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Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - New York transplant and film buff Ariella Tai made women filmmakers the focus of this year Portland Black Film Festival. Six films will take on issues of race, gender, identity, politics, music and more. Melissa Lowery grew up in the 1980s in West Linn — one of the only black kids in her school and community.

She had no black friends and no black teachers, but not knowing any other reality, she calls it a “fairly normal, suburban childhood experience.”

Now at age 39 with two school-age daughters of her own, she’s reminded of the questions she used to field from her classmates, like “’Hey, I just saw a black guy walking down the street; is that your cousin?’ ”

And her feelings of irritation when people used to touch her hair without asking, because it was different.

It wasn’t until her senior year in high school, when an influx of Spanish speakers came to her school, that she formed a “minority club” and felt she could talk about being black.

“It was so exciting,” she says, “being able to say I don’t like it when people ask questions about other black people, because I don’t know every black person in the world.”

It’s this frank discussion of race that Lowery has been sparking again with a film she produced called “Black Girl in Suburbia.”

With interviews of local educators and students, the hour-long film is one of six that will show at the Portland Black Film Festival, set for Feb. 5-21 at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland.

All of the films explore race, identity and culture in different ways. All are made by black women this year — a change from the festival’s prior two years, when they were just by black filmmakers.

And all of the film screenings are followed by discussions. In Portland, race-based issues — like gentrification, police shootings and school-based inequities — have been a source of major tension.

“Race is a scary four-letter word that puts people on edge,” Lowery says. “I just made this film for my daughter. Seeing it’s opened a door and a window for people to express themselves has been such a blessing.”

New focus

Now in its third year, film festival organizer David Walker brought on a new curator, New York City transplant Ariella Tai.

Tai, a 27-year-old film student graduate, immediately found a new focus for the festival this year: black women filmmakers.

“I love all film. I studied East German film, westerns; I love everything, but I think it’s also important to talk about who we’re not talking about — what voices we’re erasing,” says Tai, who moved to Northeast Portland two years ago.

“Black women have been making films since people have been making movies,” she says. “But there’s a lack of education, lack of distribution of these movies, lack of opportunities for people to see these movies.”

In addition to “Black Girl in Suburbia,” she chose both narrative and documentary films that deal with everything from politics and slavery to music and urban youth.

With “Black Girl in Suburbia,” Lowery is the only Oregon filmmaker in this year’s series.

Fresh off a media degree from Pacific University four years ago, she decided to make the film to explore her experience to that of her daughters: 12-year-old Jayla and 10-year-old Ché. “It hasn’t varied much,” Lowery says. “Our experiences are very similar.”

Portland Public Schools has attempted to tackle racial inequities in the school system by adopting a Racial Educational Equity Policy and continuing its “Courageous Conversations about Race” training for teachers and administrators.

Now in its eighth year, the program’s value is yet to be proven.

Lowery says she’s interested in seeing how it plays out in the classroom in coming years. “Diversity trainings have not been successful,” she says. “White teachers have said after leaving diversity training they feel bad about being white, instead of feeling enlightened. There’s no take-back into the classroom.”

She hopes teachers can bridge the gap between the mandatory training and practices that impact students and bring positive changes.

For now, Lowery is hoping to make a difference, one theater at a time.

She’s held close to 20 screenings of “Black Girl in Suburbia” since its release in the fall, at Multnomah County libraries; public and private high schools, colleges and universities; and workplaces across the Portland metro area.

At least 15 showings more are set for this spring, including all four campuses of Portland Community College in February and Portland Public Schools’ documentary series March 19.

Lowery attends every screening, gratified each time someone in the audience speaks up.

At one screening, she recalls, “there was a white woman who was very nervous. ... She was struggling her whole life; she was afraid of black people.”

It was “refreshing” to hear such honesty, Lowery says, since she knows many people are afraid they’ll be labeled a racist.

“I could tell she felt great relief,” Lowery says. “I gave her a hug, said thank you. ... It was a moment I’ll never forget.”


The 3rd annual Portland Black Film Festival is set for Feb. 5-21 at the Hollywood Theatre. The film lineup includes:

  • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5, “Daughters of the Dust” (1991), exploring the culture of the Gullah people, descendants of slaves who live in relative isolation on the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast. Directed by Julie Dash.
  • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7, “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), a Southern gothic drama about a family falling apart. Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
  • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” (2012), a documentary about activist Angela Davis, a UCLA professor whose affiliation with the Communist Party and the Black Panthers landed her on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. Directed by Shola Lynch.
  • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” (1992), a story about a high school girl’s dreams of escape from poverty. Directed by Leslie Harris.
  • 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, “Soul Train Express: The Sisters,” featuring the best of “Soul Train” performances by female singers and bands including Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Chaka Khan.
  • 2 p.m. Feb. 21, “Black Girl in Suburbia” (2015), exploring race and identity in communities and schools. Directed by Melissa Lowery.
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