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Chicago’s Impresarios

Michelle Kennedy and Lex Curtis are bringing film to Chicago’s South Side.

Poster for the Chicago South Side Film Festival

Over a thousand submissions came in for the first-ever Chicago South Side Film Festival (CSSFF) in 2017.

“I said, ‘Let me just start something brief over the weekend,’ and that first round, we got almost 1,200,” CSSFF founder Michelle Kennedy x’95 says. She and Lex Curtis ’13 have a mutual love for films and an appreciation for filmmakers on the South Side, where they both grew up.

“Being able to stay here in Chicago and craft a vision including my hometown is just important to me,” Curtis says.

She remembers meeting Kennedy after the first CSSFF screening in 2017. Curtis was just as enthusiastic about helping to create spaces for black film. Kennedy brought her on to assist in planning and curating screenings and events.

Curtis says a lot of her work requires her to meet new people and see what exciting things artists are creating. She calls it a blessing to go back to her roots. Curtis is also a filmmaker and active in Chicago’s film community. She often serves as a speaker and panel participant at industry events. For CSSFF, Curtis acts as a liaison between the festival and filmmakers. She also has a professional background in digital marketing and event planning.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of support. Michelle is a great advocate. [We’re on the] same wavelength,” Curtis says.

Chicago’s community of filmmakers have also been successful. Kennedy says she initially decided to host a small screening on the South Side after speaking with black filmmakers about a lack of opportunities. Black filmmakers often feel like they have to leave the city for success. Kennedy wanted CSSFF to not just improve the quantity and quality of the South Side’s offerings, but to provide filmmakers with opportunities to screen their work. Several notable and critically acclaimed films were created within the community.

“Most people don’t know that there are a lot of filmmakers on the South Side of Chicago,” Kennedy says. The festival’s goal is to offer audiences access to work from raw and fresh talent.

“We are constantly knocking on people’s doors and bouncing ideas off of them” for new and innovative ways to engage people in film, she says.

To cultivate excitement for a 30th anniversary screening of Coming to America, the CSSFF crew has asked people whether they would rather live in Zamunda (Eddie Murphy’s home country in 1988’s Coming to America) or Wakanda (the fictional African nation in 2018’s Black Panther).

In 2019, the festival received sponsorships from both iOne Digital and the music service Tidal. CSSFF also found support from the Illinois Film Festival, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Chicago Community Trust. Kennedy says they are always thinking about community partners and whom to align their brand with.

“There’s never been a better time to start a business,” she says.

Kennedy says she was active on the UW–Madison campus, where she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and worked as an announcer for Wisconsin Public Radio. She switched majors often, landing in an agriculture and natural science program before finishing her degree at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad in 1995. Her friends encouraged her to pursue a master’s in city planning, which she earned from Rutgers University.

“I’m lucky I was able to use that city-planning degree to go into real-estate planning. I worked mostly in banks,” Kennedy says. She always loved film but was not always actively engaged in the filmmaking world.

Curtis is also a film enthusiast. Communication arts courses at the UW exposed her to a lot of different films.

“Ava (DuVernay) is a big inspiration. My senior year she won the best director at Sundance, the first black woman to win at Sundance,” Curtis says. DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, released in 2012, made Curtis realize that if she could see herself in a black woman filmmaker, she could go after her dreams. She says her family first thought a career in an artistic field would be risky, but they saw how fulfilled she felt.

Curtis enrolled in film classes, where she learned how to interpret cinema, opening her mind. “It really didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen a Korean film before or New Wave or German Impressionism before,” she says. Now she blends her love for films with business, sharing with others around her. Curtis says she often practices pitching filmmakers’ work with friends and family. She would like CSSFF to expand and grow into one of the largest festivals celebrating black films from the South Side and around the country. She loves hearing filmmakers talk about their work, and CSSFF shares opportunities for community members to listen to them.

“This year I’m most looking forward to the independent films from all the emerging film artists because they are the best,” Kennedy says.

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