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Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival

Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival

[intro-text size=”25px”]The Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, now in its fifth year, showcases black artists, actors, and filmmakers and puts the spotlight directly on Cleveland.[/intro-text]

Films are running now through Friday at Shaker Square Cinemas. Workshops, “Meet The Actors” sessions and post-film receptions will be taking place all week in Shaker Square.

WEWS-Channel 5 anchor Frank Wiley hosted GCUFF’s opening night at the Cleveland Museum of Art, introducing GCUFF Executive Director Donna Dabbs and Board Chairperson Alton Tinker.

Local artist Santanna Watson was invited to showcase his work at the opening night gala. Watson creates portraits of cultural icons by writing their life stories in his handwriting and using the lines and strokes of the words to draw the image. He has created portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Benjamin Franklin and Michelle Obama among others.

Several guest speakers took the stage, including actor Mel Jackson (Soul Food, Living Single), who gave an impassioned speech about the power of self in becoming successful. “Use your God-given talents and abilities and you will want for nothing,” he began. Jackson encouraged his fixed audience to utilize their talents to always serve the greater good but to remain true to oneself.

Speakers were followed by a screening of the film, 9 Rides, the second feature-length film offered by filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, which debuted at SXSW this year. The film is about an Uber driver who receives life-altering news and the people he picks up who assist him with processing his thoughts in ways most of them aren’t aware of. The film acts as a character study of wildly different individuals caught up in situations that cross the spectrum from amazing and wonderful to potentially life-threatening. Our main character reflects on all this and internalizes it with respect to his own situation and discovers along the way that sometimes not everything about life really is at it may first appear.

9 Rides director Matthew A. Cherry spoke with the audience at a Q & A session following the screening. Cherry began his post-college career in the NFL, playing the wide-receiver position for a number of teams including the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. He says teamwork is one of the main concepts he’s carried over from his time as a player into his filmmaking, but his ultimate goal with filmmaking is quite different. “Sports is very much about entertaining in a different way. I feel like filmmaking for me is about showing images that humanize us more. The media, what’s going on with the police, it’s very important that we have various images of ourselves that humanize our experiences. It’s important to have that pride so people so us as fully human. I think media is one of the most important mediums and I think it allows us to do that [in a way] that is just as powerful as sports does.”

The film How To Tell You’re A Douchebag carries forward Cherry’s comments about humanizing the black experience, telling the story of Ray Livingston (Charles Brice), a freelance blogger living in New York City who has spent his time honing the “playa” stereotype and ends up getting a taste of his own medicine after falling for a sharp-tongued, far-more-successful female writer, Rochelle Marseilles (DeWanda Wise). The film touches on the impact social media can have on our personal lives, but also how reputations can be built (and destroyed) by old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Rochelle’s dose of realism sends Ray to do a bit of soul-searching, led by his sensible best friend Jake, brilliantly played by William Jackson Harper, who’s not afraid to help take the wind out of Ray’s sails when he needs it. Though the film aims to show the black experience – Ray initially approaches Rochelle hitting into the “angry black woman” theory – douchebags exist in all races, and the tribulations all the characters face, from the women who don’t realise they’re only in the friends-with-benefits category to Ray himself, are struggles we’re all subject to regardless of race.

The struggle that does pertain specifically to people of colour gets the dark comedy treatment in Driving While Black, a feature-length film written by Dominique Purdy, who is also the actor playing the main character, Dimitri. The film explores police harassment and profiling with dark humour that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the issue. One of the film’s most moving narratives shows a white racist officer talking about an incident that occurred in his rookie year. In the flashback, he approaches a black child caught tagging a wall and ends up jumped and tortured by a gang of all black men. Earlier in the film, Dimitri, who has had years of experience being pulled over for DWB, gets a real shocker when his car breaks down and two white officers show up and offer to help him out. Dimitri gets pulled over and mistakenly identified as a serial rapist, though the initial evidence to support the officers’ claim is quite reasonable. Then there’s the two foreign men who get pulled over after their car gets profiled (yes, that happens) that are mistaken for Arabs and treated as such by the two white officers. The dialogue is striking and shows exactly why the arguments “if you don’t do anything illegal” or “do what the officer tells you to and you won’t have any problem” are ill-informed. For example, a white officer telling a black man to “calm down” despite the man having been calm the whole time. And then there’s Dimitri’s claim while laughing and singing in the car with his friends that “Cops hate to see you having a good time. They figure you’re high, drunk, or celebrating a robbery you just committed.” As the cops roll up next to the car, all the boys go silent and the passenger pulls out a book. All this proving that the issue is real and frustratingly not as clear-cut as just black and white.

The Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival runs through this Friday at Shaker Square Cinemas. For more information including film synopses, schedules and prices, visit GCUFF’s website at

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