Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Behind the scenes of the annual Black History Month Film Festival in Monterey County

A Black History Month display in the lobby of the Irvine Auditorium in Monterey on Jan. 31, 2024 decorated with the colors of the Pan-African flag — red, yellow and green. A poster reads Black History Hurts, Knowing It Heals! Masks, snacks, drinks and sanitizer are atop the display table.
Janelle Salanga
A display in the lobby of the Irvine Auditorium in Monterey on Jan. 31, 2024.

On the last day of January, an intergenerational crowd of around 50, including Kristin Schneider from Carmel, shuffled out of the rain and into the warm Irvine Auditorium on the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, or MIIS, campus.

It was the opening night of this year’s Black History Month Film Festival in Monterey.

Schneider learned about the event from a friend and said she was “really excited” to see the film screening that night: Bamako, named after the capital of the West African country of Mali.

“I traveled to Bamako in 1991,” she said. “It’s been a little bit of a minute since I was last there, but I’ve got family that live in the area and I’m just really excited to see the film and learn more.”

The lobby of the Irvine Auditorium on the Middlebury Institute for International Studies campus. It's filled with a group of eight people.
Janelle Salanga
People checking in for the opening night of the Black History Month Film Festival on Jan. 31, 2024.

The 2006 film was chosen by MIIS’s first institutional justice, equity, diversity and inclusion officer Nicholas McCreary. He helped organize the festival in partnership with local nonprofit BLAAC, short for Black Leaders and Allies Collaborative.

“I’m thrilled that you all were willing to come out and brave the elements,” he said at the beginning of the Bamako showing. “And I'm thrilled beyond words to be working with BLAAC on this.”

February marks Black History Month, and films about Black experiences have been showing each Wednesday since Jan. 31.

Bamako” (Jan. 31) is a court drama that takes place in a Mali apartment complex, in which African community members put Western financial institutions on trial for the crimes of colonialism.

It was followed by “Daddy Hunger” (Feb. 7), which chronicles the experiences of Black children who grew up without their biological fathers.

Next up is “Boss” (Feb. 14), which looks at Black business in America. The following movie, “Black Boys” (Feb. 21), focuses on the racial inequities faced by Black boys and men in America.

And closing out the film festival is a selection from “Making Black America: Through the Grapevine” (Feb. 28). It delves into the networks, traditions and communities Black people have built throughout U.S. history.

McCreary says this year’s film line-up spans a wide variety of topics that have “tremendous impact on Black communities not just here in Monterey or in California, but across the country.”

Film festival provides space for local reflection

Monterey County has its own share of Black history — including several former Black strongholds.

Seaside, and to a lesser extent, Marina, became home to many Black families thanks to the nearby Army base Fort Ord. As part of the Great Migration in the 1800s, many Black people settled as free fieldworkers in Pacific Grove.

In 1902, the city also became a place to set down roots for the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-Black 9th regiment of the U.S. cavalry. Their families established the Pacific Grove First Baptist Church, which is over a century old and has been heavily involved in local civil rights history, from establishing the Monterey County chapter of the NAACP to desegregating Monterey Peninsula Unified School District faculty.

But the county’s demographics hint at an exodus of generations of Black people.

They’re around 3% of those in Monterey County — yet the 2022 point-in-time count found that Black people also make up 13% of the county’s unhoused population.

A lot of factors have contributed to Black flight from the region.

Historically, many areas in the county have been redlined, meaning restrictive, racist housing deeds prevented non-white people, usually Black or Asian, from living in specific neighborhoods — even in Pacific Grove.

When the Monterey Bay fishing and canning industry began collapsing in the mid-1900s, “urban renewal” on the peninsula began, which amounted to non-white and working-class people being pushed out of their communities. The closure of Fort Ord in 1994 and rising housing costs meant Black families that had long lived in Marina and Seaside had to move away.

Historian Carol Lynn McKibben described Seaside’s African American community as “the most significant population” in the city between 1945 and 1990, even as its demographics were changing.

“As a result, neighboring communities exclude them from everything ranging from development projects to regional events,” she wrote.

Black spaces on the peninsula and in Monterey County — including the Black Leaders and Allies Collaborative, or BLAAC for short — are trying to push back against that legacy of exclusion.

BLAAC first established the film festival last year, and its founder Dirrick Williams said the Q&As after films are meant to encourage people to bring the conversations and reflections they share with friends and family into community discussions.

“Let’s share those thoughts and those considerations with the group entirely, so we can edify and empower each others’ voices, curiosities, answer questions, share moments with people that we normally would not share [them] with,” he said. “Let's create that relationship and dialogue right off the bat.”

McCreary, with MIIS, just moved to the area this past July. He’s looking forward to the festival being a place for Black people to find belonging and community.

“This is a tremendously rich opportunity for people to, to come out and to share themselves and to share their interests and …to build that community, you know, into something so that we truly are one for many,” he said.

Behind the scenes

Last year’s inaugural event was held at Lighthouse Theatre in Pacific Grove.

BLAAC offers an anti-racism course called Eurocentric Cultural Reflectionism, or ECCR, which it started in 2019. Part of the course includes movie showings for students, their families and friends. The showings became popular, and BLAAC began hosting a free movie showing to the general public each month.

“Black History Month came up last year, and we decided to show a movie per week rather than once a month for the community,” Williams said. “It grew into something more, with interviews and everything else, and became a real strong point of education and community activism, [for] getting people together, breaking down barriers, having that dialogue on many different subjects.”

The Irvine Auditorium on the Middlebury Institute for International Studies campus in Monterey. The front rows are empty, but the back rows are relatively full with a crowd of about 50. At the podium is speaker Nicholas McCreary, who is introducing the movie on the projector screen, Bamako (2006).
Janelle Salanga
Nicholas McCreary, the first institutional justice, equity, diversity and inclusion officer of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, introduces Bamako (2006) at the opening night of the Black History Month Film Festival on Jan. 31, 2024.

For him, the festival’s line-up depicts clearer and more nuanced Black stories.

“There's so much experience, so much history, much that has not been told, and there are so many stereotypes and misnomers,” he said. “Choosing films that would educate and at the same time, break down those barriers, and those thoughts of fantasy and fear — that's the basis of why the movies were chosen.”

As with the inaugural festival, audience Q&As will follow some of the films.

McCreary led a conversation after “Bamako.” Chad Williamson, who produced “Black Boys,” will phone in to lead a discussion after the film’s showing on Feb. 21.

“I'm excited about the connectivity and relationships that BLAAC is making,” Williams said.

One of those relationships led to “Daddy Hunger”’s placement in the festival line-up. Ray Upchurch, its filmmaker, joined an ECCR cohort after a friend spoke highly of the curriculum.

After the topic of fatherlessness came up in a class, Upchurch told Williams, “Oh, I’ve done a film about that. I certainly could understand their feelings and their thoughts.”

“I just wanted to see it, and I loved it,” Williams said of the movie.

Along with continuing to build relationships, the BLAAC founder wants to see the organization’s ECCR Alumni Association work in tandem with the Black History Month Film Festival and amplify the work of underrepresented artists in the Monterey Bay region.

“There are tons of African American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian people and more who are making movies, doing significant work in an area that’s usually not represented strongly,” Williams said. “I think that’s changing, but this can be a wonderful opportunity to be able to expand that into the awareness of the artists and different cultures and different ethnicities.”

Seats for any of the remaining film festival showings can be reserved through Eventbrite, and donations are also taken at the door.

Janelle Salanga is a reporter for KAZU. Prior to joining the station, they covered Sacramento communities and helped start the SacramenKnow newsletter at CapRadio.
Related Content
  • An educational community event, the Black History Month Film Festival runs through the month of February and is a partnership between the Black Leaders and Allies Collaborative and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
  • The Black Leaders and Allies Collaborative (BLAAC), in partnership with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, have teamed together for the 2nd annual Monterey County Black History Month Film Festival, a series of movies in celebration of Black history, Black achievements, and the trek towards a more equitable society.

    The festival will showcase nationally acclaimed films, interviews with filmmakers, and discussions surrounding the rich tapestry of the Black experience in the United States. We invite our community to join us in this celebration of American history and Black culture.

    Event Details:
    ● When: January 31st and every Wednesday in February
    ● Where: MIIS Irvine Auditorium, McCone Bldg., 499 Pierce Street, Monterey
    ● Admission: Donations online or at the door, free parking
    ● Features: Post-show Q&A with nationally acclaimed filmmakers