Why take an extravagant flight to the Cannes Film Festival (France) or the Sundance Film Festival (Utah) when you can get star treatment in Harlem, and be seen on the red carpet at the Harlem International Film Festival? 

This film festival  introduces some of the finest filmmakers from Harlem to Hong Kong with a featured Harlem Spotlight highlighting films produced or directed by Harlem residents, films shot in Harlem, or films about Harlem and its legendary history.  

The Harlem International Film Festival began on May 18 and will run through May 28 at Maysles Documentary Cinema (343 Malcolm X Blvd). Some of the 20-plus films to be screened include the following.

May 25

“Hargrove,” a documentary about the life of innovative jazz trumpeter and composer Roy Hargrove, filmed during his last tour across Mediterranean Europe. Directed by Eliane Henri, 108 minutes.  

May 26

Actor and comedian John Leguizamo performs his one-man Broadway show “Ghetto Klown,” live at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, directed by Elena Francesca Engel, 26 minutes. 

In “Down’s Paradox,” a teenage boy living in Harlem succumbs to the bad influences of his new friends. Directed by Red Rodgers Truss, 14 minutes. 

The NYC premiere of “Bonnie Blue James Cotton’s Life in the Blues.” Born in 1935 on the Bonnie Blue plantation in Tunica, Mississippi, James “Super” Blue Cotton became a mentor to harp players around the world as he brought the delta blues into mainstream rock and roll. Directed by Bestor Cram, 86 minutes.  

Short documentary focused on Moe’s original 16 mm film footage of the last NY Giants baseball game played at the Polo Grounds stadium in Harlem, in 1957. Directed by Janko Radosavljevic, 19 minutes. 

“Orange and the Blues,” an inside look at devoted New York Knicks fans who support the team despite its dysfunction and lack of success. Director Keif Roberts, 82 minutes. 

May 27

“AJASS Pioneers of the Black is Beautiful Movement,” chronicling the journey of AJAZZ (African Jazz-Art Society and Studios) from the Bronx, where they hosted jazz concerts in Harlem while promoting Black is Beautiful and Black self-determination. Influenced by co-founder Carlos Cook and Elombe Brath. Directed by Louise Dente, 120 minutes. 

“One of the Wonders of the World, Dr. William R. Harvey,” about Harvey’s 44-year legacy as president of Hampton University. Directed by Phill Branch, 48 minutes. 

“Move When the Spirit Says Move,” about Dorothy Foreman Cotton, a bold and effective teacher who educated thousands about their citizenship rights. She was a key player in the Civil Rights Movement who was consistently overlooked. Directed by Ry Ferro and Deborah C. Hoard, 89 minutes.

“Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes,” about the music professor, bassist, composer, and author. A brilliant documentation of Ron Carter’s life. It could have very well been entitled “The genius of Ron Carter,” but the humble gentleman stated his life is still committed to finding the right notes. A superb film worth seeing—watching an incredible musician at work as he drops pearls of wisdom as he continues an illustrious life. Directed by Peter Schnall, 102 minutes. 

Earlier in the week, the festival held the world premiere of “The Sacred Place Between Earth and Space.” For me, it rates as one of the best jazz documentaries to be produced over the years and definitely for this Harlem festival. 

This documentary is a culmination of Harlem Stage’s “Afrofuturism” series featuring Craig Harris’s Nocturnal Nubian Ball for Conscientious Ballers and Cultural Shot Callers (the performances took place at Battery Park, Marcus Garvey Park, and Harlem Stage). The film is a mix of behind-the-scenes concert and historical footage that highlights Harris’s reunion and performances with legendary  jazz instrumentalist and fellow Sun Ra Arkestra member Marshall Allen.  For that brief week in the summer of 2021, trombonist, composer, and arranger Harris and his Nation of Imagination were able to provide live music relief for a fatigued New York City, still weary from battling a national COVID-19 pandemic. During the film’s Q&A, Harris noted, “Coming out of the pandemic, we were ready to perform live and the audience was ready to get inside the music and groove.” Marshall Allen, at age 99, couldn’t make the world premiere due to a performance engagement.  

What makes this jazz documentary so different from others is that “The Sacred Place Between Earth and Space” is the spiritual stage for Black music without boundaries. It’s more than jazz because the composer Harris refuses to be categorized. He is a visionary like his mentors Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra, Marshall Allen, and Amiri Baraka. 

Harris discusses his  approach to music: “I always look for the impossible, not sure how it’s going to turn out and don’t really want to know, but it will be good. I like to bring all the music together—gospel, R&B, jazz, and blues. I listen and learn.” 

Harris plays on the edge of the pendulum, which is his bond with Harlem Stage, as executive director Pat Cruz noted: “We have commissioned visionary artists like Craig from the inception, which has almost been 40 years. Craig’s work has always brought us to heaven.” 

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The film includes clips of Sun Ra Arkestra performances and discussion of his music cosmic philosophy, his theatrical performances engulfed in eclectic sounds of avant garde bebop, fusion, and big band. Sun Ra is the epitome of the Afro-futurism movement. His legacy is entwined in Harlem Stage’s evolution, whose programs represent Black artists as a spiritual unity between Earth and space, from music, avant garde, thought, dance, films, and spoken word. This is why Harlem Stage is such a significant asset to the community: It brings authenticity with raging creativity to the forefront with the same intensity as their collaborative partner, trombonist Harris. 

This is a testament to experiencing the spiritual soul of live music in the moment that encompasses the genres of Black music into one song. It’s the perseverance of Black musicians staying focused and creating during exasperating times. “The spirit is always on my mind,” said Harris. “These are sonic vibrations that have allowed Black people to survive—it lifts us up.” 

The editing is seamless—it seems as though you are actually in the room during conversations and you will clap your hands after each performance clip. Directed by Patrick Heaphy, 92 minutes.  

The Harlem International Film Festival showcases features, documentaries, shorts, animation, youth projects, episodic work, and cutting-edge music videos. Other events include noon lunchtime screenings, panel discussions, and the Renaissance Awards gala. 

For a complete schedule of remaining films, visit the website harlemfilmfestival.org.

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