Reelblack founder Mike Dennis is back in his hometown this week, holding a special screening to celebrate 20 years of making, showing, and celebrating films in Philadelphia.
Dennis hosted monthly West Philly film screenings for over a decade, and on Thursday night he’ll be at the Rotunda on Penn’s campus showing rare cuts from his vast archive of Black films. Over his multifaceted career, he’s found much to be grateful for.
“I always felt that I should be using my skills, my talents, to help amplify the voices of others,” Dennis told Billy Penn.
Looking at list of people he worked with early in their careers — from Chris Rock to John Legend to Jill Scott, Kindred the Family Soul to Jazmine Sullivan to Ava DuVernay and many more — it’s clear this goal has been achieved many times over.
“When I first met [DuVernay] we were driving around in my hoopty eating Chick-fil-A french fries and hustling to screenings and hustling around to different press days to promote a work,” Dennis reminisced.
Beyond his work behind the camera, his curatorial eye and deep archival knowledge generated a popular YouTube channel with myriad vintage films, interviews, TV programs and more covering or related to Black American and diasporic life.
His work in film promotion belies firsthand knowledge of an industry that can still be hard for Black artists to break into. Tellingly, Reelblack was one of the first partners of ARRAY, Ava DuVernay’s independent film distribution company. Today, Dennis still does what he can to help younger filmmakers get their first break into mainstream film production.
“When people say Reelblack, it may mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Dennis. Thursday’s celebration brings it back to where it all started. “When I think of [Reelblack], it’s very strongly attached to my journey as an artist and as a filmmaker here in Philadelphia.”
A ‘continuous showcase’ of Philly art
Dennis was born in Philly and raised in Mt. Airy by his mother and grandparents. A television savant who read and reread “The Film Encyclopedia,” Dennis got an early start. As a self-described “lower middle class” Central High School student, he was labeled a “bright kid.”
“I took advantage of that label and made films in classes at a young age,” Dennis said.
He studied film at NYU, where he collaborated with classmates such as Todd Phillips and Brett Ratner while learning all about guerilla filmmaking. After returning to Philly, he submitted work to the American Film Institute in hopes of receiving a grant. He didn’t get the grant, but was told his work was strong enough that he had a good shot at studying at the Institute. Dennis took the hint, sent in an application, and studied at the AFI in Los Angeles for two years.
Upon a second return to Philly in 1996, Dennis noticed a lack of Black film showcases like he’d seen and contributed to in NYC and LA.
“Larry Smallwood was doing a film festival, but there hadn’t been a continuous showcase specifically for Black film in quite some time,” said Dennis, mentioning Oliver Franklin’s Philadelphia Black Film Festival from the 1970s.
While pondering how to revive such efforts, he became a production assistant on the film adaptation of Toni Morisson’s “Beloved,” which was filmed in Philly. “That was a very validating experience because everything that I had learned in film school I was seeing put into practice,” he recalled.
His road to starting his own screenings began through documenting Philly’s music scene, particularly rappers and the neo soul artists that congregated around the women’s artist development organization Black Lily, brainchild of the duo Jazzyfatnastees.
When it comes to selections chosen for the 20th anniversary screening, “a lot of it is centered around this Black Lily movement that we were blessed to capture,” said Dennis, of years of footage captured with Daryl DeBrest and Craig Carpenter, longtime collaborators and friends.
The movement is most comprehensively covered in Dennis’s 2002 documentary “Jazzyfatnastees: In Process,” one of two films he made in 2002 along with a documentary on Philly lyricist MC Breeze, called “Philly Boy.”
The latter film caught the attention of Gretjen Clausing, the executive director of PhillyCAM who was then working at the Prince Music Theater (since renamed Philadelphia Film Center). Clausing set up a screening of “Philly Boy” and invited Dennis to hold additional showings at the Center City venue.
“Black films that had never made it to VHS were suddenly starting to come out on DVD,” said Dennis. Starting in December 2003, “we were a hit right off the bat with discoveries and rediscoveries in African American film.”
That kicked off 15 years of monthly screenings, which finally wound down in September 2019, just before the pandemic.
A YouTube smash hit
Years of “discoveries and rediscoveries” produced a repository of footage that Dennis had begun to upload to YouTube. Pre-COVID, the Reelblack channel had around 400,000 subscribers.
“The pandemic hit, which was sort of like a perfect storm,” said Dennis. “We had our huge library of content related to the Black experience that was online, and there were a whole bunch of people that were stuck at home.”
Off the back of viral interviews Dennis did with comedian and social critic Dick Gregory, Reelblack’s channel quickly ballooned to over 1.3 million subscribers, who feasted on the vintage footage Dennis had from decades of programming (including a treasure trove of videos covering different aspects of life in Philly). YouTube, however, demonetized his channel — the platform calls the content “unoriginal,” since much of it is repurposed — so he sees very little funds from the films he shares.
But it’s not about the money in that case, he said. “It’s important to the culture, for us to maintain it.”
He did, however, start another channel called Reelblack Two, which is chock full of original interviews Dennis has conducted with other artists over the years, along with other discussions meant to help filmmakers.
Reelblack’s role in promoting work by Black filmmakers isn’t always publicly evident, but it’s a significant part of the story. Dennis and Duvernay’s collaborations particularly focus on the importance of owning one’s work and having control over how it’s presented, something both have prioritized in their careers.
These are messages Dennis continues to share with younger filmmakers in and around Philly, whose work he’s kept up with. While he sees a lot of “really exciting young talent,” there’s still something missing.
“What I have yet to see is the mainstream film industry being a strong enough presence in the city, that it creates a space for local filmmakers to gain experience working on major projects,” said Dennis.
Dennis doesn’t think the film industry is doing enough to make the connections like he had on the set of “Beloved,” but he’s not letting that stop him from doing it himself. A few years ago, when the Kevin Hart-Bryan Cranston comedy “The Upside” was being filmed in Philly, Dennis brought some film students down to the set (he and Hart go back some years).
“I’d been on my independent shoots and worked with students, but I’d never seen one of those big warehouses where they do the [full sets],” Kayla Watkins, now a digital producer at WHYY, told Billy Penn of the experience.
“It was a big step in me feeling like, ‘Oh, I can be a filmmaker.’ I saw Black women on that set, and I had not seen that before.”
This and many other instances of paying it forward have made running Reelblack a lasting joy for Dennis. As the 20th anniversary looms, it’s part of what he sees as the company’s ongoing purpose. Plans to license and re-release classic Black films and eventually film a feature length project are part of the agenda for Reelblack’s future, but Dennis is mostly just grateful to have made film his life’s work.
“That camera has gotten me into a lot of rooms, and through a lot of doorways that I would not have had access to if I didn’t have that skill,” Dennis said, stressing how he wants to ensure those paths are open to those that follow him.
“I want to be of service. I just don’t know what that’s gonna look like.”