Ryanaustin Dennis with an image from Haile Gerima's film 'Bush Mama.'  Sarah Burke
Ryanaustin Dennis with an image from Haile Gerima's film 'Bush Mama.'  (Sarah Burke)

Oakland Film Series Asks: Is There a Black Aesthetic?

Oakland Film Series Asks: Is There a Black Aesthetic?

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She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s famous 1986 film, is only an hour-and-a-half long. But when the movie was screened as part of the Black Aesthetic film series last fall, the post-screening discussion went on for almost two hours. Attendees of all different ages and backgrounds -- although mostly black -- chimed in with contributions to the roving conversation that boomed out of Oakland’s E.M. Wolfman bookstore.

“That was a really long one, and it was so joyous, too,” recalls Ryanaustin Dennis, who curates the series. “We laughed and laughed, but we also got to questions of, ‘What is rape?’”

Dennis started the eight-week series in October of 2016 in collaboration with Oakland filmmaker Christian Johnson as a way to generate conversation around the work of black women filmmakers and actresses.

Poster from the first season of The Black Aesthetic film series.
Poster from the first season of The Black Aesthetic film series.

With space at E.M. Wolfman and a small grant from the shop’s Wolfman Art Machine program, Dennis produced a successful first season serving films such as The Watermelon Woman, Drylongso, Bush Mama, and Daughters of the Dust to a packed shop. And for the second season -- launching Thursday, April 13 -- Dennis highlights emerging black filmmakers from the Bay Area (and a few beyond).

It’s no coincidence that looking back at the history of black films motivated Dennis to support filmmakers he would like to see canonized in the future. When putting the series together, Dennis began to realize how few black female directors have become household names -- and not for lack of talent.


“How many people can we really name?” he asks. “I, even to this day, am still going through and learning.”

In part, the series is meant to highlight “the talent that was wasted sometimes because of racism -- the talent that was never given a chance,” says Dennis. He is interested, too, in films that speak profoundly to black women’s experiences and feature incredible female leads -- such as She’s Gotta Have It.

“How many films really talk about black female girlhood?’” he asks. “I’m always thinking, we don’t have that many stories about that. It’s important to see those images.”

But beyond curating an expanded canon, Dennis is also interested in stimulating expanded conversations -- ones that draw people outside of the typical indie-film audience often found at art house screenings. He did that, in part, by centering the series around conversations about blackness rather than jargon-filled talks on cinematic techniques (although there’s some of that, too). He calls it creating a “black space,” where people can “really open up and engage and share their opinions and get heated.”

Still from 'All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story' by George C. Stone (1953).
Still from 'All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story' by George C. Stone (1953).

“To be quite honest, I want to make sure I’m drawing the right people, so we’re having the right conversations,” he says. “Yeah, we will talk about blackness and all its variations -- but also, I think point blank, it’s like: We already know we’re all black, lets dive deeper into all the intricacies and nuances that surround that.”

For many screenings, he also asks a local writer or scholar -- Zoe Samudzi, for instance -- to facilitate the conversation.

After season one wrapped up in November 2016, Dennis worked to create a publication with multi-disciplinary reflections on the movies he screened. The book, which will be released during season two, includes essays and visual art as well as audio and video works, which are hosted online and accessed through a URL printed in the book. Among the works are a photography series inspired by Drylongso and a video piece responding to She’s Gotta Have It.

For Dennis, the anthology is an essential next step in the project, because he wants it to be creatively generative -- not just an “intellectual jack off.” And, of course, publications are key for contributing to canonization. “We have to preserve these things,” says Dennis. “So, I want people to be like, ‘I was there, I saw this, and they can go back to this moment. That’s really important to me, that we preserve our history, preserve film, preserve these cultural things, because we don’t know what’s gonna happen -- they often get lost.”

A still from 'Ganja and Hess' (1973) by Bill Gunn.
A still from 'Ganja and Hess' (1973) by Bill Gunn.

For Dennis, the concept of the Black Aesthetic functions as a rhetorical hook to draw people in and ground the discussions. “It’s very much an open-ended question: What is the black aesthetic?,” says Dennis. “And also, do we want to even ask that question? For me, yes, I think it’s an important question to ask -- because it doesn’t exist.”

“There’s no one essentializing black voice, of course not. And the whole point of the film series is: How do you show the multiplicities of these, along with queerness and class and all that stuff?”

Season two, which will screen at E.M. Wolfman, Nook Gallery, and an unannounced outdoor location for the finale, approaches that question through a contemporary lens. The line-up includes Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, Jehnovah Carlisle’s Day by Day / The Man Who Feared, and Yetunde Olagbaju’s i gave myself space to go back...pt. II, among many other works. The lineup ranges from dramas to cinematic ritual to experimental short films. And for most screenings, the filmmaker will be in attendance to participate in the conversation. For Dennis, that’s crucial, because he hopes to foster community among filmmakers as well -- not just audiences.

“My fundamental goal was, how do you foster a creative culture in Oakland?,” says Dennis. “For POC and black people in particular, because I feel like there’s a lot of black weirdos around here that need to know that they are loved. And that they’re understood and that their voice is important.”



Season two of the Black Aesthetic film series launches at E.M. Wolfman bookstore (410 13th St., Oakland) on Thursday, April 13, at 7pm. For information on future screenings, click here.