It’s About the Notes You Don’t Play: Friday Evening at the 3rd Annual Blackstar Film Festival
Photo Credit: S & A

It’s About the Notes You Don’t Play: Friday Evening at the 3rd Annual Blackstar Film Festival

nullAt one point during Friday night’s conversation between directors Kahlil Joseph and Terence Nance, the latter said that seeing the former’s “Black Up,” which “portrays a fever dream induced by the music of Shabazz Palaces,” on a big screen, helped him to get a different read on the film than he’d had from watching on his laptop. This time, he noticed that the eyes of an actress, purportedly in a fugue state, were wide open. I too had a similar experience viewing “Until the Quiet Comes,” “The Model” Pts One and Two, “Wildcat,” and the aforementioned “Black Up” on the theatrical screen of the International House in Philadelphia, the Blackstar Film Festival’s screening venue. Joseph’s films are filled with intricate detail and The Blackstar Film Fest, now in its third year, is where you come this time of the year, in Philly, to facilitate that kind of eye-opening experience.

Co-presented with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and moderated by Arthur Jafa (he was called to the stage after the talk began and Joseph deadpanned, “We really don’t have a moderator?” to huge laughter from the crowd), “Terence Nance & Kahlil Joseph: In Conversation” capped off a couple of nights that feature Joseph-associated programming. Jafa’s “Dreams Are Colder Than Death,” co-produced by Joseph, was screened the previous night, opening night, and featured a Q & A moderated by Greg Tate, who filled the same role during the “Dreams” theatrical premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Insights from the talk included Joseph’s affection for Amos Tutuola’s novel "The Palm-Wine Drinkard," which he randomly picked up while staying in Dallas for a Terrence Malick shoot, and Malik Sayeed’s role in helping Joseph cast Storyboard P, a legendary dancer who appears in “Until the Quiet Comes” and “Dreams.” It was also really cool to note some of the invisible thematic strands that bind the work of Jafa and Joseph. I wondered whether or not Marcello, the Seu Jorge-portrayed lead of “The Model,” who couldn’t sleep for dreaming, would someday fall victim to the anguish that affected “Dreams’” many speakers. I hope not.

This year’s festival tagline, “Music Is the Weapon,” a Fela Kuti quote, is a great thematic anchor for Joseph’s short-form music films. Or music videos. In response to a question that referenced Hilton Als’ designation of “Until the Quiet Comes” and “Black Up” as “music films” and not “music videos,” Joseph quoted Miles Davis’ assertion that he “makes the shit, and that ya’ll [critics] [willy-nilly hand wave] can call it what you want.” He elaborated for part two of his answer, and indicated that his interest in the more prosaic realm of music-related filmmaking comes from a desire to make feature films. Only he likes to use albums as screenplays. Another illuminating aspect of his process divulged in the talk, was attention to what Joseph called the “minimalist moment,” or the idea that he gives his audience just enough information about his characters to captivate them, but not much more in the way of plot. He quoted Miles Davis again: “It’s about the notes that you don’t play;” and one could practically see the audience appreciate anew the mise-en-scene of his films. “I try to be as unconscious as possible,” he quipped. One wonders if Blackstar’s programmers were on that same wavelength when they picked the next film to follow the conversation.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Shomari Smith’s “Til Infinity: Souls of Mischief,” which screened after the Nance-Joseph-Jafa talk, is also concerned with process, and uses the 14 songs off of Souls of Mischief’s debut album "93 ‘til Infinity" to provide the film’s organizing structure. The documentary details the experience of Souls of Mischief from their boyhood in Oakland, CA, to the present, stopping short of their upcoming release, "There Is Only Now." The bulk of the film comprises the road to their only major commercial hit “93 ‘til Infinity,” and features a track-by-track breakdown of the album.  It utilizes an elliptical storytelling method, and jumps back and forth in time frequently, so much so that the traditional narrative structure is all but completely abandoned. For example, we are 75 minutes into the doc’s 93-minute run-time before the group’s first and only major label record deal is discussed in detail. 30 minutes before that, the 4 members of Souls – A-Plus, Opio, Phesto D, and Tajai – along with other talking heads, wax poetic on how a sample of the "Taxi" theme made a song off their demo (“Cab Fare”) more dope than the album version.

“Til Infinity” is much less "Behind the Music" and would be better characterized as "Inside-and-Between the Music." The film feels a lot like Neil Drumming’s feature “Big Words,” in that it chronicles the experience of a 90’s rap group that enjoyed a short time in the spotlight. But “Til Infinity” is almost all joy, where “Big Words” focused heavily on the angst that accompanies unrealized potential. “Til Infinity” could’ve probably used some editing, but one can understand the filmmaker’s predilection towards keeping more of those interviews in, as they likely won’t get the same attention again. The group recalls a moment in the early 90’s when they blocked the entrance of an industry event because they couldn’t get in. They held a rap cypher in front of the elevator to the showcase, hamming it up in front of A&Rs, rapping as if their lives depended on it. The doc feels a lot like that moment. 

“Til Infinity” makes clear that Souls of Mischief, in their own way, are some of the hip-hop zeitgeist’s “notes you don’t play,” the overlooked underdogs from one of the country’s underrated rap hubs. It features so many Bay Area rap scions like Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Too Short, E-40, and other rap luminaries (De La Soul, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Redman) that it feels at times like an interview cypher. The documentary is ultimately a love letter to Souls of Mischief, and the Bay Area rap scene by extension.

My experience of last night’s programming was a lot like “Til Infinity’s" interview cypher. I bumped into a few friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and saw, in real life, folks whom I’d only known of, or had been acquainted with online. In much the same way Terence Nance’s experience was affected by seeing a film on the silver screen, sitting in the dark taking notes around this particular film community influenced mine.

“I am exclusively interested in the lives of black people,” said Kahlil Joseph, discussing his preference to tell black stories in lieu of the commissioned work he’s gotten from Hollywood.

And so is the Blackstar Film Festival, if its programming so far (and program guide, and guiding ethos posted on its website) is any indication. 

Niela Orr is a creative writer and freelance critic currently based in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter at and on Facebook at

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