At age 6, Geraud Blanks would go see movies weekly with his mother.
It became "their thing."
“My mother and I went to the movies all the time. If I was really good, we’d go to the record shop, Audio Vibes, and I could get a cassette tape or maybe two,” Blanks said, referring to the now-closed independent record store located on North 23rd Street and West Capitol Drive that specialized in hip-hop and underground artists.
The weekly ritual would ignite his lifelong love for film – and music.
Now 43, Blanks’ appreciation for all things cinema has come full circle in his role as chief innovation officer for Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit arts organization and operator of the Oriental Theatre and the force behind the Milwaukee Film Festival.
This week, Banks will be focused on ensuring the Cultures & Communities Festival goes on without a hitch. The hybrid event, formerly known as the Minority Health Film Festival, began Monday and goes through Sunday, Sept. 12. It spotlights underrepresented communities and features 20 films, several workshops, panels and in-person events at venues around the city.
While film is at its core, the festival addresses topics that include love, trauma and the family.
“The community informs everything we do,” Blanks said.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival is Grammy-award winning singer Michelle Williams, who spoke in person Wednesday about her battle with depression, as well as an upcoming resource fair and panel discussion focused on Black maternal health.
"A work in progress"
Along with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement has also taken center stage, and Blanks is careful when considering what types of film to showcase.
This year’s lineup has social justice themes but also shows the lives of other underrepresented communities, including LGBTQ+, Asian American and Indigenous groups.
“One of the things this year I really worked on was saying we have to have a better balance to make sure we’re capturing all of these experiences,” Blanks said. “I have to be careful because as a Black man, my perspective is innately about the African American experience. In particularly, the male African American experience.”
“We’re really striving to find that balance. It’s a work in progress,” Blanks added.
To improve, MKE Film hosts focus groups and listening sessions with community members throughout the year to gain understanding on what is important to show. Some topics like social justice or violence against women are tough, and Blanks considers the optics when showing heavy subject matter.
“We are sensitive to it. We want to have films that get into deep and important topics, but we want to balance that with love, sexuality and celebration,” Blanks said.
Blanks said he looks for movies with strong characters and important messages because he understands the role films can play in a person’s life.
“Geraud and I have reinforced the importance that the communities that you are trying to reach out to throughout MKE Film, there isn’t just a program component but an outreach component,” said Donte McFadden, who along with Banks co-founded Black Lens, an arm of Milwaukee Film, in 2014. Black Lens showcases African American filmmakers.
The two met as undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the late '90s and have collaborated on multiple projects.
As Black Lens took off, Blanks juggled grad school at UWM while working full time. He would watch up to 60 movies every few weeks before selecting which films to show.
In 2018, he was offered his current position at Milwaukee Film while working on his doctorate at Northwestern University. He plans to finish his program in 2022. Blanks also is married to his wife, Element, and the couple have three children: daughter Karma, 10; and 3-year-old twin boys Nazir and Kairo.
And somehow, he manages it all.
Lights. Camera. Action. Pandemic.
Putting on a film festival during a pandemic created its own set of challenges, Blanks said.
Every theater across the country was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the film industry had to find new ways to put movies in front of people.
Film festivals, in turn, had to adjust to moving to an online format.
Unlike other film festivals around the country, which started in early 2020, Milwaukee benefited from having a September 2020 start date.
That timing allowed Blanks to see what worked and what didn’t. He said MKE Film was successful because, by September, people realized that theaters would not be opening any time soon and watching first-run movies at home or on a laptop would become the norm.
“Now a year and a half later, our theaters are open, but we’re still doing virtual,” Banks said. “That will probably always be part of what we do now because people are used to movies at home. There’s a balance between welcoming people back and offering access through a virtual platform. “
The changes “made us more nimble,” he said.
A love is born
Born in Champaign, Illinois, Blanks and his mom, Deborah Blanks, moved to Milwaukee when he was 3. His mother worked for Cigna but wanted to relocate to strike out on her own and gain a sense of independence.
“When I was growing up, I thought of what I could do with my life based on the movies I saw,” he recalled.
Blanks said he came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with the movies of Spike Lee and John Singleton. “It was just seeing myself on screen. It was a magical feeling.”
One of the early movies he remembers having an emotional connection with was “The Karate Kid,” which he would watch over and over again when it came out on video.
The character in the movie was raised by a single mother, and Blanks said he grew up facing similar challenges, including sometimes feeling like an outsider and wanting to fit in.
“I saw myself in that character. His mother was my mother,” he said.
Just like the movie’s character, Mr. Miyagi, served as a mentor to the Karate Kid and played an important role in his development, Blanks’ Uncle Tony became a strong male figure in his life and upbringing.
Although he knows his father and they speak often, he didn’t grow up with him in the home.
Mentors help fill the gaps for Blanks.
“I don’t know anybody that thinks of themselves as successful that can’t point to at least one, if not several mentors,” Banks said.
His daughter, Karma, appears to have caught the film bug from her dad. She is a content creator with her own channel on Zigazoo, a social platform for kids, and she even made an appearance on ABC News this summer.
Meanwhile, Blanks and his mom still go to the movies together, usually on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“My wife knows, and after we do the holiday, she says: ‘All right, go do your movie thing,’” Blanks said, chuckling.
How to attend Culture & Communities Festival
For virtual passes and in person ticket information on this year’s film festival, click here.