Richard Wesley is a playwright, screenwriter, and professor of Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and has been involved with the Newark Black Film Festival for well over three decades. A Newark native, he’s currently the Chairperson of the festival’s Selection Committee. The NBFF is currently in full swing, with a screening of Cadillac Records tomorrow, and the biennial Paul Robeson Awards for young filmmakers taking place on Wednesday, August 8. This season’s program also features the films Selma, I Called Him Morgan, The Art of the Journey, Coco, and Hidden Figures. We recently spoke with Wesley about the history and mission of the Newark Black Film Festival, the role it plays in the lives of young filmmakers, and a chance encounter with Sidney Poitier that launched him into the film industry.
Culture Vultures: So, you’ve been committed to the Newark Black Film Festival for a long time now. How did this relationship begin?
Richard Wesley: They first reached out to me in the early 1980s. Mary Sue Sweeney Price was the Chair back then. Her husband Clement Price, the Rutgers University historian, was on the committee back then, too. And it was another committee member – Gloria Buck – who called me. I guess someone on the committee thought it’d be a great idea to get me involved, and so I met up with them and just fell in love.
CV: What drew you in?
RW: The festival was founded because, at the time – this was in the 1970s – there were really no places to see first-run films in Newark, and especially films that dealt with African-American themes or subjects that were made by African-American filmmakers. All the theaters had shut down. You had to go outside of Newark to find these films. So, the festival was born from that situation – it was a way to bring films into the city. It was for entertainment, but it was also a way to bring in films from the African Diaspora – films from Africa and the Caribbean. The Newark Museum made special arrangements with the film studios to have free, one-time-only screenings for the festival. We also had Newark Symphony Hall and the New Jersey Institute of Technology as festival venues. We would present all kinds of films – some of which had only been seen in the art house cinemas. We all felt it was important to bring these films to the people who lived in Newark.
CV: Today, the festival presents many mainstream films. But I guess that’s connected to various shifts in the industry. For example, you had a screening of Selma (2014) this season, which is a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. that got a lot of mainstream attention.
RW: Well, in the early years of the festival, there were a lot of young, independent, black filmmakers who were not being shown in the major festivals around the country. There simply wasn’t as great an interest in their work as there is now. So, we started reaching out to them – Spike Lee, Ayoka Chenzira, and Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, for example. It was a way from them to get a toehold, and to get into other festivals. Speaking of Selma, we’ve shown some of the early films of Ava DuVernay – before she really blew up with that film. At our screening of Selma a few weeks ago, you could’ve heard a pin drop in the theater. Full house, people were absolutely riveted.
CV: What else has changed since the festival was founded?
RW: Over the years, we evolved, and our mission evolved. Newark, of course, has movie theaters again – like the big, twelve-screen cineplex that Shaquille O’Neal built on Springfield Avenue. So, the need for us to deal with the major Hollywood studios became less necessary, and we concentrated more on films from the African Diaspora – African films, Caribbean films, independent films by African-American and Latino filmmakers, as well as films by white filmmakers dealing with African-American characters and subject matter. And also historic films – we show work by black filmmakers dating all the way back to the birth of the industry, such as the work of African-American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. And we’re always bringing in filmmakers and historians to talk to the audiences whenever we can.
CV: We mentioned Selma. This year, the festival also presented I Called Him Morgan (2016) and The Art of the Journey (2018). This week, it’s Cadillac Records (2018), which is set in Chicago, but was actually filmed in Newark.
RW: Yes – it was made in Newark because of all the vintage architecture in the city. It’s a movie about a record label in the 1950s. Newark has attracted a lot of filmmakers over the years – for the unique architecture and atmosphere, for the neighborhoods with cobblestone streets, stuff like that. There are just a lot of great locations in Newark that you can’t find in other cities. And, hopefully, Governor Murphy’s revival of the film tax credit will bring in more projects. I think we’re going to see a lot more film production in Newark, Jersey City, Passaic, Paterson with that fantastic waterfall, Atlantic City with its boardwalk, Asbury Park, Wildwood, and other distinctive locations throughout the state. There’s just so much range and diversity in New Jersey.
CV: So, how did you get your start in the industry?
RW: When I was at East Side High School in Newark, I wanted to write for television. I loved shows like The Twilight Zone. I wanted to write for it. I really liked all the live television dramas – like Kraft Television Theatre, and The United States Steel Hour. They were just so different from stuff like The Lone Ranger. All of that just really captured my imagination. But when I went to college, I got really into theater, and I really believed that that was where I was going to stay. And then, after I’d had some of my work produced for the stage, I got a phone call from Sidney Poitier.
CV: Really? Just out of the blue?
RW: Yep. He had seen a play of mine. One that wasn’t as political as the others. And one of the actors in it was someone who had worked with him on a couple of his films. So, he had come to see her in this play I’d written – to see this actor, not necessarily the play, which was called Gettin’ It Together. It was more of a romantic comedy-drama, as opposed to my more political plays like Black Terror. Morgan Freeman and Beverly Todd were in Gettin’ It Together. Sidney had come to see Beverly. And, for whatever reason, he remembered that play, and when he was looking for a screenwriter for an idea he had, he asked to see me. I ended up writing Uptown Saturday Night at his home in the Bahamas. It was the first time I had ever left the country. That’s how I learned screenwriting. And everything sort of took off from there.
CV: The festival’s Paul Robeson Awards are given out every other season, and this is one of those seasons. What’s the backstory of this award?
RW: It grew out of a relationship that we developed with Paul Robeson Jr. – we had screened many of his father’s films over the years, like Sanders of the River (1935), Body and Soul (1925), Emperor Jones (1933). And those films were always so well-received. Tons of people would come, and they would ask billions of questions during the Q&A with Paul Robeson Jr. – about the films, and certainly about his father. So, when we decided that the festival was going to have an awards season for young filmmakers – to encourage young filmmakers to pursue careers in the industry – there was pretty much a unanimous decision to name it after Paul Robeson, and his son became very much involved in the program, even presenting the awards himself.
RW: It’s for the people. It’s a great way of exposing people to history and culture. I have so many favorite moments from the festival, but what I love most about it is how this festival awakens in young people that inspiration we can get from the arts, and from history. I remember when we screened a newly remastered print of a film called Carmen Jones (1954), and it was a totally sold out house. And I remember seeing this young girl staring up at the screen, at the great actress Dorothy Dandridge, with this look on her face – I just knew that this little girl was not used to seeing black women on screen like that, and she was standing up to see over the heads of the older people in front of her, just full of wonder. And at that moment, I’m sure the same thing was happening for other kids in the audience. I just knew we had done something special for them.
The Newark Black Film Festival runs through August 8, 2018. For more information, visit https://www.newarkmuseum.org/nbff