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10 mins read

Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival: Where Black Film is High Art

For the past several years, some of my closest East Coast friends and I have made an annual trek. For me, it’s only required me hopping in the car and driving down Kelly Drive headed towards West Philly. For others, they’ve made their way up or down 95 to experience what has become known as “The Black Sundance.” BlackStar Film Festival (BSFF) is indeed a fantastical experience. It’s kind of like Howard Homecoming for a niche group of very smart, very artistic and very BLACK group of people. Each year, filmmakers from around the Diaspora shoot their best shot and send their films in because at BSFF, it’s not about celebrity or caché, it’s simply about really nuanced storytelling.

Unlike other spaces where our stories are reduced to one dimensional caricature-ridden tales that don’t represent the breath, depth or dynamism of who we are as a people, globally, BlackStar achieves something altogether different. Inside of the films and conversations at the West Philly-based festival, brilliant and quirky Black people get to be.  And by being, we are seen, on a wide screen and mostly importantly, we are able to see ourselves within the fabric of the complexity of the Black human experience.

For its 7th iteration, I sat down with my dear friend, BlackStar Founder, Maori Holmes, to talk about why BlackStar is so amazing and why so many film lovers keep coming back for more.

Shantrelle P. Lewis


SB: You’ve been overseeing the production of the festival since you founded it in 2012. With the enormous task of fundraising and organizing, I know at times it feels like a huge labor of love. Why do you keep coming back?

MH: I am not quite sure. LOL. The first year I was so shocked by the public response that I felt compelled to do it again and when you hear folks’ stories of how they were transformed by seeing someone’s work or meeting a new collaborator, it is enough to continue doing this.  It is also been a really generative opportunity for me–stretching as a leader, sharpening my fundraising and marketing skills, learning some harder lessons along the way, and also having an opportunity to curate just as I see fit to… That’s priceless.

SB: When did you first fall in love with film?

I am not sure about this either. But likely in high school. It occurred to me that my interests in theater, visual arts, fashion, journalism, and history could all be utilized within this one form.

I realized the other day when having a conversation with one of my best friends (Rashid) that most of my “favorite” films that had a deep emotional impact  on me were made in the early 90s when I was in high school and my mom was dating an independent filmmaker and we spent every weekend at the cinema. Much of our family time at home was spent watching films. I was seeing 3-4 films a week at that time and it was glorious.


SB: Illustrator Andrea Pippins has created the principal branding for the festival for the past few years. Additionally, you’ve had collaborations with The Barnes Foundation and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Why has it been so critical for you to infuse visual art in a cinematic festival?

MH: I don’t really see any boundaries between visual art and cinema. They speak the same language for the most part. So many of our filmmakers are themselves finding success bridging spaces, so it’s an organic happening, really.

I didn’t seek it out on purpose. Andrea was my neighborhood and I always wanted to work with her, I was doing some freelance curating at The Barnes (in performance, which is another love) and an opportunity to collaborate on BlackStar emerged, and ICA initially approached me before we collaborated since we were working with many of the same artists.

blackstar film festival

SB: This year’s short program is robust. Are filmmakers leaning more towards shorts as an artistic decision or do you think it’s due to road blocks that Black filmmakers face when trying to make feature length projects?

MH: I think that short films are easier to get made because they cost less money and people are more forgiving of spending 8 or 14 minutes with a work and it not being ‘perfect’ versus 90-120 minutes. Some writers are gifted at short storytelling and it is definitely a different form than features, but I don’t think all shorts are made because there are roadblocks to making features… some people prefer the short form.

Here on out

SB: Storytellers from around the Diaspora submit their projects to the festival. Given the idea that Blackness is not a monolith, do you ever find continuity in the the stories being told? 

MH: There are definitely threads between the stories and it is often how we present the work, exposing or illuminating those threads and connective tissues.


SB: There are several Black focused film festivals. What sets BlackStar apart from the platforms that existed prior to you founded it?

MH: BlackStar is chiefly focused on independent filmmakers and additionally it has politics at its center rather than on the margins or an afterthought.

SB: What are you most excited about for the 7th iteration of the festival?

MH: Terence’s debut of his show RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS.

blackstar film festival

I was absolutely thrilled to hear that Terence’s sneak preview of Random Acts of Flyness would happen at BlackStar the night before it premiers on HBO. The NYTimes asked whether or not America is ready for Terence’s mind. Is America ready? Better yet, is Black America ready?

MH:  I think that Black America is ready… 

SB: What makes Philadelphia the perfect landscape for BlackStar? Have you ever considered taking it to another city?

MH: Philadelphia has an incredible tradition of film scholarship and taking cinema seriously. Our current location in University City is also a great campus vibe with our other venues in walking distance.

Haint Business

SB: What’s next for you as a filmmaker and curator?

MH: I am currently co-curating a series with Kahlil Joseph at the Underground Museum which takes place every Friday. That will run through October. After which I hope to regroup and get focused on what will happen next.

SB: Who are some of the Black vendors/businesses that you support to produce the  festival?

MH: We use Replica for some of our printing. We work with the Artisan Cafe of course. This year we partnered with Akwaaba Inn for our pre-festival reception. We are working with a black yoga instructor (Jean-Jacques Gabriel).

SB: Out of all of the films you’ve seen, what Black stories have yet to be told?

MH: I am still waiting on a story about growing up Pan-African



BlackStar is happening everyday this weekend. In addition to films, there are panels and other programming at Lightbox Film Center, ICA and Pearlstein Gallery. Tickets to individual films are $12 for the general public and $8 for seniors and students. All of the panels are free and open to the public.

Click here to see the full schedule!

7 mins read

Underground Railroad Station Found in Philadelphia

From the outside, 625 South Delhi Street looks like an average Philadelphia rowhouse.

But in the 1850s, it was home to Underground Railroad leaders William and Letitia Still. Within the house’s narrow confines, they sheltered hundreds of escapees and gave well-known figures like Harriet Tubman shelter.

The William & Letitia Still House at 625 South Delhi Street. (PlanPhilly)

Looking at this almost 180-year-old rowhouse just off South Street, preservation activist Oscar Beisert says that its stoop appears to be the original marble from the 19th century.

“We don’t even have basic African-American landmarks protected in Philadelphia…[so] finding that stoop where she [Tubman] potentially arrived with people from Maryland, that’s what I think is really incredible about what we have here,” said Beisert.

On Friday, Beisert and preservationist James Duffin successfully argued that the house deserves a place on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The designation —  unanimously supported by the Philadelphia Historical Commission — means that the structure can’t be demolished or significantly altered unless the commission grants an exemption to the property owner.

The house is owned by an entity called F&J Homes LLC, which acquired it last year. They did not contest the nomination.

The campaign to protect the house featured an unusual amount of backing from experts outside of Philadelphia, including Columbia University Professor of History Eric Foner and Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.

“In the current cultural moment, Americans are reassessing which historical figures and events are worthy of public remembrance and commemoration,” wrote Bunch in a letter supporting Duffin and Beisert. “In this context, the extraordinary movements in which Still was engaged are becoming increasingly visible and essential elements of a renewed national story.”

The story that the advocates use to bolster their case focuses on William Still, who moved to Philadelphia in 1844 and later began working for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

As the chairman of the organization’s Vigilance Committee, he orchestrated the Underground Railroad activities in Philadelphia and across the country. One historian described him as “second only to Harriet Tubman in Underground Railroad operations.” Between 1850 and 1855, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act — which required that Northern states assist in capturing escaped slaves — Stills and his wife Letitia sheltered hundreds of escapees in their home.

In one case cited in the preservationists’ brief, Still rescued a woman and her two sons from enslavement within sight of the white Southerner claiming ownership. The encounter happened as the party was about to cross from Philadelphia to Camden on the ferry.

African-American dock workers barred the white Southerner from making contact with the family while Still and an accomplice spirited them back into the city. The case made national news when Still and his allies were arrested. The story was eventually novelized as The Price of a Child.

In a photo contained in the brief, Stills is shown lifting the lid of a three-foot-long, two-and-a-half foot deep, and two-foot-wide box.  The box held a man: Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia to escape slavery.

“Some images have Frederick Douglass lifting the lid of the box,” said Duffin. “But that’s just because everyone knew who he was. Douglass actually wasn’t in Philadelphia at that time. It was Still.”

Still is also renowned for writing one of the only firsthand African-American penned accounts of the movement, titled simply, “The Underground Railroad.” It is 800 pages long and includes dozens of individual tales of escape. (“It was, in essence, the first African-American encyclopedia,” writes Joe Lockard, professor of English at Arizona State University and founder of the Anti-Slavery Literature Project.)

Many prominent historians like Foner and Lockard wrote letters to the Historical Commission in support of the nomination. They uniformly praised the advocates’ scholarship, noting that many properties supposedly connected to the railroad do not hold up to scrutiny. But they found Duffin’s scholarship impeccable.

Duffin discovered the house by poring over city records, cross-referencing the address with maps, and advertisements for Letitia’s business in abolitionist newspapers from the 1850s.

Many of the historians emphasized the house’s importance in the context of the national debate about Confederate monuments, and which aspects of United States history to commemorate.

Foner, for one, said he wants to see more symbols of emancipation and black history elevated rather than simply having the Confederate statues torn down.

“Personally, I prefer to add new historic sites to make the representation of history more accurately reflect our diverse past and present,” writes Foner, author of “Gateway to Freedom,” “and to honor those who fought against slavery as well as those who went to war to defend it. Thus, designating the Still home as a historic property would be a statement… about what in our past we choose to honor and why.”

 by Jake Blumgart – PlanPhilly
2 mins read

Philly’s Only Black Owned Cable Provider Bought By Comcast

Comcast announced it has acquired the cable assets of Black owned cable provider , Wilco Electronic Systems, Inc., a provider of paid television and other services to many residents of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).
 Since the 1970s, Wilco has offered television services to approximately 9,000 PHA housing residents.
The company’s president and founder, Will Daniel, will transition to Chairman of the Board of Wilco, which will continue to operate under current leadership and provide telecom services that include residential and commercial security and surveillance solutions.
Brigitte Daniel, executive vice president of Wilco Electronic Systems, and her father, Will Daniel, president of Wilco Electronic Systems.
Wilco Executive Vice President Brigitte Daniel, and Chief Financial Officer Perry Daniel, will also serve as consultants to Comcast to ensure a smooth transition for Wilco’s cable subscribers.
“We are happy to reach an agreement with Comcast that will now offer PHA residents the ability to be able to reap the benefits of its Internet Essentials program as well as many other advanced technologies,” said Will Daniel.
“The opportunity for PHA communities to obtain these services through Comcast, which was founded by my personal friend Ralph Roberts, is an important step in bridging the digital divide here in Philadelphia.”
In a separate transaction, PHA approved the transfer of Wilco’s license agreement to Comcast.

“Residents of our conventional development communities will now have many more options, including Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and the ability to bundle their innovative products through a single provider,” said PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah.

“The ability to bring Internet Essentials to PHA residents at our traditional public housing sites will be a tremendous step forward in bridging the digital divide.”


Comcast anticipates that residents will be able to start taking advantage of Xfinity products and services within the next year.
Source: Comcast
1 min read

Marc Lamont Hill Opens a Coffee Shop & Bookstore in Philadelphia

Marc Lamont Hill introduces us to his new business, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books and explains why we should all Shoppe Black.

Visit Uncle Bobbies online or at 5445 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19144

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson (IG @thebusyafrican)





3 mins read

Black Owned Businesses in Philly That You Should Know

As we speak, Philly is hosting the 2017 NFL Draft. Reports say this event will pump  tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

Seems like a great time to shout out some more Black owned businesses in the area.

Black Owned Businesses in Philly

900AM-WURD is the only Black owned and operated talk radio station in Pennsylvania, and one of few in the country.

Black Owned


Wilco is one of the last remaining Black owned cable operators in the U.S. They are also the largest privately owned Black owned cable provider in the Philadelphia area.


Duke Barber Co. specializes in traditional barber cuts and shaves. ​”We are home to several of Philadelphia’s finest and most talented master barbers.”

Silver Legends offers an array of exceptionally crafted handbags, precious and semiprecious stones, sterling silver jewelry and much more.

Reef Restaurant & Lounge serves classic Caribbean fare reworked with a Southern American accent in an bright aquarium-like setting.

Hakim’s Bookstore is the city’s oldest Black owned bookstore.

Stripp’d Juice offers old-pressed juices, acai bowls & other health-conscious offerings in a cool, industrial-chic nook.

E’TAE Products is a natural hair product line made for all hair types that can make the hair healthy, manageable, and moisturized.

The mission of the Afro American Music Institute is to provide systematic, specialized instrumental training in all styles of the African American music traditions such as Jazz, Blues, Gospel and Negro Spirituals.

The Sable Collective offers clothing, jewelry, art, books, body care and housewares intentionally selected for our beauty, joy and wellness.

The Colored Girls Museum is a memoir museum, which honors the stories, experiences, and history of Colored Girls.

Relish: Modern southern fare meets live jazz at this stylish fine-dining room, plus a popular Sunday brunch.

dermHA specializes in providing customized skin treatments for sensitive and problem skin.


Omega Optical is a provider of quality vision care and products and personalized optometric services.

Ms Tootsies is a multilevel restaurant & lounge, known for its soul food classics, also offers a take-out cafe.


At Tucker Law Group, LLC you will find a strong and dedicated team of accomplished trial lawyers. The firm has tried more than 100 cases to verdict in Federal and state courts.

Vixens Hair Studio is a beauty salon that specializes in natural hair.

Rose Petals Cafe and Lounge is a full service cafe/restaurant that specializes in breakfast and lunch.


You can also see our first list of Philly businesses here.

Advertise your business with us

6 mins read

29 Black Owned Businesses in Philadelphia

I recently moved to Philadelphia and I must say, as someone who loves art and food, the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t disappoint. Apart from great restaurants and hole in the wall “hood spots”,  the city has a thriving art scene and an up and coming tech startup scene. Check out some of the many Black Owned Businesses that have got you covered if you live here, decide to visit or are doing some online shopping.

Black owned Businesses

Veronica Marché is a freelance illustrator who’s artwork features women of all ethnicities and celebrates the glamour of a multicultural world.


Warm Daddy’s is an atmospheric soul food establishment known for live blues and R&B sets plus a Sunday jazz brunch. – Owners: Robert and Benjamin Bynum


The African American Museum in Philadelphia presents the achievements and aspirations of African Americans from pre-colonial times to the current day. – CEO: Patricia Wilson


BlackStar Film Fest is a celebration of cinema focused on work by and about people of African descent. – Founder & Artistic Director: Maori Karmel


S&B Event Concepts and Catering is family owned and operated full service event planning and off-premise catering company. Owner: Sodiah Thomas


Duafe Holistic Hair Care‘s mission as an elite and holistic hair salon is to ensure that each client gets the best and most professional service available. – CEO: Syreeta Scott


Paris Bistro and Jazz Cafe is a snazzy neighborhood eatery with classic French bistro fare & a downstairs lounge with weekend jazz. – Owners: Robert and Benjamin Bynum


Maxamillion’s Gentlmen’s Quarter is a a networking destination where you can get a fresh cut and have great conversations with Philly’s movers & shakers. – Owner: Maxamillion A.J. Wells III


1617 Master Barbers and Stylists bring you the ultimate experience in OLD school professionalism with NEW school flavor. – Owner: Talib Abdul Mujib


Ton’Sure Grooming Studio offers the feel of a classic barber shop with a touch of modern day technology. – Owners: Kenny Tha Barber and Chink da barber

4df1ff27884803.5636c37880351Nile cafe is a laid-back, counter-serve eatery specializing in plentiful portions of vegan & vegetarian soul food and desserts. It gets my personal stamp of approval. – Co- Owners Aqkhira and Khetab Corinaldi


Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is a comic book store and coffee house for fans, hardcore gamers, movie addicts, television connoisseurs. – Founder: Ariell R. Johnson


Blue Sole Shoes is a shoe store specializing in fashion-forward footwear for men in styles from dress to casual. – Owner: Steve Jamison.


Little Delicious is neighborhood hole in the wall that serves hearty portions of Caribbean dishes. I give this one my personal stamp of approval also.


Koco Nail Salon & Wax Studio is a quaint boutique pampering destination that offers a quaint boutique pampering destination. – Owner: Onisha Claire


United Bank of Philadelphia is the only Black owned and managed community bank in Philadelphia –  President & CEO: Evelyn F. Smalls

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 11.42.38 PM

2B Groomed Studios offers stylish haircuts, facials, a wide variety of shaving options, beard coloring, bump extraction and complimentary shoe buffing with every service. – Owner: Jahmal Rhaney


Onehunted closes the gap between smart consumers and products that align with their values. Owner : Isaac Ewell

Philadelphia Print Works is a t-shirt company that encourages a culture of activism and inclusion. – Donte Neal, designer and Maryam Pugh, owner and co-founder.

black owned


Team Clean is a premier commercial janitorial service company, and is the largest woman and minority-owned company in the greater Philadelphia area. – Owner: Donna L. Allie, PhD.


Iron Lady Enterprises is a construction and concrete reinforcement contractor and supplier of construction materials. – Owner: Dianna Montague.



Kilimandjaro Restaurant – Senegalese fare served in casual, warm-hued quarters with African artwork & artifacts. – Owner: Youma Bah


Mellow Massage Therapy Center is home to a team of licensed wellness therapists who strive daily to bring restorative therapeutic treatments to their clients. – Owner: Gerrae Simons


Black and Nobel  – Independently owned store featuring books, DVDs, art & events related to African-American culture. – Owned by Hakim Hopkins


Color Book Gallery is the nation’s oldest multicultural children’s bookstore. It offers has retail operations, reading activities, seminars, educational displays and exhibits. – Owner: Deborah Gary


Natures Hair Food products are chemical free products that contain all natural ingredients that promote hair growth and restores the hair to a healthy, lustrous state. – Owner: Angela Tyler


B’ella Ballerina Dance Academy is a non-profit organization that offers a comprehensive dance curriculum to students ages three and up. Founded & directed by Roneisha Smith-Davis


Little Giant Creative works with local and national companies to develop custom brand strategies, design collateral, and awareness promotions. – Founder: Tayyib Smith


The Philadelphia Tribune, founded in 1884 by Christopher James Perry, Sr., is America’s oldest and the Greater Philadelphia region’s largest daily newspaper serving the African-American community. – President & CEO: Robert W. Bogle


Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

9 mins read

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse: Philly’s Black Woman Owned Haven for Geeks

The world of comic books has become big business. Comics that used to cost less than a dollar are now million dollar collector items.

Comic book character-based movies are grossing millions of dollars world wide. Even events like Comic-Con have become huge international conventions, while gatherings like the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention are growing in popularity.SynergyConart2One lady who has taken her love for comic books and turned it into a business is Ariell Johnson, founder of Philadelphia-based, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. We recently chatted with her and this is what she had to say:


How did your love for comic books begin and what is it about them that interests you till this day?

I have always loved fantasy.  He-Man, She-Ra and Thundercats were mainstays for me growing up.  And it was a cartoon that would launch me into the world of comic books. 

The 90’s X-men cartoon that aired on Fox introduced me to Storm, the first Black woman superhero I ever saw, and it was an experience that stayed with me. 


She was such a powerful and interesting character and I wanted to learn more about her.  I knew she originated in comic books so I figured if I really wanted to know more about her I would need to start reading them. 

A friend in high school was also a huge X-men fan and a comic book collector, so my comic reading started there with his collection.  I started buying my own comics a little later when I was in college.

I still enjoy comics because I love the endless possibilities that they offer.  They can introduce you to entirely new worlds, new universes, and they help you think outside of the box.
You have described yourself as a “geek”. What does being a geek mean to you and what is “geek culture”?
To me a geek is anyone who gets excited about comics, books, movies, television, games, and pop culture.  You can “geek” about anything really. 
You can be a Sci-Fi geek, but not really care about superhero stuff.  You can love table top gaming but hate console gaming.  There are no hard and fast rules that dictate who is a geek, but you know them when you meet them. LOL.
Geek culture is the realm in which geeks live.  Much like any culture, it is made up of different things from language and style of dress to how you treat another geek when you meet them in passing. 
It is also very broad but the common thread that links all aspects of geek culture is the excitement that those who identify as geeks have for their fandoms.  
 You have stated that there needs to be more diversity in comic books. Why do you feel it is important for all types of people to see themselves in these publications? 
As I mentioned, Storm was the first Black woman superhero that I ever saw.  I think that if I had never been introduced to Storm as a child I would have probably grown out of my love for geeky things. 
Seeing a black woman as a superhero was life changing for me.  Before, it always felt like I was watching everyone else be the hero, but seeing Storm made me feel like I could be a hero too. 
I didn’t have to be on the sidelines, I could take part in the action.  That’s what representation does, it helps people see themselves in the stories they are reading. 
When you are represented, it’s like someone is saying to you “your story is worth being told…you are worth learning about”.  And that just feels plain old good, everyone wants to be valued.
 Obviously, you did research before starting your business. What data and statistics let you know that opening Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse would be a great idea?
I spoke to a few different comic professionals and coffee professionals when I was working on my business plan.  My biggest concern was about the comics.  Coffee shops are mainstays in our current way of life. 
The biggest challenges on the coffee side have to do with location and making sure you have a solid customer base that can afford your product.
Comics are a little different because in addition to being luxury items they are also a niche item.  Not everyone is
interested in comics, so you need to make sure you are in a good location where you will have access to your target market.
I used demographic research as well as plotting out the location of other coffee shops and comic book stores to choose Amalgam’s location and I used comic industry resources and articles to gauge the current climate of the comic book industry.  
Where do you get your comic books from and how do you choose which ones to buy?
Most comics come from Diamond Comic Distributors.  They are the exclusive distributors for mainstays such as Marvel and DC.  The independent stuff is a little harder to come by. 
We have to reach out to individual publishers to get those books.  It’s a little more time consuming, but definitely worth it.  We have also had a fair share of creators reaching out to us, asking us to carry their books in our store.  
How did you finance the business?
Funds from the business came from a few different sources.  My own personal savings, a crowdfunding campaign, support from friends and family, a special loan program through the City of Philadelphia, and traditional loans.  
 What are your future plans for Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse?
We will start holding events in our space starting in February, and we are all really excited about that, but other than that we are just focused on getting settled. 
We’ve only been open for a month, and getting to this point was a really long road.  I just want to take a minute to enjoy the accomplishment before we start thinking about what comes next.  
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I think anything worth doing is going to be hard.  You are going to hit bumps and obstacles along the road to whatever you are trying to build. 
Those things are to be expected, but they are still tough to deal with when you have to go through them.  So, the best advice I can give is to surround yourself with people who love and support you and your dream. 
Having my family and friends around me, people who could speak an encouraging word when I had a tough day, was the thing that kept me going even when I didn’t feel like it.  It’s such a small thing, but it makes such a huge difference.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson aka @thebusyafrican