Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Obligated to Be Among the First

If a tone was being set tonight, it was an admirable one.

The Institute for Contemporary Art was hosting its inaugural Cinema Series and first up was Afrikana International Film Festival with a program simply entitled, "Richmond Speaks: A Short Film Showcase."

Mac was at my house by 5:30 and we strolled over to the ICA, dodging the speeding and ineptly-driven cars carrying crazed relatives of soon-to-be high school graduates. These days, both the Seigel Center and the Altria Theater are churning out multiple graduating classes a day, meaning it's a congested mess to go anywhere from Jackson Ward. That includes going to Lowe's - I know because I tried it this afternoon - barely 3/4 of a mile away.

First up was walking the entire perimeter of the block that houses the ICA so we could see it from every angle, including looking east from Grace Street against the traffic. Once we got inside for the films, it was only to be stopped cold and red-faced because we were those idiots who hadn't reserved tickets and now they were all gone.

I don't know who was more surprised at the oversight, Mac or me. Generally, we're pros at these kind of events.

Since it was sold out, there was nothing to do but put our name on a waiting list and browse the galleries until they determined who didn't show up. Failing that, the plan was to stream it live in the lobby and we'd try to snag a seat on one of the couches. Either way, we'd get to see the films and the post-film discussion, so we were happy.

Things worked out well for us because of the people who'd gotten tickets and then been no-shows, so we nabbed seats in the second row just before Afrikana founder  Enjoli Moon greeted the audience with some heartfelt gratitude and a bit of a preview of what was to come. One point she repeatedly stressed was that as tonight's first audience for the series, we were witnessing the start of something important, something with the potential to encourage Richmond's much-needed race conversation.

Then to bring it to a close with full southern charm, she announced, "Without any further ado, I will hush my mouth," and the Richmond-made films began.

"May It Be So" showcased the grassroots effort of one woman to ensure that the city memorializes its black ancestors and their burial grounds, insisting that, "We have the right to take care of our own ancestors." Her one-woman campaign to keep pushing for a truthful acknowledgment of Richmond's past, including the uncomfortable parts, proves the power of every voice.

Part of a larger social justice series, "Adrian's Story" focused on a man who'd been in trouble with the law since he was 15 and served time and probation repeatedly. Finally, he became a barber's apprentice and began to see another way of life. Seeing him cut the hair of street people who can't afford haircuts almost has Mac and I in tears

I'd already seen the third film,  "Don't Touch My Hair RVA," a fascinating look at what Richmond women consider "going natural," interspersed with shots of every type of black hair imaginable: braids, Afro, straightened, corn rows, even a black albino woman with natural platinum blond hair. That it had been made by a VCU ph.D student who'd never made a film (or even held a camera) before only made it more compelling and fun.

During a panel discussion with the filmmakers, the young couple who'd made "Adrian" were asked about their choice of subject matter. "If we can use our white privilege to undermine white privilege, we believe we're obligated to do so," as clear a point as could be made if any racial progress is to be made.

The last talking point of the evening revolved around what the ICA's role in the community needs to be now that it's open, state-supported and smack dab in the middle of the city. Enjoli probably said it best, hoping that the ICA embraces its role as needing to be responsive to the entire community, not just the traditional audience (not to be confused with the inaugural audience) with wide-ranging programming.

As an inaugural audience member, I'm not sure the ICA could have had a stronger kickoff to their new film series, even if more than one wine glass was heard shattering when everyone stood up after the final applause. We put our money on glass being banned in the auditorium from here on out, but maybe it's just a learning curve.

Mac and I did our own post-film discussion at the counter of 821 Cafe over a massive platter of black bean nachos we couldn't finish, while the restaurant filled up behind us. Next to us, a couple of guys discussed alcoholism in the workplace and asked about the taco special, which had already sold out.

You snooze, you lose. Just like those idiots who'd gotten tickets for tonight's screening and then not come, who'll never be able to say they were there when the ICA was brand new and you could still score a last-minute seat in the auditorium to hear Richmond speak.

How fitting that the ICA gives us a place to hush our mouths and listen.

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