1st Black Lily festival rooted in women's art

Posted: May 06, 2007

'Generally speaking, it's men that sign the checks and men that control the images of women in pop music and movies," reflects Mercedes Martinez, half of Philadelphia's alt-soul duo Jazzyfatnastees.

Martinez and her music partner, Tracey Moore, were frustrated that the dominant images of women were bootylicious video girls and that walking Wonderbra, Lara Croft. So in 1999 they ponied up $50,000, which their label gave them for promotion, to seed women's art.

The result was Black Lily, weekly Tuesday-night music showcases at the Five Spot that from 2000 to 2005 nurtured artists such as Jill Scott, Floetry and Jaguar Wright.

Now, the Lily has propagated. This weekend, the first annual Black Lily Film and Music Festival is blooming at the World Cafe and Painted Bride, among other venues, with performances by the Jazzyfatnastees as well as an award-winning film profile of the late poet Audre Lorde.

Nearly 40 years years since second-wave feminists stormed the campus and workplace, do female artists really need a festival of their own?

Do the math. Of the 250 top box-office movies in 1987, 2.5 percent were directed by women. By 2006, that number had inched up to 6.5 percent.

Onscreen, female representation isn't much more encouraging.

"In American movies, males outnumber females by a ratio of more than 2-1," says Martha Lauzen, professor of communications at San Diego State University and author of the Celluloid Ceiling, an annual report on women's employment in Hollywood.

Comparable stats about decision-makers in the music industry are harder to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that that industry is no more enlightened.

"We come to believe that women are a minority, when in fact they're the majority. Such an imbalance in pop culture gives us a distorted perception of the world," says Lauzen.

"Why are the numbers so asymmetrical?" muses veteran Hollywood producer Stephanie Allain, whose films include Hustle & Flow and Something New.

"Maybe because the men in power feel more comfortable putting money in the hands of male directors," she says. "It's much better for women than it used to be," she says, but she can't explain why women make up 14 percent of the U.S. Senate and 25 percent of Congress, yet only 6.5 percent of commercial movie directors. It may be that the American electorate is more evolved than the powers in Hollywood think they are.

"Doors are less open for women," reflects Martinez, one of the subjects of Scene Not Heard, a lively survey of women in hip-hop and neo-soul, directed by Maori Karmael Holmes, the Black Lily Festival executive director. (It is not part of the festival.)

Holmes' title may allude to women's marginalization in music, but her subjects command center stage in this doc that sets the tone for Black Lily.

"It's important to showcase the work of young female professionals so that the powers that be can see their vitality and the way their movies play to audiences," says Lisa Cortes, senior vice president of Lee Daniels Entertainment and a producer of The Woodsman and Shadowboxer.

Cortes, scheduled to participate in a producer's panel at Black Lily, comes to festivals to scout. "There are indie producers like me looking for great writers and directors, and we find them at festivals."

The category of movies most hospitable to female filmmakers is the documentary, a truth that is reflected in the Black Lily film slate, roughly half of which is nonfiction.

Three of the five 2007 Oscar-nominated docs (Deliver Us from Evil, Jesus Camp, and My Country, My Country) were made by women. And according to Lauzen, 28 percent of those making documentaries are women.

Bernadine Mellis, a Temple film professor whose The Forest for the Trees is showing tonight at Black Lily (at the White Dog Cafe), gravitated to documentary because it enabled her to wed activism with art. Her film about Earth First militant Judi Bari won't play the multiplex, but has been picked up by the Sundance Channel.

For Mellis, Black Lily offers filmmakers and audiences the opportunity to see work more substantial than popcorn fare. "The point of Black Lily is, let's get our work out there and encourage each other to succeed." As the philosopher Aretha Franklin sang, sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Says Cortes: "We have to continue to have these festivals until the presence of female filmmakers is commensurate with that of male."


For more about the festival and its programs go to www.blacklily.com.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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