There is a saying in African folklore: “How a story is told depends upon the storyteller.”
“New Mexico’s African-American population has to fight for acknowledgment of its historical contributions to the state,” says Rita Powdrell, the director of the African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico. The Museum has garnered an archive of substantial data, which includes oral histories, census data and archeological artifacts. “African Americans were on the street after the Civil War. Free with but the clothes on their backs. The Homestead Act from 1862 was utilized by Black families at that time, but one had to acquire the signature of a white person to homestead legally. New Mexico was the one state where a signature wasn’t required.” By 1877 Jim Crow Laws were in place. Black families fled from the brutal violence and terrorism to homestead in New Mexico. In doing so they cultivated the land and established towns like Raton, Vado and Blackdom. Albuquerque was also homesteaded, where the current Eastend Addition is located between Wyoming and Pennsylvania and Lomas and I-40. It was Albuquerque’s first Black suburb.
Blackdom, a homestead settled and cultivated by educators, was located 15 miles south of Roswell. No bank would offer loans to the up-and-coming Black community. They had to depend on each other and the resources of the land. New Mexico scholar Dr. Maisha Baton petitioned for the township of Blackdom’s registration as a preserved historic site. The petition was rejected. However, a marker on the land tells a brief story of the abandoned town that survived two decades before the wells ran dry.
New Mexico filmmaker Vince McDaniels saw the makings of a feature film in the story of Blackdom, and he wanted to tell it. “A community lived and grew here. We can’t just move along like they didn’t exist,” says McDaniels. “It’s our story and our time. I and everyone involved is committed to getting this story right.” It’s the Western story McDaniels never saw as a kid.
In addition to this story, McDaniels has acquired rights to recast the 1992 film South Central. The main character turns his life around and leaves prison to reclaim his son and retrieve him from the grips of a notorious Los Angeles gang. “The movie showed in 100 theaters nationwide. The story of a Black man returning to reclaim and save his son at the risk of his own life is not a story we’ll see or hear much about. This isn’t just another absent dad story. It deserves a larger audience.”
Filmmaker Diana “Dia” Gaitirira says she wants to see more real people on the screen. “I wanna see people with imperfect bodies, voluptuous women, empowered women with disabilities.” She believes Hollywood hasn’t fully let go of ideal body types. “People want to identify with who’s on the screen.”
Actor Darryl DeLoach experienced what it means to identify with what’s seen on the screen during his brief stay in New York. It was 1989 when he marched with Al Sharpton in protest of the Yosuf Hawkins murder, a 16-yr-old youth targeted by a mob of 30 white youth and gunned down. That was a hot, humid summer and the same year Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing was in theaters. The movie addresses racism and police brutality. DeLoach said the movie was so significant, real and identifiable. He could almost see himself in the background. Spike Lee would later dedicate his next film, Jungle Fever, in memory of Yosuf Hawkins.
Filmmaker Sean Cardinalli would like to see a diverse mix of New Mexico’s youth trained for positions in the film industry. “We have the means to work together and overlap our institutional resources [CNM, UNM, Northern New Mexico College] with community resources to move our youth toward acquiring the skills and professionalism for successful experiences in the industry.” He, like Gaitirira, wants to capture the talents and energy of real people. Cardinalli worked in development in Los Angeles for many years. He was a script reader and top script analyst for ICM. In 2006 he came to New Mexico and worked in production, assisting directors and producers. He’s since stepped away to focus on his own production company, Alterity. He’s optioned nearly a dozen projects (scripts, books and life rights). He intends to build these projects to shoot in New Mexico. He endeavors to represent the stories we’re not used to hearing, providing opportunities for BIPoC and LGBTQ in the various areas of production.
When asked if she believes the trend of Black filmmakers creating content and directing is here to stay, Gaitirira smiles delightfully. Then with a somber pause, she says, “We are always going to have to fight [for our stories]. Listen, no one is going to give you anything. You have to have thick skin. Don’t take anything personally. Just ask the questions and know that favorable and unfavorable responses are equal. You’ve learned something.” After having done a few years of crew work, she’s seen the unglamorous side of filmmaking. “It’s called a business and there’s nothing pretty about it. Sometimes the experience was rocky, intimidating and maybe a little humiliating.” The experiences, however, have given her the tools to begin building her own production company, Cheza Jouer Films, with her husband. She’s now taking a break to work on her own projects.
Brandyn Brady, of Boss Gong Media, is director of the annual Santa Fe Film Festival’s Afro Cinema programming block. He is working on his third year of the festival. The following quote expresses the mission of Afro Cinema: “The Santa Fe Film Festival Afro Cinema will continue to grow as the leading exhibition and portal for all things Afrocinematic in New Mexico and beyond.”
The 2021 Santa Fe Film Festival runs from Feb. 17 through 21. Go to santafefilmfestival.com for more information, including this year’s Afro Cinema offerings.