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Reel Life: Floyd Webb's POV

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Floyd Webb still remembers a game he played at Boy Scout camp during the summer of 1967, when he was 14. "We had to guess what time a clock was set," he says. "It was in a paper bag so none of us could see. I tied with another guy who happened to be white. They sent us outside so they could set it again. I guessed the time exactly the second time. The first thing they asked was how did I cheat? The scoutmaster reluctantly gave me a prize. I never took it out of the box."

This incident led a young Floyd Webb to realize that whatever he did in his life, the color of his skin would not be overlooked. He formed an independent, nonconformist outlook that would eventually lead him toward founding Chicago's Blacklight International Film Festival.

These days Webb is rarely still. He sorts through videotapes, answers the phone, tinkers at his computer. His energy seems to have paid off; the Blacklight Festival has yet to be duplicated, in the U.S. or abroad.

"I started Blacklight because nobody else had done it," says Webb. "There is a great need to showcase a variety of black images, positive and negative. The American media has historically done a very poor job of that."

Webb first became interested in film as a child watching PBS specials. "I saw something on Channel 11 about making films when I was eight or nine." But PBS wasn't the only thing he watched. "I wrote scripts for Lost in Space and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," he says, flashing a dimpled grin.

"I was always interested in film but I didn't know anybody who made films. There was nothing to sustain my interest." Growing up in the Harold J. Ickes housing project at 24th and State, Webb didn't have many role models. But he did have a teacher with a photography hobby. When Webb was in fourth grade, his father sent him a camera from Vietnam, and his teacher encouraged him to use it.

By the time Webb reached high school, his father had returned from Vietnam and moved his wife and five children to Fort Benning, Georgia. It was during this time that Webb vividly recollects the effects of racism and the media.

"H. Rap Brown was on the TV, being thrown in jail. He was calling the jailers blue-eyed apes. All of the kids on the base were affected by it. It was totally out of our context." That was a turning point for Webb. "Up to that point, I had been ignoring a lot of things that were happening concerning race."

After a year in Georgia, his father returned to Vietnam and his family returned to Chicago. He attended Proviso East High School in Maywood, which was embroiled in race riots.

"I became a part of a radical leftist antiracist clique. We published an underground newspaper and opposed the school administration. We were all students in the top ten percent of our class. My father returned from Vietnam again, this time with a Super-8 movie camera. I used it to film the riots."

He asked his school counselor about film or photography schools but was assured that none existed. Instead he was steered toward a trade school, which did not interest him. So he took a job in a Sears stockroom.

What did interest him was watching films. "One day there was a Japanese film fest down at the World Playhouse theater. Every day for a month, from 9 AM to 10 PM, I was absorbing all these different film techniques." Then he tuned in to The Story of a Three Day Pass by Melvin Van Peebles on PBS--"I thought it was some Dutch film"--which really moved him .

His interest in film rekindled, Webb began to work as a free-lance photographer, which eventually led him to Europe and Africa.

"I went hitchhiking through Africa--Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Ethiopia, the Congo." Around that time--late 70s, early 80s--there was a renaissance in black filmmaking going on, and Webb "saw all of this black media--film, art, literature."

When he returned to the U.S. he became a member of Chicago Filmmakers, which inspired him to make an experimental film, Flesh/Metal/Wood, now part of the Saint Louis Art Museum's "Black On Black" exposition. He also joined the Black Filmmakers Foundation, a New York group that distributed and promoted black independent films whose members included aspiring filmmakers Spike Lee, Julie Dash, Charles Lane, and Warrington Hudlin.

After working the 1981 Black Independent Cinema Festival in Chicago and then the Commonwealth Institute Black Film Festival in London, Webb organized his own festival of black films. Blacklight's first year was 1982, and it featured 20 films from around the world.

The Blacklight Festival went on to introduce Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Souleymane Cisse's Yeelen, and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle to Chicago, and it remains on the cutting edge nine years later. The festival shows more black films than any other organization. It takes credit for introducing black British cinema to the U.S. More importantly, it has consistently demonstrated to audiences and filmmakers that Hollywood is not the only avenue for film.

The theme for the 1991 Blacklight Festival is "a cinema of our own." Says Webb, "We should not be judged in the context of someone else's aesthetic."

The Blacklight Festival runs through August 18 at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, Columbus and Jackson; the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Pl.; and Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton. Tonight at 6 is a showcase of shorts by new local filmmakers; at 9 there's a double feature of Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and Blues Notes and Exiled Voices: South African Jazz. Admission is $5. For a complete schedule check the Reader's Guide to the Silver Screen in Section Two, or call 664-4898 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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