Held at Hyde Park’s Polsky Exchange North during the steamy weekend of August 18-20, the inaugural XL Film Festival & Summit 2023 launched in a single space—a large room composed of exposed brick and a lone stage. Eager ears and generational wisdom came together to spotlight young, local Black Chicago talent and participate in critical discussions concerning Black representation in all corners of the film industry—from comedy to music—and how the Black diaspora and Black women are shaping what constitutes contemporary cinema.
The XL Film Festival & Summit took shape earlier this year when its creator, Troy Pryor, founder of Creative Cypher, merged his Cypher Foundation with the Chicago South Side Film Festival. This rebranded version, touting Black-owned and Black-led artistic visions centering DEI philosophies and BIPOC voices, arrives at a perilous time in the entertainment industry. Presently SAG-AFTRA and WGA are striking against AMPTP, a work stoppage that stretches beyond Hollywood to the independently minded.
So how can you give life to a new festival while the industry holds its collective breath?
I was fortunate enough to attend most of the event’s talks and screenings (where the strike loomed large). The consistent refrain from everyone involved preached resourcefulness, sustainability, and determination.
It began for me with a panel entitled “The Family Business,” featuring Black mom-agers, mothers turned managers for their talented acting and directing children (I missed the opening talk, “Mental Health & Black Artists,” moderated by Saudia Davis, and featuring panelists Jae Davis, Vee L Harrison, Richard Gallion, and Brooklyn McLinn). The assembled women, guided by moderator Taron Patton, spoke about protecting their kids from a nefarious business, and instilling a sturdy work ethic within them. They also discussed how to balance dueling roles as mom and manager. Gwenda Starling, the mother and manager of recording artist Jeremih spoke from a music perspective. Altovise Ferguson, mother, and manager of actor Ahmad Ferguson (“The Chi”) and singer Amari Noelle, bridged the gap to television.
The topical panel intuitively connected to the proceeding film block, the lone movie section on a day that felt too heavily geared toward talks. There, mom and manager Adrienne McGee’s daughter Addison Belhomme shared her short “A Thin Line Between White and Black,” an identity-based work about assumptions and biases, while mom and manager Joyce Kelly-Brown’s son Dusan Brown showed his film “All In,” a very familiar take on “Rounders.”
Conversations titled “Creating Through Chaos” and “Queens in Media” dealt with the strike head-on. The former witnessed Chicago SAG-AFTRA president Charles Andrew Gardner decrying the rise of A.I. and the fall of residuals, while the latter witnessed SVP of Development & Production for Monkey Productions, Dana Gills, explaining, “People aren’t being paid fairly, and they’re really fighting for what they deserve. The streamers are making a lot of money off their creativity,” adding “I feel like there are people in certain positions that they weren’t in years ago and we're primed and ready for a change. Ownership is a big thing, ownership of your creative ideas. There are people creating new types of studios and production companies, and I think as those things are created it will change our business model.”
That sense of self-reliance, the desire for self-fulfilling creation by Black artists carried the entire festival’s first day to the keynote speaker: Louis Carr, President of BET, Media Sales. Carr spoke about his beginnings attending Lane Tech High School (my alma mater), his founding of Waymaker magazine, and his present foundation, aimed at giving internships to skilled students. Carr brought a sense of care, urgency, and humor as he enumerated the virtues of having patience and giving opportunities to those around you.
Another item that stood out from the first day was the mix-and-mingle breaks allowing the audience and participants alike to interact for a few minutes before Pryor welcomed the next event. What makes a film festival, beyond the movies, is the sense of community it inspires, the bringing together of passionate individuals engaged in laughter, ideas, and memories. On that account, the XL Film Festival & Summit was a success before the word “go” by virtue of the intimate space and thoughtful speakers Pryor assembled.
The good vibes carried over into Day Two, where I attended the fest’s third film block (due to train delays, I missed the day’s opening film section, featuring Kimberly Michelle Vaughn’s “Hindsight,” Tosin Morohunfola’s “The Pulpit,” Patrick Wimp’s “Mister Abbott,” and Shandrea Funnye’s “Almost 30”). Producer Lataryion Perry’s “The Come Up,” tells the story of a high school girl enthralled by slam poetry navigating the violent atmosphere surrounding her and her aspiring hip-hop brother. Prince Roc and Marquis Simmons’ “Broken Down Drone,” the strongest short I watched out of XL, is a delicate, unhurried two-hander concerning a hip-hop artist on the verge of stardom who witnesses a horrible crime that slowly transitions into a hangout flick with his hustling sibling.
The day’s major panels also included a conversation about Black diaspora—a rejection of a Black monolith—and the role of music in film, featuring Chicago music legend, the owner of George’s Music Room, George Daniels.
However, my favorite conversation of XL turned out to be the penultimate conversation. The comedy conversation presented Barry Brewer (“Bruh”), Lisa Beasley (“3Peat”), Mariann Aalda (“The Edge of Night”), and the creators behind “South Side,” Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle. The speakers were not only deeply funny but also exercised tremendous honesty, recalling major and microaggressions on sets and in production meetings. Aalda shared a story where a white producer on “The Royal Family” dressed down Redd Foxx for ad-libbing a line (one would think they were paying Foxx to do just that). Salahuddin spoke about how white executives often use the term “grounded” (and I’d also say some of my critic colleagues) to critique whether a POC’s work is understandable to their white experience.
It all culminated with the fest’s final keynote, Chicago native Robert Townsend, gracing the stage. “I want lives changed today. I want people to live their destiny as artists and to go to their highest selves,” said Townsend early in the talk. In a discussion covering the multi-hyphenate creator’s ups and downs in the industry, from struggling bit player to “Hollywood Shuffle” to his appearance on “The Bear,” Townsend gave everything you’d want from him: A spot-on Eddie Murphy impression, the various comedic voices he’s employed over the years, a reference to Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” to explain how he finds peace in the world, and his ethos as a creator. Similar to the weekend theme, Townsend offered words of uplift and moments of advice, particularly the need for artists to have clear minds away from social media and be fearless.
It will take much fearlessness for Pryor’s Black-owned XL Film Festival & Summit to grow in the coming years, a bravery he’s already exhibited by putting on this event. It will be fascinating to see how Pryor increases XL’s scale while keeping its intimate touch, how he expands the films on display—one would hope more features make their way to the stage next year (there was one this year, on closing night)—and if he can keep up the intensity, bringing together the same batch of high-quality guests he attracted in 2023.
The final note of the festival, delivered by Townsend, will probably remain with Pryor and many others until next year. “I just want to say to everybody here,” said Townsend. “You’ve been dealt a hand. Play your hand. Go the extra mile.”