The weeklong “festival of literary, visual, and performing arts, featuring films and video by and about black women” took place over Mother’s Day. By 1976, Black feminist literature and visual arts were firmly established with figures like Audre Lorde and Faith Ringgold leading the way. Film was the new kid on the block.
In 1976, there had not been a feature-length film directed by a Black woman, and there wouldn’t be one with a general theatrical release until Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). Most of the films screened at the Festival were short, some of them thesis projects by recent graduates shot on Portapaks and 16mm film.
By linking the young practice with more established art forms and figures, the Festival helped solidify filmmaking within the Black feminist art tradition. It also created a space for inspiration and collaboration.
“It was such a healthy environment,” Freeman said. “The way women would help each other.”
The Festival also addressed the industry issues that prevented Black feminist film from thriving. Professional film schools had begun to crop up, but few women filled their cohorts. Distribution and publicity were also major problems. The Festival became one of few places where these films could be seen.
“What I did try to do when I made films, and also when I program, is to include everybody I can find,” Freeman said. “I wanted everybody to have a shot and have a chance to show their work. I still feel that way.”
2023: “Passing a baton”
Film scholar Hayley O’Malley first heard of The Sojourner Truth Festival while listening to an interview with Freeman embedded deep in an archive. From there, O’Malley connected with Freeman and over 70 possible participants—reconstructing an important historical event mostly lost to time.
When O’Malley reached out to Phillips and Field at UChicago, an idea to screen some of the original films took hold. Soon one screening became nine—a film series became a full-blown festival. “We thought, ‘Let’s tap into the expertise and enthusiasm across the University to bring all the filmmakers together in conversation with each other as well as new filmmakers,’” Field said.
Field’s course “Creating a Different Image: Black Women’s Filmmaking of the 1970s-90s” was developed jointly with the Festival—allowing students the opportunity to introduce films throughout the series and prepare program notes.