Words by Nneka Samuel

In honor of the Caribbean Heritage Organization (CHO) and in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Caribbean American Heritage Month, the first ever CaribbeanLens Film Festival recently took place in America’s film capital, Hollywood.

The five-day festival kicked off June 15 with an opening night ceremony and screenings recognizing Caribbean legends Sir Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson and Harry Belafonte. The red carpet graced the likes of soca star Machel Montano, designer Chandra Maharaj, Kingston-based gospel fusion group Urim 7, and members of the Grenada Film Commission who helped sponsor the event.

The evening’s special guests were Karen and Katherine Kramer, wife and daughter of late director Stanley Kramer, whose classic masterpiece Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, kicked off the festival. In a Q&A preceding the film, Karen Kramer spoke of her husband’s legacy and penchant for exploring race and social issues in provoking, touching ways. He made 35 films and was nominated for an unprecented 85 Academy Awards. Said Kramer about her late husband, “When you look back on [his] work, you know [he] did it for something more than money and glory.”

GWCTD, starring Bahamian son and international icon, Sidney Poitier, shares the story of a newly engaged interracial couple who meet each other’s unsuspecting families for the first time. Just as poignant, funny and relevant today as it was when released in 1967, it truly has “survived the test of time,” like Karen Kramer remarked during the Q&A. Festival participants showed their enthusiasm throughout the film by clapping and talking back to the characters on screen. The film was followed by a screening of Island In The Sun, the 1957 film shot predominantly in Grenada and starring Harry Belafonte. Miss Jane Pittman, the film starring Cicely Tyson, was cancelled.

A total of 11 films were scheduled to play at the CaribbeanLens Film Festival, though not all were shown due to time constraints, last minute schedule changes, or insufficient ticket purchases. All of the films were released in prior years, save for Vuelos Prohibidos (Forbidden Flights), directed by Cuban filmmaker Rigoberto Lopez, which had its U.S. debut at the film fest.

CaribbeanLens Marquee at the historic El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, CA.

CaribbeanLens Marquee at the historic El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, CA.

This first annual festival was a sort of test run, according to CaribbeanLens founder and executive producer Marva Griffiths Herman. She conceived the film festival over 20 years ago with the dream of combatting limiting images of ganja, sun and turf, which have defined the Caribbean by those not native to the region. Herman promises next year’s festival will be bigger and better. CaribbeanLens producer and Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS) founder Dr. Claire Nelson, who moderated the Q&As following the film screenings (excluding opening night), wants CaribbeanLens to become “the mecca of all Caribbean film festivals.”

On June 19, the festival culminated in the week’s biggest event, a gala honoring six indelible nominees paving paths in their respective industries. Haitian doctor Henri Ford, who recently made headlines for performing the first separation of conjoined twins in Haiti, was introduced by his son, Alex, who also presented him with the Humanitarian Award. In his speech, Dr. Ford said, “It’s special when an organization of your own people recognize you for your work.”

PR and marketing maven Yvette Noel-Schure, from Grenada, has worked with several famed artists including Beyoncé, Prince and Mariah Carey. She took home the Trailblazer Award, presented to her by Grenada’s Minister of Culture. After accepting the award, Noel-Schure jokingly thanked her husband who she said after 35 years, still gets excited when she says the word “coconut.”

New York born and bred actress and singer Dawnn Lewis (A Different World) thanked her Guyanese parents for allowing her to be “a hen that crows.” Hailing from Jamaica, Talitha Watkins, the Vice President of Multicultural Marketing at Universal Pictures, was honored with the Corporate Leadership Award. Trinidadian American artist Caiphus Moore received the Excellence in Visual Arts, Game Design Award and Antiguan Egbert Perry, who is a real estate developer and the Chairman of Fannie Mae, accepted the Visionary Award.

The unofficial theme of the night was pride. Honorees and award presenters both acknowledged their pride of heritage, country and culture. The festivities were accented by musical performances from URIM 7 and Haitian singer Paul Beaubrun, both of whom sang original material as well as classics from the likes of Bob Marley.

Check back with POTENT for detailed synopses of two of the films screened at CaribbeanLens – Yurumein Homeland, a documentary about the Caribs of St. Vincent, and the aforementioned Vuelos Prohibidos.