The San Francisco Black Film Festival is back, second weekend in June!

The Charlie Walker story and the biopic of Queen Njinga are festival headliners this year

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

The San Francisco Black Film Festival is one of the premiere events for the shrinking Black community in the Bay Area, annually. It happens on the second weekend in June and features a lot of beautiful rare Black movies that would not have a chance to be screened anywhere else.

San Francisco Black Film Festival Director Kali O’Ray mans the camera.
San Francisco Black Film Festival Director Kali O’Ray mans the camera.

This year, the two headlining movies are “AMERICA Is Still the Place” and “Njinga – Queen of Angola.” “America” is about the life of Hunters Point legend Charlie Walker and how white people tried to put him in his place, but his intelligence and cunningness outsmarted them and made him a very comfortable man. It is the story of a Black man fighting racism in government contracting and winning.

“Njinga – Queen of Angola” is an epic masterpiece shot on the same level or beyond such legendary stories as “Shaka Zulu,” “Roots,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello,” “The Illiad” or “Arabian Nights.” It tells the story of a warrior queen of the Mbundu people of Ndongo, which is in modern day Angola, in southern Africa. It is a story of love for her people, mental fortititude, strength, passion, commitment, determination, intellect, beauty, sacrifice and more.

Both of these soon to be cinematic classics will be debuting at the San Francisco Black Film Festival this year. I hope you are there to see them.

I interviewed the San Francisco Black Film Festival director Kali O’Ray about what is happening this year at the festival. Check him out in his own words, telling us the history of the festival and what’s going on this year.

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us the history behind the San Francisco Black Film Festival? Who started it? When? How did you inherit it?

Kali O’Ray: The San Francisco Black Film Festival was started 17 years ago by my mother Avé Montague. Even before that we were buried in film, because she ran a video business called A.M. Videos which sold predominately older and harder to get movies for and by black people.

My room growing up was like a mini Blockbuster. The joy was I was able to see older films that would have slipped by me, and she also stocked the new, hot films. We are talking about a time when movies were hard to get. It would be the equivalent of trying to start an 8track collection today.

It was a specialized market and there was not a plethora of places to find content like today. And these movies were niche content and they were not being sold mainstream because the audience for them was so small.

We offer a platform for Black writers, filmmakers and actors to show their content. A festival surrounded by the love of the art and the love of the stories. But mainly, a love of the diaspora.

We, as minorities, have a long history with film and it is not all good. The way we are portrayed and roles we are cast in are usually stereotypical and demeaning. I am sure there are many who do not pay attention, but I do. I am not whining “woe is me” but rather just stating the facts.

When people abroad see us on the big screen, it casts a shadow on their mind and they begin to see us negatively. Not because of some preconceived notion but rather out of conditioning. So in time, they will see us as the stereotypical roles we play.

To combat this we show films of every genre that are positive and not weighted down with negative content. And not to say that I do not enjoy a lot of the films that I am talking about; I do, but there needs to be a balance. And I believe the balance on a wider scale can change the game as others view us.

Media is the biggest tool to push agendas and sway the public. It is time others see us for the loving people we are and this is what I hope to achieve with the festival.

This is my seventh festival. My mom did the first 10. She had the vision that never needs changing. We offer a platform for Black writers, filmmakers and actors to show their content. A festival surrounded by the love of the art and the love of the stories. But mainly, a love of the diaspora.

M.O.I. JR: What have some of the highlights of the San Francisco Black Film Festival been, since you have been the director?

Kali O’Ray: The biggest highlight of the festival is, no doubt, when filmmakers and guests enjoy the festival. When they email and tell me what a great time they had and how a certain movie touched them. When a filmmaker has gotten that spark because their film played and has a home and an audience.

For many filmmakers, all they want to do is share their work. And this is what keeps them going on to do another film. We have great moments at the festival, and I love being a part of and offering a space to show film.

Kali and his wife, Katera
Kali and his wife, Katera

M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about how you feel co-directing the film festival alongside your wife? What does she add to the mix?

Kali O’Ray: Sure. I love it. She and I work well together and it is great having her around for support. We each have a role and I am blessed that this is something we can share. She is great with people and has a very outgoing attitude which works well for the festival. I am so lucky to have her by my side, and mother would have loved her.

M.O.I. JR: What will be headlining at this year’s film festival?

Kali O’Ray: The call to entry has just ended so we are deep into film at this juncture as we choose the official selections. But two movies that will be headlining for sure are: “AMERICA Is Still the Place” and “Njinga – Queen of Angola.” These movies are nothing short of masterpieces and were given the highest marks by the judges. I hope everyone gets a chance to see these films, because they will be talked about for years to come.

M.O.I. JR: Will there be any workshops, breakaway sessions or parties this year?

Kali O’Ray: Yes, these are still in planning but the festival always has this element included. And as always, many of the filmmakers show up to see their movie screened and this is a great chance to network and ask any question you may have about a certain film. The Q&As are always phenomenal.

M.O.I. JR: What are some of the local films that will be screening at the SF Black Film Fest?

Kali O’Ray: We have many local films at this year’s festival but the highlight is, no doubt, “America Is Still the Place,” directed by Patrick Gilles and starring Emma Caufield, Mike Colter, Greg Cipes, Boots from the Coup and Willie Brown. This is a film about Charlie Walker, a Hunters Point native, taken from his book of the same name.

The film is shot well, the actors nail it, and the writers did a tremendous job. It’s by far one of the better films I have seen this year. I did not know the story of Charlie Walker until I viewed the film and from that day forward he is someone I will never forget. You have to see this film! You will be amazed.

M.O.I. JR: How could people sign up to volunteer, if they are interested?

Kali O’Ray: To volunteer, simply send an email to volunteers@sfbff.org and request it. We need technical volunteers as well as those who would just like to help out.

M.O.I. JR: Where can people go to see a full listing of what will be screening this year?

Kali O’Ray: All listings will be on the website, sfbff.org, by May 15. Official selections will be announced May 1.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.