vimeo.

Another piece screening tonight is called Crystal Lake, by Jennifer Reader. The film is about a group of Muslim teen girls who take over a skate park in the middle of the night.

E.G. Bailey says that he met Reader at a film festival in Finland, when they were two of only a few American filmmakers in attendance. “We connected and she told me about her film, called Crystal Lake, which is named after the place where I grew up,” Bailey says. “It was very strange to go all the way to Finland to meet a person who made a film about my hometown.”

While Reader isn’t a filmmaker of color, Bailey says they included the movie because it features a community of color and uses performers of color. He notes that she’s a prolific, noted feminist filmmaker whose work focuses primarily on young women.
Finally, the evening will feature a segment of hip-hop artist Toussaint Morrison’s new film, created with Jon Steinhorst and Ryan S. Johnson, called Best When Sung From the Gutter: The World's First Motion Picture Ballad.

Morrison calls the film “a motion picture ballad” because it is divided into 10 different parts, with 10 spoken-word pieces woven together into a cinematic narrative.

A veteran of the slam poetry scene, Morrison, who is also an actor, wanted to try something a little different. The piece follows the story of a young man, played by Morrison, who feels confined by his own thoughts and is searching to find an outlet.

After showing a portion of the project at Brown Cinema Café, Morrison will debut the film at IFP (550 Vandalia St. #120, St. Paul) this Saturday at 7:30 p.m., followed by an online release next Tuesday (you'll be able to watch it here). He'll also do a live performance at the Bryant-Lake Bowl on Friday, June 3. 

After tonight’s launch, Brown Cinema Cafe will return in June for the regional premiere of a film called Jason and Shirley by Stephen Winter, which, according to Bailey, is getting a lot of buzz at screenings around the country. Look for future Brown Cinema Cafe events in July and September as well.


Brown Cinema Café debuts tonight at 7 p.m. Wednesday Intermedia Arts.