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UWM’s Donte McFadden Researches Black Filmmakers

Sep. 7, 2010
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Donte McFadden is a scholar of works by black filmmakers from the United States, continental Africa, Britain and the Caribbean. He is finishing a Ph.D. in the modern studies program of UW-Milwaukee’s English Department.

Let’s start with your work screening films for local festivals.

I help them make conscious choices about which of the available films would be best for the city of Milwaukee. I started in 2005 when the Milwaukee International Film Festival asked me to screen shorts, then Midwest features, then world cinema. In 2008 it was discontinued. Now I’m back on the world cinema committee. That’s not what it’s called, but that’s the idea.

Why did they come to you?

I was involved in film programming for the UWM Union Cinema, and independently. Eventually I’d like to make films. After my B.F.A. in film production from UWM, I decided to pursue my studies to get a more comprehensive understanding of not only what films exist from throughout the African Diaspora, but how those stories are told and how historical moments inform that storytelling.

My master’s thesis is on the films of Julie Dash. She looks at black women in historical contexts. Daughters of the Dust from 1991 is about a family of Gullah people from South Carolina moving to the mainland, while the matriarch tries to make sure the ancestral African traditions stay with them as they travel away. Her short film Illusions is about a light-skinned black woman who uses her ability to pass as white in her fight on behalf of African Americans. Dash’s work was my first opportunity to immerse myself in black independent cinema.

Now I’m writing my dissertation on Charles Burnett, who was, along with Dash, part of the L.A. Rebellion, a collective of African and African-American film students at UCLA in the ’60s, the first known generation of black film students. They looked at working-class families or people struggling with welfare or unemployment—individual stories and perspectives; it’s not monolithic—to counter the dominant images of the blaxploitation movies, to show that other stories of black people could be told on screen.

You’ve also organized poetry events all over the city.

I helped found several that continue. One is “Lyrical Sanctuary,” a free, open-mic poetry/spoken-word series on the second Wednesday of every month at UWM’s Alumni Union Fireside Lounge from 7-10 p.m. We get a good balance of people from all over the city. Show up, sign up and do your thing when they call your name.


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