The Black Aesthetic showcases films by black filmmakers in Oakland

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On a recent night at Spirithaus Gallery in West Oakland, Numa Perrier, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and producer, previewed scenes from her first feature film, Jezebel, for a small group of people. The film, based on events from her own life, is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who becomes an Internet sex worker in Las Vegas.

“It was always my dirty little Las Vegas secret, but at some point I just stopped being ashamed of it,” said Perrier of her decision to make the film. “I connected the dots about how it helped lead me to where I am. It taught me about cameras, connecting with people, and learning about my own sexual proclivities.”

Perrier went on to answer questions from audience members about her filmmaking process, her career, her creative inspiration and black hair, which came up in response to an emotional scene in Jezebel, in which the main character tries on a wig gifted to her by her older sister.

Perrier was in Oakland thanks to an invitation from The Black Aesthetic, a collective of artists, writers, filmmakers and designers who curate film screenings and publish a journal of essays about black film and culture.

“We try to curate black visual culture and make it more expansive—not pigeonhole it into one idea,” said member Leila Weefur. “The Black Aesthetic for us means to be actualized, to be assessed, to be announced.”

The Jezebel screening marked the premiere of the third season of their film series, which they launched last fall to showcase rare, unknown and influential films by black filmmakers. The first season focused on black women filmmakers, and the second on filmmakers from Oakland. The third season was curated by Weefur and Zoé Samudzi, and showcases both local and Los Angeles-based artists, including Perrier, Alima Lee, Anisia Uzeyman, Benjamin Michel and Christian Johnson.

In addition to screening films that may not have received critical or mainstream attention, the group aims to build community among black artists in Oakland. “When I came back from college in L.A., I came back to a different Oakland—I didn’t have a community of black people to sit down and watch movies with,” said Weefur. “There was this moment where we realized we have to build our own family and reconfigure our own black experience.”

At each event, the collective organizes a post-screening discussion with the filmmaker to encourage dialogue about both the technical aspects of filmmaking, as well as the issues the work touches on. After a season one screening of She’s Gotta Have It, a 1986 film by Spike Lee about the love life of a young black woman, the conversation continued for hours, as people debated the depictions of gender and sexual relationships in the film.

“It turned into this whole conversation about the film, but also bigger than the film. That’s our goal—to be initiators and generate dialogue,” said Samudzi, one of the curators.

Similarly, after the screening of Drylongso, a 1998 film by Cauleen Smith about a young photographer in Oakland, the conversation turned to how Oakland has changed and the black population has declined since the making of that film.

Filmmaker Christian Johnson wanted to explore the concept of a changing Oakland in his short film, A Moment of Sin & Truth, which will be premiering on November 10 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as part of the film series. The film is set in Oakland and is about a black man in an interracial relationship who is slowly losing his mind. “The changing landscape in his mind parallels the changing economic and cultural landscape in Oakland,” said Johnson. “The two eventually coincide and come to a head with one another.”

Johnson, who was born and raised in Oakland, said the film stems from his own experience coming back to Oakland after moving away for a few years. “I was witnessing the death of one thing and the birth of another and dealing with the insanity and absurdity of that, particularly being a black man in a space that is becoming white,” said Johnson.

As a co-curator of the first season of the film series, Johnson credits the experience with inspiring him to finally complete his short film. “It was incredibly empowering to know about this rich history of black cinema and filmmakers,” said Johnson. “Once I saw them, I felt I could live in a legacy of their work.”

Attendees at the Jezebel screening expressed a similar desire for creative kinship and inspiration. “For me personally, it’s selfish—hearing another woman’s story helps me understand and reveal parts of myself,” said Grace Kibreab, an Oakland resident. “I think black women need to have a voice, it needs to be amplified and celebrated.”

Alongside their third season of the series, the collective is releasing the second issue of their journal, called The Black Aesthetic Season Two, which will come out in November. The journal is sold at E.M. Wolfman Bookstore in Oakland, and also at booksellers in Los Angeles and New York.

“I’m interested in blackness, art, visual culture, queer theory, but my work wasn’t necessarily out in the world,” said Jamal Batts, a collective member who contributed an essay for the first issue. “The Black Aesthetic cultivated me as an artist and it provided a venue where I didn’t need to write in academic strictures.” Batts said he recently met the activist and scholar Angela Davis in Brazil and was able to give her a copy and receive positive feedback.

“We made it for ourselves, but also with the hope that it would resonate,” said Samudzi, who edited the second issue. “It speaks to our interests in archiving, but also in knowing there’s a real hunger for different conversations and dialogues around black visual culture.”   

The Black Aesthetic’s next film screening, “A Night of Shorts,” will take place on October 12 at 7 pm at Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland.

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