How a Traveling Black-Owned Theater is Making Strides for Black Films

By Tiara James- Staff Writer


In Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was the setting forrenowned film director Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing,there are no major movie cinemas. And while residents can easily head to Downtown Brooklyn, where several options exist, they still have to leave their immediate surroundings to get there.


One venue that is hoping to change things is the Luminal Theater, which is a nomadic microcinema thatspecializes in showcasing black films. (The theater is“nomadic” due to it having a different location with each event). Even though the Luminal is open to viewers of all races and cultures, it is run by black people, with indiefilms produced by black people, for an audience that islargely black.


As a microcinema, the Luminal presents indie filmsto an audience that is smaller than the typical movie- house. But with an intimate audience, the Luminal takes a very creative approach by screening works that havemade it to film festivals but are awaiting being pickedup for distribution.


Through exhibits, indoor and outdoor film screenings,and Q&A sessions, the Luminal Theater continues to keep black art alive in the same neighborhood that gave birth to hip-hop legends Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.


The Luminal was founded by Curtis Caesar John, a producer and arts manager who serves as its executive director. Along with John, the Luminal is staffed by Jacqui Brown, the cinema’s senior programmer; Cherelle Wells, who runs its social media account, and Racquel Rivera, who handles graphics and design work for its events.


A graduate of the LIU Brooklyn Campus, John hasproduced film festivals and staged screenings andevents at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Born in Brooklyn, John sees Bed-Stuy as the perfect spot for the Luminal to reach audiences.


“It is localized to Bed-Stuy because it’s a great arts neighborhood,” he said. “Bed-Stuy has always been a haven for black artists for generations, and still is –especially for filmmakers. There’s so much of us [black people] here, even through the more challenging things,like the crack era in the ‘80s. It’s never changed.”


Making films from across the African Diasporaaccessible to residents of Bed-Stuy is one of the Luminal Theater’s biggest goals. With the theater, they want to ensure that they are able to serve the localcommunity with quality black films. John also describes the goal of the theater as allowing filmmakers to seehow their work is received by those for whom many of the directors were hoping to reach.


How Luminal Got Its Start


The theater officially got its start in 2015 with somesupport from LIU Brooklyn’s media arts department and the Bridge Street Development Corporation, a faith-based non-profit group in Brooklyn. Initially, the Luminalbegan to screen projects in a pop-up space throughout that summer and fall and have had a growing audience ever since.


But the true origin of Luminal goes back to 2008. “It wasreally that I had wanted to see a particular film,” John recalls. “It was a big hit at Sundance, a black film. It justwasn’t showing anywhere in New York. So, I hit up thefilmmaker on, of all things, MySpace, and he got right back to me and [said], ‘You know if you can find out how to host a premiere for this film then I’m down to show itthere.’ And so, I did that.”


With that, John suddenly had to produce a New Yorkpremiere for a film titled A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy. The film, directed by Dennis Dortch, revolvedaround black sexuality and how black men and women explore sex and love. John partnered with two like-minded friends of the film industry, one of whom was already doing an artist exhibition series around Brooklyn. Together, the group was able to pull off the premiere. It was so well-received, it sold out twice.


“It just all began and I found out I had not only a skill, but a real joy in elevating other people’s stories.” John said.“There’s a special organizing skill getting film exhibitedand really just getting more of our stories shown.”


Keeping Audiences Engaged


Last year, the Luminal received sponsorship for its programming from a range of sources including the New York State Council on the Arts and 651 Arts in FortGreene. John pointed out that often times, if the filmsperform well, then those works could get picked by a distribution company.


The range of films that the Luminal presented last yearincludes everything from “All Our Sons,” a documentaryby filmmaker Lillian Benson about black firefighters who died during 9/11 and “The Tombs,” a dramatic short filmabout the Central Booking process in New York City that was directed by Jerry LaMothe, and “Charlie’s Records,” which is about a legendary calypso record label and was directed by WNBA player Tina Charles.


John says that presenting black films is importantbecause there are very few other outlets that consistentlydo so. Year after year, for example, complaints fill socialmedia about how black directors and actors have been snubbed from major award like the Golden Globes.But the Luminal Theater is hoping to give black filmsanother platform to be experienced and appreciated.


“It’s really just finding out how to get our stories, blackstories, shown throughout New York and really to just keep them alive,” said John.


For more on the Luminal Theater, visit: www. luminaltheater.org

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