The 19th annual Black Harvest Film Festival begins this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center and runs through the end of August. Committed to "celebrating the stories, images, and history of the black experience and the African diaspora," the fest focuses on the work of independent filmmakers, many based in Chicago. The festival kicks off Friday evening with "A Black Harvest Feast," a gala screening of four family-friendly shorts: Martine Jean's The Silent Treatment, Steven Caple Jr.'s A Different Tree, Kibwe Tavares's Jonah, and Ralph K. Scott's Barbasol. Festival passes, good for admission to six screenings, are $50; a complete schedule can be found at siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest2013. —Ben Sachs
Babe's and Ricky's Inn In this lively documentary (2011) about the titular nightclub that for decades lured blues musicians to South Central LA, the numbers are so electric one wishes director Ramin Niami had made a full-scale concert film instead of shooting his footage during the joint's closing days. Former headliners like John Lee Hooker and Bobby "Blue" Bland have passed on, but their red-hot proteges tear up the stage between vivid recollections, like the one by Keb' Mo' about nervous white patrons ducking and running from their cars into the club. Fans weren't the only jumpy ones: owner Laura Mae "Mama" Gross slept on a pool table with a .38 tucked away. (She lived to age 89.) —Andrea Gronvall 90 min. Sun 8/4, 3:15 PM; Mon 8/5, 8:15 PM.
For the Cause A successful lawyer agrees to defend her estranged father, a former Black Panther who fled to Canada three decades earlier after shooting a police officer. Katherine Nero's debut feature, shot mainly on the south side of Chicago, uses this melodramatic premise to ruminate on the legacy of black radicalism and the contemporary state of the black middle class. It may be schematic in its organization (and somewhat plain in its visual style), but what it has to say isn't at all simple, and much of the dialogue conveys the messiness of real life. One lengthy scene depicting the dissolution of the lawyer's relationship with her longtime boyfriend is particularly effective, recasting the movie's political themes on an intimate scale. —Ben Sachs 84 min. Sat /3, 8 PM; Thu 8/8, 8:30 PM.
In Our Heads About Our Hair Hemamset Angaza directed this documentary (2012) about the cultural stigmas surrounding black women's hairstyles. The premise is exactly that of Jeff Stilson's 2009 doc Good Hair (absent Chris Rock), as Angaza interviews women of myriad ages, lifestyles, backgrounds, and nationalities about the ways in which their hair has negatively or positively affected their lives. The film clearly means well, and it presents some worthwhile information, but each testimonial repeats the same basic sentiment, rendering much of the material redundant. To make matters worse, the production is amateurish—Angaza often struggles with such simple technical aspects as syncing sound with image and placing the microphone in the correct spot when recording interviews. —Drew Hunt 76 min. Sun 8/4, 5:15 PM; Wed 8/7, 8:30 PM.
Things Never Said An unhappily married Los Angeles waitress (Shanola Hampton of TV's Shameless) finds her voice at local poetry slams in this deliberately paced drama. Her ex-athlete husband (Elimu Nelson) is bitter and mopey well before he loses his crappy job, and so heedless of her needs that he doesn't notice when she begins seeing a guy with his own emotional baggage (Omari Hardwick). In his feature-film directorial debut (2012), veteran TV writer Charles Murray (Third Watch) shows his small-screen roots by overrelying on tense, weighty exchanges to advance the narrative, but Hampton's steely performance makes them pay off, as the poet learns to wrest truth from pain. —Andrea Gronvall 112 min. Tue 8/6, 8:15 PM; Wed 8/7, 6:15 PM.
Black Noir This program of narrative shorts trades in thematically dark material; three of the five selections are crime dramas. Total running time is approximately 92 min. Director Dion Strowhorn Sr. (Over the Edge) will take part in an audience discussion after the screening. Tue 8/13, 8:30 PM.
Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity A music documentary that raises the bar for the genre, this portrait of jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd by his artist wife, Dorothy Darr, and her codirector, Jeffery Morse, enthralls as much as it edifies. From his early days as sideman to Cannonball Adderley to fronting his own acclaimed quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette to recording with the Grateful Dead, Lloyd remained open to diverse influences, musical and spiritual. He was cool enough to retreat from fame in the 70s, and savvy enough for a comeback a decade later. Jordan McCommons's evocative graphics augment rare performance footage and interviews with Lloyd and notables like Herbie Hancock, Robbie Robertson, and critic Stanley Crouch. —Andrea Gronvall 114 min. Richard Steele of WBEZ will introduce Sunday's screening. Sun 8/11, 5 PM, and Mon 8/12, 8 PM.
In Search of a Black Knight Tamarat Makonnen directed this documentary about the lack of eligible black men on the dating scene. The movie combines man-on-the-street interviews, commentary from relationship experts, and short comedic sketches. Makonnen will take part in an audience discussion after both screenings; comedian Brian Babylon will join him on Saturday only. Fri 8/9, 6:30 PM, and Sat 8/10, 8:15 PM.
Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer Charlie Ahearn, director of the groundbreaking hip-hop documentary Wild Style (1983), profiles another chronicler of the scene, Jamel Shabazz, who's been photographing B-boy culture since its inception in the early 80s. The tone of this documentary is generally exuberant, as the interviewees—who range from well-known figures like Fab Five Freddy and KRS-One to Shabazz's former coworkers at a juvenile detention facility—joyfully recall the communal spirit and empowering message of early hip-hop culture. Yet there's also a wistful undercurrent, as the movie argues that negative developments of the past 30 years (particularly the spread of crack cocaine) have destroyed the social conditions that made the movement possible. The observations feel authentic, and Ahearn generates plenty of energy in the way he organizes them. —Ben Sachs 81 min. Sun 8/11, 3:15 PM, and Mon 8/12, 6:15 PM.
The Man in the Silo Layering Bernard Herrmann's theme from Vertigo over the opening titles of this psychological thriller may signal the menace and tension ahead, but director Phil Donlon owes more to David Lynch's amorphous surrealism than to Alfred Hitchcock's tight plotting. Ernie Hudson stars as a driven executive who unravels after a family tragedy; do his white colleagues try to push him out because of his race, or because he's hearing voices others don't? His paranoia is evident, but since we don't get enough background to decipher the causes, the movie winds up as little more than an exercise in depicting aberrant behavior. With Jane Alderman. 55 min. Shown with Kibwe Tavares's short Jonah (UK, 18 min.). —Andrea Gronvall 55 min. Director Phil Donlon, producer Steven Ordower, cowriter Christopher Ellis, and actor Christian Stolte will be present for audience discussion at both screenings; Ernie Hudson will join them on Friday only. Fri 8/9 and Wed 8/14, 8:15 PM.
Solace Atlanta-based filmmaker Vandon N. Gibbs wrote and directed this intricately scripted drama with three interlocking stories that play out in three elongated scenes. The first involves a hardened street criminal and an uptight attorney who hash out an enigmatic deal in an SUV; the second details the soured relationship between a politician and his embittered wife; and the third features the dueling intellects of a hit man and his bound victim. Gibbs is clearly taken with his screenplay's dialogue, relying on it rather than narrative structure or mise-en-scene to create rhythm and elicit drama. So it's too bad his cast lacks the chops to make any of it palatable—the performances range from wooden to scene chewing, not unlike what you'd find in community theater. —Drew Hunt 76 min. Wed 8/14, 6:15 PM, and Thu 8/15, 8:45 PM.