Celebrate Black History Month at HoMA’s 2019 African-American Film Festival

The Honolulu African-American Film Festival, Feb. 16 to 20 this year, gives you a chance to see movies never released widely in Hawai‘i. Here’s how it got started.


After living in Hawai‘i for more than three decades, artist John Nichols approached the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2010 with a simple question: Why isn’t there more African-American art on the walls of museums in Hawai‘i? He remembers venting to a friend that he had to travel to New York; Washington, D.C.; and Paris to see African-American art.


“Art and music have always defined the times in which we live. We have a president who is from Hawai‘i, and there’s nothing that indicates that in the museums. It seemed there was a serious gap,” he remembers thinking. “There’s nothing that really resembled me, so I thought, why don’t I just ask?”


Nichols, a UH graduate, didn’t know it then, but that question paved the way for the first African-American film festival in Hawai‘i, at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre in 2012. It has been held every February since then in honor of Black History Month.




After the museum expressed interest in starting a film festival, which could reach broad audiences, Nichols used that momentum to go out into the community to gather a “symphony of people,” as he describes them, who shared the same passion. The committee members came from all walks of life: law, business, education, nonprofit work, journalism and more. They met with the curator to plan the one-week festival and established criteria for the film selection, which focuses on the historic, social, cultural and current issues facing the African-American community.


Just before that first opening night in 2012, Nichols remembers feeling nervous (back when they still used paper tickets and no online purchasing). The committee had worked tirelessly to plan the event. They didn’t know if what they were offering would resonate with people in the Islands. But as waves of people began arriving, Nichols’ jitters turned to relief and excitement.


Later, the committee members celebrated at the Halekūlani, where they discussed the night’s success and film screenings. They have made that a tradition ever since.


21 and Done is being screened at Doris Duke Theatre on Sunday Feb. 17 at 1 p.m.


The film festival has evolved and changed with the times—from 600 attendees that first year to more than double in 2018. One of last year’s powerful screenings included Anita, the story of Anita Hill’s journey to testify about a U.S. Supreme Court nominee’s sexual misconduct allegations. Other memorable films from past years (most of which are not typically shown in Hawai‘i theaters) include Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise and The Trials of Muhammad Ali.


It’s an accomplishment, especially considering all of the committee members are volunteers. They now offer tickets online and have added other events throughout the year that focus on African-American representation. They also host talks and panel discussions that expand on the themes in the films. The number of films featured varies each year, from four last year to more than 10 in 2016.


Mr. SOUL! IS BEING SCREENED AT DORIS DUKE THEATRE ON Sunday, Feb. 17 and Tuesday, Feb. 19.


“We had a bumpy start at first, but every year, it seemed like the word got out and people kept February open,” Nichols says. “I feel very fortunate that the doors were open, and the windows of opportunity were there, so I thought, we should drive a freight train through it. I love the fact that Hawai‘i has given (us) the space to be creative.”


For a schedule of films and events, visit honolulumuseum.org.