Celluloid Dreams in Brooklyn: Interview with Ashley Clark, BAMcinematek senior programmer
Ashley Clark has a dream job. He is the senior programmer for BAMcinematek at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Originally from South London, Clark moved to America 12 years ago to study film at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. While there, he met the American woman who would eventually become his wife. They returned to London together but then decided, because of a work opportunity, to return to the States. She began teaching, and Ashley continued writing and curating film. (He has a BA in Film and American History from Sussex University in England.) In his current gig at BAM, he gets to watch a lot of movies, go to Sundance and South by Southwest and program tributes to, among others, Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend — plus have power breakfasts at the River Cafe with inquiring journalists. It was at just such a breakfast last week that Clark unveiled and discussed his exciting 2018 BAMcinematek schedule, which includes “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film,” which runs from Feb. 2 to Feb. 18.
I began by asking him about the genesis of this series.
Ashley Clark: We knew from a fairly early stage that we wanted to do something to highlight the release of “Black Panther.” We saw it as a high-water mark in the presence of black superheroes and their representation in the fantasy genre. And we’re going to be playing “Black Panther” in its first run on the Steinberg screen of the Harvey Theatre simultaneously with the film series.
Brooklyn Eagle: Is the series meant as a bit of a corrective to an incomplete narrative.
Ashley Clark: Yes, precisely. Because I kept hearing comments in the media and among friends that “Black Panther” is the first black superhero movie — and it isn’t! — we decided to set the record straight. So we thought it would be interesting to fill in the gaps and to use the opportunity I have as a repertory programmer to tell the story of the pioneers that led up to “Black Panther.” Instead of only focusing on the obvious superheroes like “Blade” or “Spawn” I thought it would be fun to open it up and look at seminal figures in the blaxploitation film genre.
Eagle: Melvin Van Peebles! “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song!”
AC: Yes, definitely, Melvin was there first. I actually had the rare pleasure of spending time with Melvin several weeks ago at his Manhattan apartment.
Eagle: He’s one of my heroes. When does “Black Panther” begin its run at the Harvey?
AC: On Feb. 15, and it will run for as long as people want to see it.
Eagle: You’re even showing one of my favorite guilty pleasures: “Catwoman” with Halle Berry.
AC: Yes we are, because even though it famously flopped, it was the rare $100 million studio spectacle built around a tale of black female empowerment.
Eagle: Will you be having noteworthy guests to introduce any of the films in the series?
AC: The author and culture critic Nelson George is coming to introduce “Shaft.” Stefon Bristol, a young filmmaker and protege of Spike Lee, is showing his new film “See You Yesterday.” It’s kind of a science fiction film about young kids trying to reverse a police tragedy. Very powerful and imaginative.
Eagle: How would you define BAMcinematek’s mission?
AC: BAMcinematek’s mission is in line with BAM’s wider mission, which is to be the home for adventurous artists, audiences and ideas.
Eagle: What other film series do you have planned for 2018?
AC: We’re doing a series called “Screen Epiphanies,” which begins Feb. 8 with a screening of David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” introduced by the South African hip-hop recording artist, actress and comedian Jean Grae. I will be there to moderate a discussion about the major impact the film had on her when she first saw it.
Eagle: Do you strive for a mix of genres when programming your series?
AC: Very much so. Our main theme this year is to focus on films by, and about, women and people of color, and intersections thereof. So we’re really trying to foreground groups that have been underrepresented or misrepresented or have not had their place at the cinematic table. So “Black Superheroes” in February, then we’re launching a new series in March called “Women at Work” — films about the very complicated subject of women and the workplace.
Eagle: I bet you must be showing “Norma Rae.”
AC: Yes, in fact we are. Other films as well will explore the role women have had in unionizing and labor history. In addition, in March my colleague Jesse Trussell has put together a remarkable series called “!Si, se puede! Chicano Cinema Pioneers.” The series features two seminal films directed by Luis Valdez: “Zoot Suit,” starring Edward James Olmos and “La Bamba,” starring Lou Diamond Phillips. And three phenomenal Gregory Nava films: “Selena,” with the then relatively unknown Jennifer Lopez; “El Norte” and “Mi Familia,” starring Jimmy Smits. Plus the series will highlight the work of two female filmmakers, Lourdes Portillo and Sylvia Morales.
Eagle: It seems, whether by accident or design, that BAMcinematek has tapped into the current zeitgeist and you’ve put together the perfect slate of films for the #MeToo and #TimesUp moment. Your instincts — and taste — are impeccable. Well-done!
“Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” runs through Feb. 18. For times, ticket information and a complete schedule of films go to www.bam.org
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