When Lorenzo Dickerson was in fifth grade at Murray Elementary school, he had to write a book report.
He went down to the school library and came across Extraordinary Black Americans, a book full of dozens of profiles on inventors, politicians, activists, artists, writers and more.
It was a sizable read for the fifth-grader, who read the book, wrote the report and kept checking the book out of the library until Dickerson’s father took note and purchased a copy that his son could call his own.
Extraordinary Black Americans is “what really got me hooked on African American stories, aside from the elders in my family constantly telling me stories,” says Dickerson, now an independent filmmaker who focuses his lens on the African American experience in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and runs the annual Maupintown Film Festival that takes place this week, from July 13 to 15 at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
Dickerson is drawn to film for its ability to hold attention unlike any other storytelling medium. “Being able to hear the stories directly from people who have those experiences, and being able to see their faces as they tell the stories,” is unbeatable, he says.
He learned this in his first documentary film, The Coachman, about one of his ancestors, Warren Dickerson, a descendant of slaves who lived, loved and worked in Albemarle County through the Great Depression, the Great Migration, World War I and World War II. It was a way for Dickerson to capture his research into a single narrative story for his family members.
From that point on, when he saw a movie that moved him and made him think, he wanted to share it with others. “How am I going to get other people to see this?” he thought. He decided to have a film festival.
The first Maupintown Film Festival took place in 2015, at St. John Baptist Church in Cobham, Virginia, on land that Dickerson’s family has lived on for generations—some of them were enslaved on a plantation (now the Castle Hill estate) just across the street.
The theme for the 28 films that will be shown at this year’s festival is “aware of the evidence.” Dickerson says the intention is “to highlight stories that we don’t typically hear. In schools, we’re going to get Harriet Tubman, we’re going to get Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. And then it kind of drops off from there.” They’re important figures, but it’s the same type of story every time. “And a lot of times, you only get that in February,” during black history month, so “that’s part of the reason why the film festival is in July, so we can get this [history] some other time of the year.”
A variety of perspectives are presented at the Maupintown Film Festival, from an animated cartoon about Harriet Tubman to local director Paul Wagner’s 1982 documentary Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle, about a group of Pullman car porters who in the 1920s organized the first African American-led labor organization to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor.
It’s about “bringing awareness to these stories that we don’t often hear and allowing people to understand the experience of [people] of African descent from various parts of the world,” says Dickerson.
There are hyper-local stories in films like Phil Audibert and Ross Hunter’s Someday: The Unexpected Story of School Integration in Orange County, Virginia. Frederick DeShon Murphy’s The American South As We Know It considers African American history in a national sense, examining how African American history began in the South and moved to different parts of the country.
Murphy interviewed community civil rights activists, Negro league baseball players, historians and regular people for his film that he says is ultimately about “the resiliencies of African Americans living in the South, from enslaved people to sharecroppers and people living through and after Jim Crow.”
“A lot of people perished along the way,” says Murphy. They died on slave ships and on plantations, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, their employers and their neighbors. “It could have been easy to give up during Jim Crow…if you’re here today, you spawn from a resilient bloodline. That’s what I push people to understand with this film,” says Murphy. “African American history is American history.”
Ebony Bailey’s 15-minute documentary, Life Between Borders: Black Migrants in Mexico, offers an international perspective. The film focuses mostly on Haitians currently living in Tijuana, Mexico, who are trying to get to the United States. Many of them left Haiti after a 2010 earthquake devastated the island, and went to Brazil in search of work, but when the economic crisis hit that country, they migrated to Mexico. Now, with U.S. immigration laws tightening and changing, they’re settling in Tijuana, having families and opening businesses.
Showing these rich stories at the Maupintown Film Festival emphasizes that local, personal stories can (and do) carry the same weight as national ones. And Dickerson never forgets the impetus for it all—he still has that copy of Extraordinary Black Americans, and he frequently reads it to his children, ages 3 and 6, so that they, too, might get hooked and have a broader understanding of American history, themselves and the world.