In 1976, everyone knew Alex Haley’s name—first for his novel tracing the African-American author’s history, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” and then for the 12-hour, eight-episode miniseries based upon it.
It was the first of its kind and, at the time, the “must-do event” for every relevant black actor, according to Tina Andrews, who landed a role as Aurelia, Kunta Kinte’s girlfriend, in the second episode.
After the episode aired in January 1977, everyone knew her face, she said. They didn’t have a choice.
The miniseries also became a must-see event, launching the career of LeVar Burton and further employing a huge ensemble of African-American actors, such as John Amos (as older Kunta Kinte), Ben Vereen, Olivia Cole, Leslie Uggams, Louis Gossett Jr., Scatman Crothers, Richard Roundtree, Georg Stanford Brown, Roxie Roker, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, football player and sometime actor O.J. Simpson and poet Maya Angelou.
In addition to the tremendous hype, Mother Nature also played a role in the success of the miniseries, according to Ms. Andrews. For many of the days that the show aired, a third of the nation had just been pounded by a torrential snowstorm, trapping thousands inside their homes during the television event’s eight-night run.
And just like that, “Roots” became the “must-see” event across the country, Ms. Andrews said.
“They were literally stuck in 10 feet of snow, everywhere, with nowhere to go,” she recalled of the viewers last week during a telephone interview. “Anyone who was in it, our phones were ringing nonstop after.”
It was the beginning of a revolution inside the African-American filmmaking industry, she said, one that is still going strong and paving the way for black culture everywhere—including Southampton Village.
On Thursday, November 7, the African-American Museum of the East End will kick off the eighth annual Black Film Festival, which will host four days of screenings, live jazz, spoken word and panel discussions through Sunday at the Southampton Cultural Center and Stony Brook Southampton.
Since its modest beginnings, the festival—not just geared toward an African-American audience, but to all—has only continued to grow, according to founder and Southampton native Brenda Simmons, who tacked on an extra festival day this year.
“Growing up here and raising my children here, I’d bring my kids to the city to get them exposed to culture,” she said last week during a telephone interview. “One day, it hit me. ‘This is madness. We need to have something here.’”
The festival will open Thursday night with a screening of 2012’s “Central Park Five,” a documentary by Sarah and Ken Burns. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion—which will include Yusef Salaam, one of five men falsely convicted of raping and assaulting a jogger in Central Park, which is the subject of the documentary—at the Southampton Cultural Center.
The next day, on Friday, November 8, Charles Certain will rock the theater with jazz, funk and R&B during a Spoken World/Live Jazz session alongside a number of guest poets. No films will be screened that day.
On Saturday, November 9, the festival moves to Stony Brook Southampton for a day-long screening of five feature films and one short, starting with the 2003 family film “Beat the Drum,” which follows Young Musa’s journey through Africa and his confrontation with urban life after he is orphaned.
Up next is 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a four-time Academy Award nominee that explores a father-daughter bond as melting icecaps flood their ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs—an extinct type of cattle.
“The relationship is really so unique. They value imagination over money. It’s really about love and survival of the fittest,” Ms. Simmons said. “It’s about our culture. And we all really have more in common than we do not. When it all comes down to it, we bleed the same. We hurt the same. We love the same.”
That theme is explored in young filmmaker KareemaBee’s 2013 short, “Tug of War,” followed by episode two of “Roots”—as well as a question-and-answer session with Ms. Andrews and director John Erman—and 2010’s “I Am Slave,” a thriller based on the true story of Mende Nazer, who was abducted at age 12 from her village in Sudan and sold into slavery.
“We selected this film before ’12 Years a Slave’ came out,” Ms. Simmons said, referring to Steve McQueen’s film of 2013, which is surrounded by serious Oscar buzz, “but it’s so the same, I can’t even tell you. It’s very ironic and really weird. I had the pleasure of seeing ‘12 Years a Slave’ at the Hamptons Film Festival and it’s based on a thriller, too. That will be the last film for Saturday.”
The festival will conclude on Sunday, November 10, back at the Southampton Cultural Center. That day, two films will be presented by Academy Award-winning director and producer Nigel Noble, a longtime East Hampton resident.
First up will be 2013’s “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” from director Edgar Barens, which will make its world premiere at the festival. The cinema verité documentary breaks through the walls of one of America’s oldest maximum-security prisons to record the final months of a terminally ill prisoner.
“I’m not really interested in fact. I’m interested in people and how we all suffer and struggle with the same things,” Mr. Noble said last week during a telephone interview. “If a film resonates with me, I give it a top mark. And this film really did that for me. Hospice within a prison? I had never heard of anything like that before in my life, no.”
Mr. Noble will also screen his very own 1988’s “Voices of Sarafina!,” a documentary that he made with members of the young South African cast of “Sarafina!,” a musical play that retold what is now known as the Soweto Uprising.
“I think these are both extraordinarily uplifting films,” he said. “The subject matter is tough, but they’re very uplifting. ‘Prison Terminal,’ it is really a fine documentary, a really wonderful short film. And I’ve won the Academy Award for short film, so I’m very proud to be presenting it. I look forward to watching this young man’s career.”
The festival’s directors, producers and films themselves transcend age, gender and race, according to Ms. Simmons. She encounters racism and stereotyping every day, she said, and this festival helps shine a light on the issues surrounding black culture.
“I think it expands everyone’s horizons,” she said of the festival. “If you close yourself out to somebody else’s culture, if you judge somebody else’s culture, you’re really denying yourself. When it all comes down to it, we’re so much the same.”
This weekend will be Ms. Andrews’ first time attending the Black Film Festival, she said. Looking toward the future, she hopes she won’t have to again—or, at least, there won’t be a distinction.
“At some point in time, maybe there won’t need to be a ‘Black Film Festival,’” she said. “Maybe we won’t have to separate it out. Maybe it will just be a film festival. If you tell the totality of our story, you’ll notice we’re more similar than dissimilar.”
The eighth annual Black Film Festival will kick off with a screening of “Central Park Five” and a panel discussion on Thursday, November 7, starting at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. The festival will continue on Friday, November 8, with Spoken Word/Live Jazz from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Tickets are $20. Film screenings will be held on Saturday, November 9, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Stony Brook Southampton and on Sunday, November 10, starting at 2 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Admission is free. For more information, call 873-7362 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.