Entertain, Educate, Inspire: An Interview with Harry Eaddy, Denton Black Film Festival Director, and Linda Eaddy, Director of Film Programming
Agatha Beins: Harry and Linda, thank you so much for talking with us about the Denton Black Film Festival (DBFF). I’m really delighted that we can share information about this event, which will take place January 23-26, 2020. To start our conversation, could you talk about the history of the DBFF, how it began, and what your involvement has been.
Harry Eaddy: I am the President of the Denton African American Scholarship Foundation, Inc., going on thirteen years. A number of our donors are aging, so we were looking for events to raise money for scholarships. My wife and I went to a local film festival, and while we were there, I thought about the idea of a black film festival because you don’t really see a lot of black cinema. I shared this idea with my wife, and then I met with Cheylon Brown and Rochelle Cummings to discuss it. They liked the idea, and we met for a number of weeks. Soon my wife came on board, and we started meeting with a larger group of people to look at doing a festival in January 2015. We wanted to plan an event that would be impactful for the community, and we thought a film festival would be a good thing.
Linda Eaddy: When Harry told me about his idea, it sounded interesting, but I thought, “Let me see if they’re going to get it going” because I tend to be pretty operationally oriented, thinking about how we can get things done. Once I saw they were really serious and had developed a framework, then I jumped in. I handled the operations of the festival and worked with the film programming.
Our first festival was a day and a half, we screened thirteen films, and eight hundred people attended. That was exciting because we had been told that you don’t get many people at film festivals. But the opening night had a pretty packed house, close to full. There was excitement, so I knew we knew we were on to something.
Agatha: Do you remember the first film you showed at that festival?
Linda: The very first was a short film about the history of black cinema. I had been looking for something about this topic, and Turner Classic TV had contracted with a gentleman, Walid Khaldi—who had been a professor at SMU [Southern Methodist University], which owns a lot of black cinema—Turner had contracted with him to do this project. I found his short film, History of Black Film in 6 Minutes on YouTube, and discovered he lives in the area. So I called Walid, and we talked, and we were able to obtain his short film. He attended this first festival and has since become the historian for the festival and continues to participate. That was the very first film we showed, and it was followed by Belle, which had been released theatrically and was nominated for an Oscar. It’s an excellent film, so we were really excited to open the festival with it.
Agatha: The festival has grown a lot since January 2015. Can you discuss how the festival has changed over the past six years?
Harry: Initially we were trying to think about what would compose black culture, not just African American culture but black culture. The first year we focused on film, and during our second year we introduced art, music, and spoken word. Those were small events to give people an idea of what we were thinking about. In our third year one of the local TV stations described us as a cultural festival, and we thought that was really true.
Agatha: Is there anything you’d like to highlight about the upcoming festival?
Linda: There’s a lot to highlight, and although it’s a cultural festival, film is at the heart. We started our first year with thirteen films, last year we showed sixty-four, and this year it will be over ninety. We screen narrative features, documentaries, and short films, including college short films, and this year we even have a few high school shorts. There are a lot of good short films and a few more Texas filmmakers being featured this year. There are so many exciting stories out there—so many true stories and historical stories that have gone untold.
I’m also excited about the social justice aspect of the festival. We’re focusing on the environment and criminal justice, so we’ll have some films and panels that address those particular topics. Another relevant topic for this election year—voter suppression—will be highlighted in a film about the history of this issue and how it continues to be a problem, especially for people of color.
Harry: I would say that we’re becoming a multidisciplinary platform. Film is our anchor, and we want people to understand that telling stories through film is a great, but we believe that there are other ways to tell stories. You can tell stories through visual art and spoken word. Comedy has also been intriguing for us, so we’re planning a film screening on comedy, some children’s programming with comedy, and a comedy competition that will allow comedians in early stages of their career to participate. The film we’re showing is about the history of black comedy, paying homage to black stand-up comedians. There have been few—people like Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Richard Pryor, Redd Fox, and a few others—but there are probably fewer than ten of note. Beyond that, we are excited about the DBFF Institute and are moving forward with year-round programming.
This year we’re also bringing Jazzmeia Horn to perform at Texas Woman’s University. This is the first time she’s performed in the metroplex, even though she was born and raised in Dallas, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School. She’s only 28 years old, but she has gained recognition from singing more classical jazz well beyond her years.
Linda: But maybe with a little bit of a twist that makes her appeal to younger people as well. You know, she’s been nominated for Grammys two years in a row—first as new artist and then for album of the year this year—which is really amazing in and of itself. She has such poise and presence.
Harry: The largest challenge for us this year is the Interactive Technology Expo. We’re excited about it because we believe that technology will have a significant impact on our lives, and we’d like to create a showcase for technology companies to not only share their products but to talk about them. Within the expo, we’ll have a number of short presentations about technology with question and answer periods.
Linda: Black people are users of technology, but I don’t think companies always pay attention to what we want, so we hope to highlight it and start an avenue for that conversation. We also want to create a space where tech companies can open their ears a bit more and be more inclusive.
Harry: As a side note, I’m in the technology field, and the number of women-owned and people of color–owned technology companies is pretty small, so we’d like to have representation from companies led by women and people of color, and we have a long-term plan to make this an integral part of the festival.
Agatha: Before we continue discussing specific parts of the festival, I’d like to take a step back and ask you about the mission and vision—what you hope the festival accomplishes and hope it conveys about black culture and lives.
Harry: We spent a lot of time talking about this and see the mission of the festival as two things: to share black culture and to build community. We believe if we do those two things that the festival will have an impact on the community, and we’ve seen that thus far. We went from eight hundred attendees and a day and a half to over seven thousand attendees and five days last year. We’re hoping this year we’ll have ten to twelve thousand attendees including the interactive expo, and we believe this is because people really feel that the festival is meeting some needs culturally. The one thing we’re very proud of—which we think is a tremendous part of the mission—is to have a festival that’s also diverse. So about 20-22 percent of the festival is non-black, which we think is really important. Also, in particular, we want to highlight voices and stories that are marginalized and that maybe aren’t heard very often—women, LGBTQ issues, issues related to human trafficking, for example.
Linda: One of the people who helped organized the first festival—Rochelle, a.k.a “Mesha George”—came up with the tag line, “Entertain, Educate, Inspire.” We use that when selecting films for the festival. And, really, when we’re doing any aspect of the festival, are we entertaining people, are we educating people, are we inspiring people? Occasionally you find something that hits all three, but you want to get at least two out of the three for any aspect, whether it’s technology or comedy. And that’s all part of building community. As one attendee at the festival once mentioned, this was a space where they could come and talk to people and learn new things or meet people they wouldn’t normally intersect with in their everyday life. We want to create a warm environment where people feel accepted and know they can experience this together.
Agatha: To that end, is there anything you’d like to add for people who might see the name—Denton Black Film Festival—and think that it’s only for black people? What would you tell them?
Linda: Every year there’s at least one person who comments about this on Facebook, and I’m usually the one who writes the response. There are all kinds of film festivals and all different cultures to celebrate: there’s a Jewish film festival, a Czech film festival, a dance film festival. There are so many opportunities through film to celebrate different things, so why not have a Denton Black Film Festival? In fact, in 2014 I was part of a laughter group—I was the only woman of color in the group—and we used to meet once a week to be silly and laugh. I wanted a test case, so I asked one of the older white women in the group about the festival and said that some people were wondering about it. She just looked at me like, “why not?! Why not have a black film festival?” To her there was no problem at all, and I also thought, “why not?” So we don’t shy away from it. We named it intentionally because we don’t think there’s anything wrong with the word “black.” We need to celebrate each other.
Harry: I would agree. I think we spend far too much time on this planet talking about differences and not enough time learning about what is important to other people. So I spend a lot of my time trying to find out what’s important to people of different ethnic backgrounds. With the black community—and I say that in a very holistic way because there are differences within the black community and issues that create strife—it’s really important that we understand what’s important to us culturally. For other groups, it’s also a way for them to see how the black community defines itself. In my discussions with other people I’ve asked them, “You have certain opinions about the black community—where did you get those opinions?” and they usually say from an external source, not from a person who’s black. So you get all this information, and much of it is wrong.
With DBFF we just want to share a little bit of the culture that hopefully people will find that interesting. If all we did was entertain you, we would be missing the mark. We want to entertain you, educate you, and inspire you to be a different person. And that’s why we talk a lot about experiences. We don’t talk about DBFF being an event; it’s really an experience. And I think the people who see it this way have come back year after year.
Linda: And it gives you a chance to feed your soul. You can see music and comedy, you can go to films—there are a variety of things you can experience to immerse yourself for the weekend. We’re hoping to bring in a little bit of dance in upcoming festivals, so stay tuned. There will be even more.
Agatha: I appreciate your answer, and, as I think more about this question—is the festival only for black people?—I don’t really like it. It presumes there’s something about racial difference that creates an unbridgeable divide. It presumes that your experience is so vastly different from mine—that your life is so vastly different—that we don’t have anything in common. Yet, at the same time, race does matter, so skin color of course has an impact on our life experiences.
Linda: Right, and the point is not to erase yourself. Sometimes ideas about integration tell you you’re supposed to go into larger society and melt into it. But you have to be able to celebrate who you are and be who you are in any setting. And when you get to the core, storytelling offers different ways of expressing yourself, but a lot of times we’re expressing the same things. There’s a human experience we share. It looks a little different for different cultures and racial groups, based on your history and experiences, but we’re still eating and dancing and talking and enjoying many of the same things.
Harry: There’s a basic question: what really is culture? Someone made a comment to me—this person is African American—she said, “culture trumps race, so just because I’m black and I meet another person who’s black it doesn’t mean that we’ll have the same interests or desires.” I thought about that, and much of what she says has legs.
Linda: Festivals are different; some are more industry driven, more for people trying to get distribution deals or learn their craft. Some are more audience centric. We started off as a more audience-centered festival, but we’ve been moving into the industry part of it too. And community is a big element of what we do, so I look at our festival as a kind of hybrid: we’re covering a lot of different bases, and it’s a lot of work trying to fit it all together.
Agatha: Building on that, you’ve emphasized how you have an expansive vision of culture, and the festival seems to be growing each year, both in terms of size and the range of offerings. The name still foregrounds film, and you’ve mentioned that films are the anchor. How do you try to balance films with the other programming when you plan the festival?
Harry: If you look at the programming, film occurs during over 70 percent of the festival. The other events, they may be scheduled for one day or a few hours. There’s music one night, but you’ll have film every day and almost the entire time. To that extent, we’re a major film offering. Many other film festivals screen 75-85 films, and we’re right there this year.
Agatha: Linda, earlier you’d mentioned that film is the place you started your involvement with the festival. Can you talk more about your philosophy when selecting and organizing film programming?
Linda: I’m not a filmmaker, and I’m not in the film industry, so I tend to be very operational in the way I look at things. My focus was on how we sell tickets, how we set up systems. But I got on the submissions team because I love watching films. We were able to end the first festival with Dear White People, which was just before it would be available for DVD distribution. We worked so hard just to get that film, to show at the festival. I got hooked on that whole process and learned more about submissions as well. For the first two years we had films only by invitation, and then we added submissions.
It’s a very intense job and involves not only the creative part of watching films, but there are other elements. We develop relationships with filmmakers and correspond with them; we’ve got an award program, so we have to get judges. There’s much more that goes into the process than just selecting films. And there’s a team of people who watch the submissions, so it’s not something I do by myself. I think some film festivals end up with only two or three people who watch the films, and you can miss a lot. We try to build a team of people who know something about the film industry but also want everyday people who love going to movies and love stories. I think that when people create films, they’re doing so because they want people to see them. We want the team we assemble to love stories and to appreciate the talents that filmmakers have, but they’re not trained film critics. First and foremost, we look for really good stories. There has to be good production quality, so there are certain basic things we look for, but the most important thing is the story itself.
Harry: One of the reasons why DBFF has grown is because of Linda and her group’s ability to curate really good films. We’ve been told by filmmakers that they like DBFF because we’re an audience-led film festival. Filmmakers know that at other film festivals they might not have an audience; there might be five or ten people in the space. With the submission process, we see the 80-20 rule: about 20 percent of the films are really good, and 80 percent are okay, so you end up with an imbalance where there are a lot of people at one film and not so many at another. But a lot of filmmakers have told us that because of the overall quality of our film selection, we usually have very strong audiences in almost all of our screenings. Our first year we averaged about 70-80 people per screening, which is higher than many film festivals. Today we’re averaging between 125-140 people per screening. That cannot be accomplished unless you have good quality films.
Linda: We also want to show the breadth of experience and a variety of different kinds of films. For example, we want something edgy sometimes, and last year we had an adult block of shorts on Friday night. And people might get angry with certain topics. There are certain stories that ruffle your feathers. But it’s all part of being human ; these films also weave a story. People enjoy coming to DBFF because there are threads, so when they see films, they recognize themes, such as several films about social justice. Our ability to weave stories within stories has also helped our growth.
Agatha: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what you see makes DBFF unique?
Harry: For the person who wants to be in a group of people who share interests—whether you want to be entertained and get some education, and definitely get inspired—and also have great conversations with people, DBFF is a place you want to be, regardless of your ethnic background. We try to put together an experience, not an event, that we would like to attend. We want everything to operate smoothly, we want infrastructure in place, we’ve curated really great restaurants in the area—all these things can lead to a really wonderful weekend for someone.
It’s like fine wine: you’re always looking for wine that creates a certain taste in your palate. That’s what would get me excited. We don’t want someone to say, “I’ve been there, done that. I’ve come to DBFF one year, and it’s all the same.” So we do different things. For example, we had the Taste of DBFF last year, where professional chefs in the region offered foods that reflected black culture . We plan to do some things with dance this year. Every year will be a different experience.
Linda: I think of our volunteers, too. It feels like family to me, and people are really passionate about the festival. We’re all volunteers: nobody’s getting money to do this work, so it takes having passion and caring about community and other people. The team that’s assembled care about community and want to put something out that’s good, that people can enjoy and be uplifted by, and learn something from. Those are the people we attract.
Harry: I think this is one of the reasons we won one of the best festivals in Texas in our fifth year, which surprised us. But we were really excited about it because it spoke to what we believe the experience should be when people come to DBFF.
Agatha: So that people can learn more about the flavor of the festival, could you talk about a particular moment or experience during the past six years that has been a special highlight for you?
Linda: There are several. With film I think a lot about the filmmakers and their interactions with the audience. For me, it’s always been fun to see these conversations. People in the audience ask great questions and show appreciation for the films. It’s moments with filmmakers—when they come to the stage to talk about their films—and they’re beaming, taking pride in the work they’ve done. I remember one filmmaker saying, “Everybody laughed when they were supposed to.” And moments where I see filmmakers interacting with each other and enjoying the experience—especially with the short film blocks, when the different filmmakers who made these shorts get to interact with each other—is always really exciting for me.
Harry: I think for me it’s not just one experience but a threaded experience, particularly with filmmakers. Some of them have been selected by other film festivals, or they’ve been selected by DBFF and gone to other film festivals, but they believe they’ve been treated differently at DBFF, which leads them to see that we appreciate them. They tell me, “at some film festivals, they screen my film, but that’s all they do. At DBFF, people want to know me; they want to understand my work; they want to know what motivated me to do this.” This is one of the reasons we do what we do: we want stories to be told, we want people to understand these stories and be entertained, educated, and inspired.
Linda: I was going to tell you about the panels we’ve done. The very first was about the entertainment industry, and it was geared toward women. Because it was our first panel, we didn’t quite have the infrastructure, so I was doing it without really knowing what I was doing. But they were such good panelists, they were giving filmmakers such good information, and we had a great audience. Last year we had the Women, Wine, and Wisdom panel. I remember talking with women who attended, and they said the filmmakers really laid it on the line, giving them information that was useful, and how wonderful the experience networking with other women was.
As we’ve branched out to doing workshops and panels, we’re really trying to give filmmakers and the creative community support they need, information they need, to build their craft—especially those who are just getting started in the industry or think they might have an interest in it. We’re glad that we’re not just sharing films but going beyond it—having an impact on the creatives who are doing this work.
Agatha: Thinking about Films for the Feminist Classroom and our audience, do you have suggestions for educators who might be interested in learning more about the festival or just want to use films in their teaching?
Linda: There are so many good documentaries out there, and there are so many interesting stories that you can use in a class. So for teachers there’s so much good content, and it’s much more accessible these days. You might be surprised.
Another thing we do is reach out to local schools. This year we’re screening a film about the Olympics in 1936, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everybody knows about Jesse Owens, but there were seventeen other black athletes—two of them female—who participated in that Olympics. What happened to them? What are their stories? We’re screening this film, and I reached out to the UNT [University of North Texas] track team and other campus groups to let them know about it. These are stories that young people need to learn about and experience. Since the filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper will be at the screening it will be especially meaningful.
So each year we look for films that might be of interest to professors at the local universities. For example, UNT has an equity and diversity conference in February, and someone who’s speaking there has a film made about his life, and we will preview the film at the festival this year. Even with the high schools—we’ve reached out to teachers in north Texas to make sure they know about the festival.
Agatha: As we close, could you talk about your vision for the festival? What do you imagine for its future—in the short and long term?
Harry: Our vision is to continue to do the same two things: share culture and build community. We want to do that in a multidisciplinary way—whether it’s dance, theater, or film—anything we can do to help tell stories. But we also want to be impactful, so we want to share in a way that causes people to see that DBFF is unique and that it’s worth the investment to come and spend the weekend with us.
Linda: Yes, it’s a matter of continuing to do what we’re doing. And I think if we can be a little better each year, the growth will take care of itself. It’s about building that infrastructure to continue and to improve.
Harry: One concern of mine is that I would never want anyone to think of DBFF as shallow. I want people to think about DBFF as having a lot of depth. I want people to come not because we’re trying to impress or entertain them. I think at that point we become less meaningful. I want to share what we believe is impactful, addresses relevant issues, and hopefully tells very good stories, too. We always want to tickle the mind. When we can’t find the stories we want, we go out and procure them through invitational films. So we have a standard of screening really good films. We think that’s important. We want to have depth.
Linda: We want people to see films at the festival that they remember, that had some meaning to them. We want them to be able to tell me about a film they saw last year or the year before because they learned something.
Harry: And I would say that’s DBFF: it’s not just entertainment, not just a movie. It’s a movie with an intention. It’s an artist with an intention. What we do is intentional.