After graduating from high school, McClenon enrolled in The New School in New York City before transferring to the University of Maryland, closer to home, to study sculpture. There, she got into film through an independent study program and began making videos. Producing and showcasing her work provided a cathartic outlet for McClenon.
“It was helpful knowing that while I was dealing with anxiety, I could still have a creative functionality that was very valuable to me,” says McClenon, who now lives in Chicago.
McClenon’s 2015 project “He Kind of Like Skips Over Me and Tells All My African American Friends to Go Sit Down” is one of more than 80 films that will be shown at the Smithsonian’s inaugural African American Film Festival. The short film is inspired by a 2015 civil case in Texas in which a police officer was caught on camera restraining an unarmed black teenager while responding to an incident at a pool party. The title is taken from a quote from one of the white teens in attendance.
“The footage was shot underwater, and then I layered it with historical clips of African-American resorts,” McClenon says of her film. “It’s a statement to black people having problems with being in certain communities and also having access to swimming pools.”
Sharing these types of stories is an integral part of the festival, according to Rhea Combs, the event’s lead organizer and curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The four-day festival — taking place at the museum as well as the Freer and Sackler galleries and the National Gallery of Art from Wednesday through Oct. 27 — highlights films with African-American narratives, ranging from contemporary works like McClenon’s and the Netflix documentary “Quincy,” to classics such as the 1978 movie “Killer of Sheep” and the 1964 documentary short “Malcolm X: Struggle for Freedom.” Most of the films (McClenon’s included) were selected by the museum and several guest curators, while 15 were chosen by a jury of industry professionals for the festival’s competition.
“There will be a little something for everyone,” Combs says, “from contemporary experimental works to documentaries and older narratives that are restored and shown the way the artist intended.”
The schedule also includes workshops, panel discussions and networking opportunities. Each of the first three days of the event has a theme based on an exhibition at the museum: “Making a Way Out of No Way,” which focuses on resilience and activism in the black community; “Power of Place,” which centers on how African-Americans have formed their own communities and identities in the face of adversity; and “Cultural Expressions,” which profiles African-American traditions. The last day features a mix of all three themes.
“It was important for us not to just have a jury select some of the featured films, but to spotlight the collection at the museum,” Combs says.
One of the 15 films selected for competition is “Solace,” the debut feature from Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tchaiko Omawale.
“Insecurity and racism is how I ended up as a director,” Omawale says bluntly. She had always wanted a career in the entertainment industry, but her struggles with an eating disorder and self-mutilation deterred her from performing onstage. She instead pursued a film studies degree at Columbia University and took an interest in directing.
“I wanted to make a film for young black folks who don’t get to see themselves on screen in the way that I decided to portray us in ‘Solace,’ ” she says.
The 2018 film is a coming-of-age story about 17-year-old Sole, who is sent to stay with her only living relative — her estranged grandmother — after her father passes away. Besides adjusting to her new life in Los Angeles, Sole also battles an ongoing eating disorder. Her life is further complicated after she befriends her rebellious neighbor Jasmine. The film’s cast is composed entirely of African-American actors.
“When coming-of-age films dealt with adolescence and rebelliousness, I never saw any black people that I could identify with,” Omawale says.
This is one of several reasons the Smithsonian African American Film Festival needs to exist, Combs says. She anticipates the event becoming an annual or biennial celebration, though nothing has been set in stone yet.
“It’s important to create an opportunity that is a tool for empowerment and showcases the undertold stories of black history,” Combs says.
For Omawale, the festival has an even more personal meaning. To her, the event represents not only an opportunity for filmmakers of color, but a step forward for humanity.
“As an immigrant, being a part of this festival feels like I’m participating in being an American,” she says. “I feel more culturally a part of it. For me, that means a lot.” — Stephanie Williams
Various locations; Wed. through Oct. 27, various times and prices. “He Kind of Like Skips Over Me …”: Freer /Sackler, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Oct. 27, 5 p.m., sold out. “Solace”: National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; Oct. 26, 10:30 a.m., $10. Go to aafilmfest.si.edu for details.