The Black Bottom Festival Is Back in Pittsburgh

James Paul

The Black Bottom Film Festival is a celebration and exploration of Black film slated to run at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center from October 27 to 29

The Black Bottom Film Festival is back at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center next week with a major revamp in programming but the same goal of chronicling the Black experience through film, Janis Burley Wilson said.

“Our mission is to tell the stories of the African American experience and the African diaspora across genres,” said Burley Wilson, the CEO of the AWAACC. “We do music, theater, dance, visual arts. We present films like we’re doing for our film festival.”

The Black Bottom Film Festival, a celebration and exploration of Black film, will run from October 27 to 29 at the AWAACC Downtown and offers up a packed three days of premieres, classics, seminars and workshops. The festival is presented by Citizens Bank and curated by the founders of the Micheaux Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Founded in 2017 and after an intermission for COVID, the Black Bottom Film Festival took submissions from independent creators for the first time this year, Burley Wilson said. Previously, the festival would attract people from as far as Washington, D.C., or Cleveland, but by scaling up the programming, she said she hopes to bring in a larger group of attendees.

“Having film submitted from people in India or Iran–that’s taking it far beyond the state lines of Pennsylvania,” Burley Wilson, said. “So [I’m] really excited about the possibilities that will come about from handling it this way.”

The AWACC tapped Noel Braham and Courtney Branch, the founders of the Micheaux Film Festival, to curate this year’s films and assist with programming. 

Branch said the Micheaux Film Festival, named after the pioneering Black director Oscar Micheaux, showcases multicultural and racially diverse films, so she said she appreciated the opportunity to solely arrange stories on “Black narratives.”

“Being able to curate the Black Bottom Film Festival and only focus on Black narratives and Black voices and perspectives really provided a different opportunity for us,” Branch said. “We’re Black people, so it was nice to be able to curate stories that only focus on the Black diaspora.”

Braham and Branch worked with a selection committee and judges to rate over 700 submitted films before selecting the nominees and winners. Across the three days, the festival will showcase over 50 short films and select features. 

Some of the selected films include a documentary short on the creation of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest majority-Black orchestra in the United States, and a narrative short of an all-African American gated community where one family discovers they “might not be ‘Black enough,’” according to a film lineup.

In addition to indie premiers, the festival will also showcase classics in Black cinema including “The Wiz,” a 1978 retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” with an all-Black ensemble; “A Warm December,” Sidney Poitier’s candid and groundbreaking for its time portrayal of Black romance; and “Within our Gates,” Micheaux’s 1920 silent film about racial persecution during the Jim Crow years.

The festival will present the Black Bottom Film Festival Luminary Award to Jacqueline Stewart, a film historian and head of the Academy Museum. Stewart is also slated to lead a discussion on the lasting impact of Micheaux and the Nicholas Brothers, a dance duo, on Saturday, October 28.

Maya Cade, the founder and curator of the Black Film Archive, will close out the festival on Sunday with a keynote address that will touch on the important role Black film plays in reclaiming the narratives and histories that are marginalized, distorted or erased.  

The festival will also include a host of workshops and seminars. The opening event is titled “Reel Money: Building Pittsburgh’s Film Economy,” a free panel discussion spotlighting the Pittsburgh film industry sponsored by Citizens.

“[We’re] celebrating, recognizing, shining a light on Black filmmaking and also honoring those that were trailblazers or still are making moves in film while they’re here, as opposed to after they’re gone,” Burley Wilson said.

Burley Wilson said Pittsburgh is a place where people film their movies – like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Night of The Living Dead” — but not a place where film is necessarily celebrated. 

Braham agreed with Burley Wilson that Pittsburgh is not a place known for its film tradition, but he recognized it as an advancing melting pot with a strong redemption arc coming out of the collapse of the steel industry.

Braham said when trying to define the themes of the Black film tradition, people should look to Pittsburgh as a “guiding light.” 

“So is Pittsburgh on the map?” Braham asked. “Maybe not necessarily. But I think that everything that Pittsburgh stands for is certainly what we as creators and filmmakers and as a people in society are aspiring to be and embody ultimately.”

Tickets and Details 

The full schedule and ticket prices for the Black Bottom Festival can be viewed online. The August Wilson African American Cultural Center is located at 980 Liberty Ave. in Pittsburgh.

Photos by Evan Levine.
James Paul is a student at the University of Pittsburgh serving as one of two Pittsburgh Media Partnership interns this semester. He can be reached at