Since 1991, Pittsburgh Citiparks has celebrated Black History Month with elaborate displays inside the lobby of the City-County Building, Downtown. This year the lobby will be decorated with famous faces from Hollywood — actors, directors, writers and producers, most with Pittsburgh ties.
It’s titled A History of Film: A Tribute to the Contributions of African Americans on Film. Organizer Dodi Byrne says focusing on African Americans in Hollywood seemed like a natural progression for the display.
“In past years we did displays on writers, musicians, playwrights. A year or two ago, we did a display on comic-book artists. So this year, I thought, ‘Why not film?’” Byrne says. “It’s a [medium] that reaches the [widest] demographic in the world. I thought that would be good and it’s just sort of taken off on its own. “
“On one side of the lobby, we’ll have a display tracking [over] the decades the roles that African Americans have had, and how the roles have evolved,” Byrne explains. “From the not-so-great roles of the 1910s [and] 1920s, to today where you have the Denzels and your James Earl Jones and their very powerful leading roles. Not only that, [but] they are writers and directors and producers in the business now, too. The other side of the lobby is going to be dedicated to African-American actors and actresses from Pittsburgh. I’ll have their headshots and their biographies on the wall.”
The exhibit kicks off with a meet-and-greet presentation on Mon., Feb. 1, on the main floor of the City-County Building. There will be a reception and presentations from two young local women making names for themselves in the industry.
Former Miss Pennsylvania USA Kimmarie Johnson grew up in Wilkinsburg. She went from modeling to Beverly Hills 90210 to entrepreneurship with her line of skin-care products, SkinGlow by Kimmarie. Johnson will be speaking about her challenges in the industry. Sharing the stage with her will be writer/producer/director Najaa Young from Homewood. Young’s directorial debut, Blood First, wrapped in 2014 and hit screens last year. Filmed in and around Pittsburgh, particularly in Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer, Blood First tells the story of two brothers caught up in criminal activities, which are all too common in poverty-stricken areas.
“[Shooting here] was amazing,” Young says. “Everyone was so supportive. I think people were really tripped out that we were actually from Pittsburgh. In the neighborhoods we shot in, most people don’t come there to shoot film at all. If they get any press at all, it’s negative. But I have to tell you our experiences there were amazing.”
Young says the local business owners were very supportive, opening their doors during the hot summer shoot to let the cast and crew cool off in the air conditioning.
“Some of these people I didn’t truly know … they were just happy we were there doing something positive,” Young says. “I had people walking up to me while I’m standing by the monitor, watching the scene. Some of the crew were like, ‘That doesn’t annoy you?’ Not really. Because they’ve never seen anyone make a movie before. That’s something that I want them to see.
“This is the process. This is how it’s done. And I wanted to be accessible to them. Filmmaking is a skill. You go somewhere and you learn about it and you put that into practice. It’s not that unattainable.”
The role of African Americans in the film industry is a hot topic due to the recent charges that artists of color were snubbed by this year’s Academy Awards. While Young admits that this year’s absence is aggravating, she adds, “I have to ask you this — how is this any different from any other year? The Academy Awards [voters are mostly] older white men. Am I ever surprised by anything they don’t do? Nope, I’m not. I’m not begging to sit at your table or begging for recognition from you. I’m going to create my own table, and recognize who I think is important. Period.”
For Byrne, the Academy’s omissions are more egregious. “There were so many talented performances, and how they could disregard that is just beyond me,” she says.
Asked about the ongoing relevance of Black History Month, Byrne offers the perfect response to those who debate its value. “How far back does history go? You’re never going to be able to stop rediscovering new things and new pieces of history turning up. I don’t see it ever stopping. I don’t see why it should,” Byrne says.