The Milwaukee Film Festival may still be months away, but that doesn't mean awesome things aren't happening at Milwaukee Film. Take, for instance, yesterday, when news broke that the organization was chosen to be one of just 16 recipients of a FilmWatch grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
The $10,000 grant – supporting curated screening sections at North America-based film festivals, film societies and other film-related organizations – was given to Milwaukee Film particularly in support of Black Lens, a program established in 2014 with the mission of bringing overdue attention to contemporary African American filmmakers, stories and issues.
"Milwaukee Film receiving financial support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an incredible honor," said Milwaukee Film artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson in a press release. "It is particularly meaningful that the support is directed toward our burgeoning Black Lens Program, which is a vital and rare showcase dedicated to exclusively presenting the work of African American directors."
In just two years of existence, Black Lens has already begun to make an impression, drawing an audience of 3,288 at last year's festival – a 96 percent increase on the previous year – with an estimated 28 percent of those attendees African American. It's a good step forward for the festival's goal of creating important dialogues and gathering diverse audiences.
As Milwaukee and Hollywood both know, however, there's still plenty of work to be done. Milwaukee is infamously ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the country, while diversity woes inside AMPAS and the industry in general grabbed the spotlight on the industry's biggest, brightest night this year: the Oscars (for the second straight ceremony, actually, if you include the original #OscarsSoWhite controversy around the snubbing of "Selma" and lack of diverse nominees last year).
And deservedly so. Of the 100 highest grossing movies of 2015, only four ("The Longest Ride," "Straight Outta Compton," "Southpaw" and "Creed") were directed by African American filmmakers. Meanwhile, most other films directed by black filmmakers, featuring majority black casts or discussing black life and issues are often treated by the film industry as niche audience projects not worth dedicating significant funding into. The tide is changing in terms of bringing more diversity both in front and behind the camera, but the change is slow. Just ask female directors too.
So having a program like Milwaukee Film's Black Lens giving a platform for these features, their writers and directors, and their perspectives to be seen, heard and discussed is a great thing – for Hollywood, for Milwaukee, for filmmakers and for audiences. And it would seem AMPAS would agree.
"The grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences serves not only as national recognition of the important work being done by Milwaukee Film, but confirms initiatives such as Black Lens are an essential part of engaging diversity in a real and substantive way," said Black Lens co-programmer Geraud Blanks in a press release.
"Going into our third year, we are poised to contribute greatly to the Milwaukee Film Festival and to the city in general in terms of the films we want to screen, the filmmakers and actors we want to invite, and the conversations we want to generate," added Black Lens co-programmer Donte McFadden in the release.
It's very exciting news – and all the more reason to start getting excited for the Milwaukee Film Festival, which runs this year from Sept. 22 through Oct. 6.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.