Filmmaker Dennis Haywood believes in self-discipline. When I spoke to him, he was on his third day of fasting in support of Black August, an annual, month-long remembrance of Black freedom fighters and political prisoners that highlights Black resistance against racial oppression.
“We fast for them in the month of August, and we pray and meditate in the morning, and you only eat before sunrise and after sundown. It’s a time to reflect, and meditate, and honor the people who have come before you in the struggle for freedom,” Haywood says.
He’s referring to the sacrifice of the Black Panthers and activists George and Jonathan Jackson — two brothers who were executed in California in 1971 as an act of anti-Black state violence and systemic oppression.
Since the first Black August in 1979, Black folks from around the country have used the month to recognize what the Jacksons went through and to promote principles of revolutionary discipline, self-sacrifice, and inner fortitude.
“The number one thing that people need to know about Black August is that it’s really a time to refresh your mind, and your spirit, and your body, and your soul as Black people,” Haywood says. “It’s something we created. It’s not a month that they gave us. It’s about the struggle and freedom, and we need to take it more seriously as a whole Black people.”
To amplify that message, Haywood decided to launch the Black August Film Festival, a two-day-long event that elevates films about the Black experience and social issues around the world.
The inaugural festival will be held in Pasadena, California, on August 13 and 14. It will feature nine foreign and domestic films and documentaries by and about Black folks dedicated to struggles for Black liberation.
Haywood says he chose to build the festival around the theme “mood of militancy,” which seeks to praise the efforts of Black folks who have been willing to give their lives and give their own freedom to expand and protect the freedoms of the Black community.
“When you think about the mood of militancy, you think about Fred Hampton, and Marcus Garvey, and George, and Jonathan Jackson,” he says. “Jonathan Jackson did something for his brother and for freedom that no one has ever done before or after in this country. He put his life on the line and said this is what I’m going to do. He knew the consequences, his brother knew the consequences, but he still sent him. That’s the mood of militancy to me — once you say you’re going to ride, you have to ride. You can’t halfway do it. You have to say ‘Let’s go, for my people.’”
The “mood of militancy” theme is also personal.
Haywood was raised in Pasadena, just around the corner from the home of Georgia Bea Jackson, George and Jonathan Jackson’s mother. Haywood’s mother attended Blair High School in Pasadena with George Jackson, so he grew up hearing pieces of their story. However, it was not until Haywood was locked up in federal prison that the true significance of their legacy — and Black August — finally became clear to him.
“In 1987, I went to federal prison,” Haywood says, “and when I got there, I was one of the first people to go to prison under the New Jim Crow and anti-drug abuse laws of 1986. When I got to federal prison, there were a lot of older guys there because the youngsters hadn’t come in yet. They educated me on Black August, and that’s when I got re-acclimated to John and George. During the third month I was there, they were like, ‘We’re fasting this month,’ and I thought, ‘What? Why?’ They said this is why we fast, and then I read ‘Soledad Brothers’ and ‘Blood In My Eye,’ and I really grasped what George was talking about with moral culpability.”
Haywood’s time in prison taught him the importance of “standing for something.” He believes that you can’t simply say you are for Black liberation — your actions must also show the same. He was inspired by George’s and Jonathan’s fearless self-sacrifice in service of Black people everywhere. Now, Black August is a sacred time for Haywood, which he spends remembering Freedom Fighters of the past and planning for a more equitable future for all.
Revolutionary moments such as the Watts Uprising, the Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Fugitive Slave Law Convention, and the March on Washington all happened in August. In addition, many of our revolutionaries, such as Marcus Garvey, Marsha P. Johnson, and Fred Hampton, were born in August. Still, many Black Americans do understand the true significance of Black August because it is not a nationally sponsored month, like Black History Month. Haywood says it is still as important, and his Black August Film Festival was created to teach more folks about it.
Haywood says his favorite film featured in the festival is “A Pasi Fu Romeo” because it shows the connection of Black experiences around the globe. The film follows the life of a Lebanese army-trained soldier, Romeo Koffymaga, who became an emerging Maroon voice in the fight against logging transportation practices in Suriname. As the 20-minute film reveals, Romeo is a man who developed his righteous mentality as a fearless soldier fighting against a leftist military regime during Suriname’s Civil War from 1986 until 1992.
“They were greedy. Instead of taking 10 tons [of logging], they take 30 tons, and the trucks are so heavy they mess up the roads, so sometimes Romeo couldn’t even get home. I learned that it’s struggle all over the world,” Haywood explains. “And it’s the same struggle. It’s the same story in different ways.”
Specifically, Haywood wants to reach and educate more Black boys through his film festival. The violent effects of systemic racism are ever present in our current society, and Haywood says that Black youth must know the reality of the unjust American society if they are going to be able to survive and thrive in it.
“Black men need to talk to Black boys more about issues that they are going to go through,” Haywood says.”I don’t think we are doing a good enough job of teaching Black boys about what’s to come. It’s preparation. We have to start preparing these young Black men for more.”
Haywood hopes that the Black August Film Festival will also give Black filmmakers the chance to show their works without the normal judgment they receive in white-dominated film spaces. There is a lot that is unique to the Black community, and Haywood believes that we need more spaces that can truly understand these unique stories.
“Our struggle is different,” he says. “There’s a film called “Checks and Balances,” and it’s about reparations, but it’s not about monetary reparations, and that might scare a lot of people, so they don’t want to show it. But that’s what’s in us. That’s what we feel, and we have to be able to express ourselves to ourselves without someone judging how we feel.”
In the future, Haywood plans to expand the Black August Film Festival.
“Eventually, I want this to become a meeting place for conscious Black people to come once a year. A place to talk about and view some real stuff. Talk about what’s going to help us as communities all over the country,” he says. “We have to get back to our greatness, and that’s going to happen through nationwide communication. I want to create a nationwide meeting place for Black people.”
Too many sacrifices have been made by Black folks in the preservation of Black life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although we still have a long way to go, Haywood says we must always remember, “We can never get tricked into surrendering.”