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Juneteenth Film Festival returns to Kansas City with a focus on Black filmmakers from Missouri

Award-winning film critic for Fox 4 News Shawn Edwards speaking at the Black Filmmakers Happy Hour on Monday, June 3 at 5 p.m. at Screenland Armour Theater in North Kansas City.
Thurston Long
Courtesy of Shawn Edwards
Award-winning FOX 4 News film critic Shawn Edwards at a Black filmmakers happy hour on Monday, June 3, at Screenland Armour in North Kansas City.

The festival's second year kicked off this week at the Screenland Armour theater in North Kansas City. This year’s mission is to celebrate Black filmmakers from Missouri whose work explores contemporary and historical social issues.

Black culture is famous for an assortment of contributions to Missouri history, with jazz and barbecue being prominent examples. Now, Shawn Edwards says it's time to recognize those contributions in the cinema industry.

“It's been a major contribution to the fabric of the Black landscape of Kansas City,” says Edwards, founder and curator of the Juneteenth Film Festival and an award-winning film critic for FOX 4 News.

“It's extremely important to have a Black filmmakers documenting history, since we are now living in a climate where, in this country, there are groups of people that are actively either trying to erase history or rewrite history,” he says.

Kansas City has one of the longest-running Juneteenth celebrations in the country. So Edwards felt it was important to use the relatively new federal holiday, which marks the 1865 date when the last enslaved people in the U.S. learned they were free, to show the perseverance and preservation of Black culture through film.

Edwards created the festival last year to circumvent some of the larger festivals that may overlook stories presented by Black creatives.

“Black filmmakers are always talking about the lack of opportunity. It's hard to get into Sundance or the Toronto International Film Festival, and it's basically impossible to get into the Cannes Film Festival,” he says. “It's really hard for Black filmmakers, so we wanted to provide a platform where they felt welcome and where they knew they could get their work seen and, more importantly, have their work promoted when it is a part of the film festival.”

This year’s festival opened June 4 at Screenland Armour theater in North Kansas City with a screening of “Underneath: Children of the Sun,” an afro-futuristic sci-fi film directed by Ferguson, Missouri, native David Kirkman.

Kirkman says living through the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, then filming the aftermath, turned out to be the inspiration that pushed him into filmmaking.

A scene from “Underneath: Children of the Sun,” an afro-futuristic sci-fi film directed by Missouri native David Kirkman. His film was shown in this years Juneteenth Film Festival at Screenland Armour in North Kansas City.
Courtesy of David Kirkman
A still from “Underneath: Children of the Sun,” an afro-futuristic sci-fi film directed by Missouri native David Kirkman. The film was shown as part of this year's Juneteenth Film Festival.

“It was pretty surreal to see the police so militarized in that way,” he says. “It sparked so much within so many peers of mine and myself, to realize the power we have within society to help push forward, to change and challenge the status quo.”

The backdrop for Kirkman’s film is the antebellum South and portions of the production were shot at White Haven farm, where up to 30 African Americans worked in slavery for Frederick F. Dent, whose daughter Julia Dent married President Ulysses S. Grant. According to the National Park Service, Grant himself owned one slave, purchased from his father-in-law in the late 1850s, and freed the man, named William Jones, in March 1859.

Kirkman’s film was the first to be shot on the National Historic Site southwest of St. Louis, and he says being able to film in a location where ancestors may have been held captive helps rectify the role Missouri played in slavery.

“What we're doing is controlling the narrative and that's what I think the platform Afrofuturism kind of gives you when talking about history and the future and where Black people fit within all of that,” Kirkman says.

The festival features four more productions written and directed by Black Kansas Citians, including a new documentary on the life of an iconic Kansas City activist. “The Heroic True-Life Adventures of Alvin Brooks” is by Oscar Award-winning director and University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott.

If any Kansas City native deserves to have their story told on-screen it's Alvin Brooks, says festival organizer Edwards, because of how Brooks changed the city through his legacy of activism.

“Trust and believe that this city is not the lovable, livable city that it is without Alvin Brooks being out there on the front lines,” Edwards says.

Screenland Armour will host all the festival’s screenings every Wednesday for the month of June. Each featured film will be preceded by the 15-minute short “BF” from Jamie Addison, a local actor turned director. The sci-fi film explores misconceptions in Black communities around breastfeeding.

She says the idea was born out of her own struggles breastfeeding her daughter and the challenges she faced finding support.

“I thought that it would be easy to do just because we're naturally able to produce milk,” the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy graduate says. “But my milk didn't come out. I cried.”

A behind-the-scenes image shows Jamie Addison, center right, talking with actors and crew during the filming of her short film “BF." The sci-fi film on the struggles women have with breastfeeding is part of the lineup in this year's Juneteenth Film Festival.
Amina Shaw
Courtesy of Jamie Addison
A behind-the-scenes image shows Jamie Addison, center right, talking with actors and crew during the filming of her short film “BF." The sci-fi film on the struggles women have with breastfeeding is part of the lineup in this year's Juneteenth Film Festival.

Addison started writing as a way to vent and, when she revisited those thoughts about a year later, she turned them into a script. Transforming a painful experience into artistic representation that helps other Black women feels unreal now, she says, especially since it’s being featured alongside the work of talented Black creatives like Kevin Wilmott.

“He's the blueprint,” Addison says. “I can't believe I even have the opportunity for my art to be in the same room at this level because this is my first film.”

The remaining schedule for the Juneteenth Film Festival includes:

6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 5
“The Pistol” directed by Paul and Kenneth Rayford

7 p.m., Saturday, June 8
“We Hanging with Clarence” party, celebrating Black filmmakers in Kansas City, hosted by rapper Roblo da Star at Smaxx/The Velvet Freeze Daiquiris, on 1827 Vine St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108   

6:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 12
“Kansas City Dreamin’” directed by Diallo Javonne French

8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 12 
“What’s N’ Kansas City?’” directed by Skiem Heim

6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 19
“The Heroic True-Life Adventures of Alvin Brooks” directed by Kevin Willmott

6:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 26
“Drout 2” directed by Isiah King

All screenings are at Screenland Armour, 408 Armour Road, North Kansas City, Missouri 64116, unless otherwise noted. Details can be found on the festival's Facebook page.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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