Hayti Heritage Film Festival celebrates Durham’s illustrious Black history while developing the film ecosystem

By Courtney Napier

February 26, 2021

Photo: Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) stars in The Outside Story.

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival is back for its 27th celebration starting March 1 with a week’s worth of events, workshops, performances, and Black Southern films.

In 1994, community artists and stakeholders came together to organize the first film festival at the Hayti Heritage Center to preserve Durham’s illustrious heritage.

Fayetteville Street in Hayti in the 1940s. Courtesy of the Hayti Heritage Center

At the end of the Civil War, newly freed Black people created settlements along the borders of cities across North Carolina and the South. These settlements, historically referred to as Freedmen’s towns, were the seeds from which thriving Black communities grew. Hayti was one such community. One of the community’s only remaining original structures is also one of its oldest– the St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. St. Joseph’s church community was organized in 1869, the same year Durham was incorporated into an official city, by a formerly enslaved man and AME missionary named Edian Markham. In 1891, the congregation built its iconic brick and stained glass sanctuary.

Over one hundred years after Hayti was established, and nearly fifty years after St. Joseph’s prominent church was built, a new era of urban planning threatened to wipe it all out. As the United States underwent the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, plans for freeway creation often targeted Black and brown neighborhoods, labeled as “blighted” by urban planners. Hayti was one such neighborhood, and the Durham Freeway split it in two, demolished hundreds of family homes and businesses, and isolated the ambulatory community from the rest of the city.

Photo: BullCity150.org

St. Joseph’s was also slated to be demolished in the late 1960s, so the congregation relocated to 2521 Fayetteville Street from its original home on the 800 block. The community was determined to save the building. In 1975, the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation was founded and, through their efforts, the sanctuary was added to the National Historic Register one year later. From that point forward, the space now known as the Hayti Heritage Center has existed to commemorate the history of the Hayti District and to celebrate the arts.

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival was not only dreamt up in the halls of this sacred space, it is the place in which the festivities were held. From the beginning, the viewings, discussions, and the signature dance party at the festival’s end all transpired in the Hayti Heritage Film Festival. 

Hayti Heritage Center

While Covid-19 has changed that tradition for 2021, Festival Director Lana Garland and Quentin Talley, the Heritage Center’s Program Director, have managed to create a virtual experience that will rival the live celebrations of the past. Garland, who came on just before the 2018 festival, is an accomplished filmmaker who has collaborated as a creative director, writer, and producer with media behemoths like HBO, BET and ESPN. Garland’s impact brought a more robust program of films to screen to larger audiences. She also instituted a training and development component including masterclasses like the Black Feminist Film School, and panel discussions about Black Southern filmmaking

(L to R): Quentin Talley, Derrick Beasley, Angel Dozier (Hayti Film Festival Team) in 2020. Photo: Kumolu Studios

“Our festival focuses on the development of a Black Southern film ecosystem. We are in the community with filmmakers from the grassroots level and up,” said Garland  

Talley, who has worked music festivals with his band The Soul Providers and theatre productions with his company, OnQ Productions, brought plenty of experience and excitement to the film festival’s creative process.

The first exciting innovation is that this year’s festival will be expanded from its usual weekend-long showcase to a full six days. Attendees can purchase passes on the Hayti Heritage Film Festival’s website that will give them access to the entire week, a single day, or a single film. For those looking to have all the benefits of seeing a film in a collective space while social distancing, the festival created two drive-in movie events on Monday night and Friday night at Heritage Square. The drive-in event will feature an Academy Award short-listed documentary, MLK/FBI, directed by Sam Pollard, and The Outside Story starring Brian Tyree Henry of the popular television series, Atlanta.

The week kicks off with Real/Reel Talk, a thought-provoking collection of shorts that focuses on the complexity of the human experience, particularly those of us with Black bodies. Durham-based performance artist and filmmaker Monèt Marshall’s short prophesy is a part of Real/Reel Talk’s features. In prophesy, Marshall imagines a message from her ancestors after 400 years of a pandemic. The film asks three questions: “Why aren’t you screaming?,” “Why aren’t you laughing?” and “Why are you crying?”

Talley is especially excited about the dance films featured in this year’s festival. Profiling the brother of Tony-award winning dancer and actor Gregory Hines, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, tells the story of the complex relationship between the Hines brothers and an attempt at making a life in obscurity. Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters reflects on the creation of the iconic ballet production, D-Man in the Waters. Bill T. Jones choreographed the piece in 1989 at the height of the devastating AIDS epidemic to honor a member of his company who had succumbed to the disease. 

Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests had an indelible impact on filmmakers and their art. “There’s a lot of filmmakers who usually submit, but they didn’t have anything this year because of COVID,” Talley said. “But, you have some new filmmakers where the moment sparked their creativity.” 

Several films, such as Raleigh-based director Devine Utley’s The Lost Cause, Hans Augustave’s Before I Knew, and director Ya’Ke’s The Pandemic Chronicles all focus on the historic events of the last year– from the removal of Confederate statues to the impact of the novel coronavirus.

While much will be different about this year’s festival, two things remain unchanged. One is the focus on Black Southern film. “Our biggest mission is to make sure that Black creatives always have a home to tell their story. Hayti has been that home for over 27 years for Black artists in Durham and we’re so proud to uphold that tradition.” 

Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Grammy-nominated Tank and the Bangas will close Hayti Heritage Film Festival with a conversation and mini-concert.

The second is the tradition of the dance party on the festival’s final night. This year, Hayti Heritage Film Festival invited New Orleans phenom Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Grammy-nominated Tank and the Bangas for a conversation and a mini-concert. Talley, who befriended the singer while they were performing at the largest regional Poetry Slam competition in the nation, Southern Fried Poetry Slam, explained “We usually end the festival with music, and I [thought] it would be really cool to have a musician come on and talk about their process as a musician and how that translates to film. I couldn’t think of a better person that encapsulates Black Southern creativity than Tank.”

Garland and Talley have preserved the most beloved elements of the Hayti Film Festival while creating unique opportunities to connect with art and community by the power of storytelling through film. This exceptional week-long festival runs Monday, March 1 through Saturday, March 6.

Check out the full schedule and more info on the Hayti Heritage Film Festival website

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