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The Film Issue: Charlotte film pioneer Dennis Darrell's legacy lives on

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Films by and about African-Americans (ones that don't star Tyler "Madea" Perry) used to have a home in Charlotte — and that's mostly due to the efforts of the late Dennis Darrell.

Through his film promotion company, Reel Soul Cinema, Darrell (who died May 17, 2010) organized regular Q.C.-based screenings of black films that Hollywood didn't bother to promote. For almost a decade, he launched countless events — like the Shorts in the Spirit short film showcase and the Reel Soul Film Festival — and hosted exhibitions of individual titles like American Violet and Don't Blame the Lettuce. In addition, he brought the stars of those independent titles to town, giving Charlotte a feel of Hollywood, even if it was just for one night.

Osagyefo Torrence, who worked with Darrell for five years, said when the two men began discussing the future of black film and how Charlotte was a great place to house Reel Soul, they instantly clicked. "He was three years into doing film screenings in Charlotte, and we got together and started talking about what would be good films to bring here," Torrence said. "We wanted to create a more profound film scene here in Charlotte."

But without Darrell, many film fans wondered: "What's the future of black cinema in Charlotte?" In his absence, however, several notables work to carry on Darrell's lofty legacy.

Deltas of Charlotte Foundation Inc., the fundraising arm of the Charlotte alumnae chapter of the African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta, has been hosting The Legacy Film Showcase — an annual film showcase event that screens eight award-winning short films by black filmmakers — for eight years.

"The Legacy Film Showcase continues to grow each year," says Ellen Flamer, Deltas of Charlotte Foundation president. "I continue to be amazed at how the Charlotte community supports this event, which generally is a sellout." The latest showcase, in January, paid tribute to Darrell (who served as film consultant to the group).

Over at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Felix Curtis is the man behind the Classic International Black Cinema Series, which, he says, is "designed to show the artistic value of films throughout history and create an appreciation for black cinema." Curtis, who moved here from California five years ago, wanted to highlight movies that have been lost since the 1920s and 1930s when numerous black films were being produced by black companies and shown in black theaters.

"I started it last year, initially to create an activity for people to come to the Center on Sundays," said Curtis. "It was a downtime for the center, and I thought that it would be appropriate to do classic films — ones that I thought were artistically keeping with the theme of the Center."

Curtis chooses films for the series (which is free to attend, with museum admission) that aren't your typical classic black movies. "I try to pick films that didn't have wide distribution and weren't really known," he said. "Yet, they have excellent production and acting."

The new season of the Classic International Black Cinema Series began on Jan. 9. On March 13, Curtis will host a screening of Mark of the Hawk starring Sidney Poitier, beginning at 2 p.m.

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