“Representation matters” has long been a mantra in the arts, and it’s a catchphrase often heard in discussions about film, which is arguably the most influential visual artistic medium in the world. One has only to revisit the critical, commercial, and cultural success of the 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther” to understand.
“Black Panther” was the first Marvel Studios superhero film starring a Black hero and featuring a predominately Black cast. Grossing more than $1 billion internationally, the film was celebrated by critics and fans alike for its depiction of Black culture. The ongoing public discourse surrounding the film is a testament its enduring legacy. (Search #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe on Twitter to see for yourself.) “Black Panther” proved to a generation of Black actors, writers, and filmmakers that the sky is the limit.
The concept of “representation matters” boils down to the idea that the stories we tell and are told are models for the lives we believe we are able to lead. It is a theme that has long captured the attention and defined the work of Tre’ McGriff, director of CineOdyssey Film Festival, in Charlotte.
Born and raised in New York City and the suburbs of Long Island, McGriff doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t love film.
“When I was a kid, I used to act in plays all the time,” reflected McGriff. “As a kid I watched a lot of films with subtitles. Italian films. Latin American films. I was different than my friends.”
His interest and natural talents didn’t go unnoticed. One year his elementary schoolteacher wrote “See you in Hollywood” in his yearbook, which McGriff says added fuel to the fire.
Thirty some years ago, McGriff attended the premiere of Spike Lee’s debut film “She’s Gotta Have It ”in Manhattan. While standing in a line that wrapped around the block outside of the theater, McGriff noticed Spike Lee himself making his way down the line, selling merchandise for the film.
“He’s got a film in the theater, but he’s out on the street, greeting everyone and hawking his merch,” recalled McGriff. “To see an African American man doing what he did, spending his own money, living off potato chips, and sleeping on the couch—doing whatever he had to do to get his film done. . . . I was blown away by that. It told me that it was possible for African Americans to do this. Sometimes you have to see one person do it before it becomes a reality.”
McGriff moved to Charlotte in 1999 and quickly got plugged into the city’s film community. He cofounded a multicultural film collective called Motion Concepts that for a few years produced independent film projects, and he started working with Dennis Darrell, a pioneering film advocate who worked to bring Black independent films to Charlotte in the early 2000s.
“I remember he gave an event which drew, like, 800 people. I was blown away. All these people came out on a Wednesday to see short films by African American filmmakers,” said McGriff. “He took me under his wing, taught me how to put a program together, how to curate films, and how to read audiences.”
McGriff eventually took those lessons and put them to work as the program director for the Charlotte Black Film Festival. After a couple of years in that role, McGriff stepped out on his own with the dream of creating a film festival that showcased movies made by filmmakers of color from around the world.
In 2017, McGriff launched CineOdyssey Film Festival, which presents contemporary international films made by filmmakers of color from the African, Caribbean, Latinx, Asian, and Native American diasporas. In addition to curating a diverse selection of films each year, McGriff is intentional about presenting compelling panel discussions around screenings.
“It was very inspiring to the aspiring actors who had the chance to be in the same room with her. That’s very important, too. People need to be up and close with success. They have to be looking success in the eye and be able to shake success’s hand.”
Last November, CineOdyssey hosted its fourth festival—a hybrid event that took place online and at a drive-in screening. Attendees had the chance to be transported all over the world: Brazil, Vietnam, Suriname, China, Venezuela, Cuba, and more. McGriff’s enduring passion for presenting global films stems from his belief that representation matters not only for aspiring filmmakers but also for audiences.
“I think the world needs to be more tolerant. We need to be more understanding of each other’s backgrounds and cultures,” said McGriff. “The things that we worry about are so similar. I think if we had a better understanding of each other, and a curiosity about learning about each other, the world would be a better place.”
Learn more about the CineOdyssey Film Festival here.
2020 was an unforgettable year, one defined by a pandemic and a racial justice movement in America. Charting a course through this historic time has been the sole focus of the North Carolina Arts Council for the last year. Marshalling emergency pandemic-response resources to the arts sector and addressing how disparities of race, class, and access stand in the way of our vision of arts for all people have been and will remain our top priorities. One measure we’ve taken this year intersects with both.
In November, we announced our plan to distribute grants to 17 nonprofit arts organizations of color. These resources, made possible with support from South Arts, will help recipients remain operational during the pandemic. From art galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a drumline in rural eastern North Carolina, these nonprofits are varied and diverse in scope, focus, and the communities they serve, but they are united in their efforts to use the arts to make a lasting, positive impact on their communities. They are among many organizations and arts leaders of color who are informing the direction of our racial and cultural equity work.
It is our pleasure to introduce you to several of them in our new series Snapshot.
Over the course of several weeks, we will share profiles of the Leela Foundation (Cary), The GiftedArts (Garner), The Beautiful Project (Durham), A Drummers World (Goldsboro), Cine Odyssey (Charlotte), and Diamante (Cary).
On their own, each profile provides a glimpse of the dreams and values fueling the work of these nonprofits. As a whole, these stories offer a window into the way people of color in our state are using the arts to advocate justice, equity, and healing. We are grateful for the insights these leaders shared with us, and we are eager to share them with you, too.