Every August the Film Center presents the Black Harvest Film Festival, a four-week schedule of films drawn from the black experience, and every festival kicks off with a gala shorts program, "A Black Harvest Feast." The five shorts screening this year all seem like calling-card films, fairly conventional dramas with good production values and sometimes drippy music cues, meant to win entrée into the professional world of TV and movies. But there's real talent here, especially in two sharp domestic dramas. The Christmas Tree (12 min.), written, directed, and shot locally by Angel Kristi Williams, noses into the most uncomfortable corners of a parent-child relationship, much like Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. Ka'ramuu Kush is excellent as a down-at-the-heels father who gets custody of his daughter for the holiday and takes her out to cut down their own tree, only to be humbled and morally compromised after the tree is ripped off from the flatbed of his pickup truck. Less complex but just as sincere, Rachel I. Johnson's White Sugar in a Black Pot (18 min.) shows a family pushed to the breaking point when the mother, making decent money and desperate to escape from the housing project where they live, clashes with the father over the possibility of buying a house with a subprime mortage.
Check out siskelfilmcenter.org for the rest of this week's programs, and check the New Reviews section in forthcoming weeks for these Black Harvest documentaries: John Paley, Ross Finkel, and Trevor Martin's Ballplayer: Pelotero (8/12, 8/13), about baseball hopefuls from the Dominican Republic; Katie Dellamaggiore's Brooklyn Castle (8/26, 8/30), about chess revitalizing the lives of inner-city kids; S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf's The Contradictions of Fair Hope (8/19, 8/20), which revisits the "benevolent societies" of freed blacks after the Civil War; Pamela Sherrod Anderson's The Curators of Dixon School (8/12, 8/16), a look at Chicago's own Dixon Elementary Public school; and Jonathan Gayles's White Scripts and Black Supermen (8/26, 8/27), a history of black superheroes in American comic books and strips. We'll also review three dramatic features: William L. Cochran's Englewood (The Growing Pains in Chicago) (8/17, 8/23), a story of three pals trying to make it through their senior year of high school in the title 'hood; Sidney Mansa Winters's Father's Day (8/27, 8/29), in which an Iraq war veteran visiting his son is swept into a dangerous intrigue; and Ya'ke Smith's Wolf (8/14, 8/15), about a teenage boy who's sexually involved with a preacher at his church.
Ballplayer: Pelotero This competent documentary looks at the training and recruiting of baseball players in the Dominican Republic, which produces nearly 20 percent of athletes in the major leagues. As one agent in the movie bluntly puts it, pro baseball treats the republic like a bargain basement, paying far less for promising talent there than in the continental U.S. Yet Dominican players regularly sacrifice their childhoods in hope of getting recruited at 16; they train nonstop from age 11 and submit to humiliating examinations once the majors take interest. Directors John Paley, Ross Finkel, and Trevor Martin try to soften these ugly truths with sentimental stories of teenagers getting signed and pulling their families out of poverty, but the portrait of widespread exploitation overwhelms the intended effect of these subplots. In English and subtitled Spanish. —Ben Sachs 76 min. Sun 8/12, 5:30 PM, and Mon 8/13, 6:30 PM.
The Curators of Dixon School Inspiring and sobering in similar measure, this documentary by Pamela Sherrod Anderson focuses on Arthur Dixon Elementary School in Chatham, where principal Joan Dameron Crisler raised academic performance while making art a priority. Not only were impoverished students engaged and empowered through art classes, but Crisler developed a permanent collection of Afrocentric paintings and sculptures, which are displayed unprotected in the halls and respected by the student body. Anderson also broadens her narrative to include Sharon Dale, who became Dixon’s principal when Crisler took a job mentoring other administrators, and Carol Briggs, who got her start as Crisler’s assistant principal and struggles to develop a similar renaissance, stressing reading, as principal of Alfred D. Kohn School in Roseland. Their dedication is impressive, though end credits reveal how much their efforts have been defunded by an ailing Chicago school system. —J.R. Jones 80 min. Anderson attends the screenings. Sun 8/12, 3 PM, and Thu 8/16, 6 PM.
Wolf A middle-class couple discover that their teenage son has been sexually involved with their pastor. First-time writer-director Ya’ke Smith approaches the potentially lurid subject matter with restraint and sensitivity, and he demonstrates prodigious skill as a director of actors, giving even the walk-on players ample room to make the dialogue their own (the great Irma P. Hall, playing the abused boy’s grandmother, has some typically show-stopping moments). Smith’s dialogue, however, is often bogged down by cliches, and his metaphorical conceits can be heavy-handed and trite. —Ben Sachs 87 min. Smith attends the screenings. Tue 8/14 and Wed 8/15, 8:15 PM.
The Contradictions of Fair Hope This documentary looks at a century-old Alabama "benevolent society," a kind of social outreach program established by ex-slaves during Reconstruction to provide African-American citizens with medical treatment and religious services. Each September the society hosts a festival for the surrounding community, but as crime has increased, the decency of the festival has diminished; what started as a family-friendly event has since degenerated into an open-air market for sex, drugs, assault weapons, and fake designer handbags. Nothing much distinguishes this from your standard PBS documentary, but there is one striking and painful moment as the society's elderly contingent, steadfast in their traditional beliefs, empty out of a church service and into the festival fray. S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf directed. —Drew Hunt 67 min. Merkerson and Metcalf attend the screenings. Sun 8/19, 5:15 PM, and Mon 8/20, 8:15 PM.
Englewood (The Growing Pains in Chicago) Amateurish but sincere, this local indie drama addresses several pressing issues in the lives of south-side youth: gun violence, teen pregnancy, and the high number of public-school dropouts. Writer-director William L. Cochran (who also stars as a troubled student) is clearly ambivalent about these subjects: he doesn't offer a commentary so much as a view from the inside. For better and for worse, there's nothing to mitigate the script's male, teenage perspective. —Ben Sachs 94 min. Cochrane attends the screenings. Fri 8/17, 8:30 PM, and Thu 8/23, 8:15 PM.
Brooklyn Castle Structured like a sports drama, this documentary profiles a chess club at a Brooklyn junior high school that has won scores of championships over the past decade. The message is that chess can motivate working-class kids to become better students, and though that's nice to know, the movie doesn't illustrate this theme in much depth. Director Katie Dellamaggiore juggles almost a dozen different narratives, touching on the lives on several different kids, the school's budget crisis, and the team's preparation for a national tournament; as a result, none of the stories really registers, and her reliance on infographics cheapens the material. —Ben Sachs 102 min. A reception follows the Thursday screening. Sun 8/26, 3:15 PM, and Thu 8/30, 6:30 PM.
Father's Day This no-budget local production recalls the video remakes of Hollywood blockbusters in Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind; it appears to have been shot across several city blocks and a couple of public parks. Likely modeled on the 90s action flicks of Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, it concerns an Iraq War veteran whose son gets hold of a top-secret computer disc, which forces them to flee a bunch of armed thugs. The story doesn't make much sense, the performers regularly flub their lines, and the fights look like they were choreographed by grade schoolers, but the participants seem to be having so much fun that you might find this endearing as a home movie. Sidney Mansa Winters directed. —Ben Sachs 74 min. Producers William Peirce and Simeon Henderson attend the screenings. Mon 8/27, 8:30 PM, and Wed 8/29, 6:15 PM.
White Scripts and Black Supermen This documentary about black comic-book superheroes zips past the sidekicks of the 40s and 50s—like Lothar, who served as muscle for Mandrake the Magician, and Whitewash Jones, who provided comic relief for the Young Allies—and never gets into the more credible superheroes that came along in the 80s and 90s, as black artists got into the game. Instead director Jonathan Gayles focuses on the 60s and 70s, when white creative directors at Marvel Comics and DC Comics were fumbling around with such dubious characters as the Falcon, a pawn to a white supremacist villain, and Luke Cage, who wore a tiara and demanded cash payment for his good deeds. An assortment of comic book artists and pop-culture academics weigh in on this odd period, noting its cluelessness and compromises; their smart and funny discourse makes you wish that Gayles had continued his study into the present day. —J.R. Jones 52 min. Also on the program: Ken Wyatt's 40-minute documentary Colored Confederates: Myth or Matter of Fact? Wyatt attends the Sunday screening. Sun 8/26, 5:15 PM, and Mon 8/27, 6 PM.