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Vici Howard Amplifies the Impact of Black & Brown Femme Films

Written by on October 5, 2023

Writer and filmmaker Vici Howard forges community for women of color in cinema. Her rotating film showcase, Black & Brown Femme Films, is set to highlight six filmmakers at the Music Box Theatre this Saturday.

Vici Howard has always been a writer. Growing up in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she can still vividly recall writing her first book and sending out its 80 pages, handwritten on blue paper, to a publisher at 13 years old.

“The publisher actually sent it back with a rejection, but a handwritten note saying, ‘You really need to invest in a typewriter,’” she remembered.

As she began clacking away on her uncle’s typewriter, Howard, an avid movie-lover, realized she wanted to direct and write stories for the screen before she even knew the word “director.” She went on to study film at Columbia College Chicago, but later put her creative pursuits on hold when she fell in love and started a family. As the years passed and her children grew up, she found her way back to her passion.

“It was just laying dormant, the love of filmmaking and writing,” she explained. “I was like, ‘There it is!’ It never went away. It was like an old friend that came back to say, ‘Hello!’”

Upon returning to film, Howard co-wrote 11 Hours, a screenplay that ended up as a finalist at the Urban World Film Festival in New York. Though she did not win, she was invigorated to keep going and wrote a short film The Singles in October 2022, which she felt was sure to get recognized. After the film was rejected by more than 20 film festivals, she did a deep dive into the politics of film festivals.

“What I didn’t realize is that only 1 to 10% of filmmakers are actually accepted into film festivals,” Howard expressed.

Vici Howard stands inside the Music Box Theatre, the site of the Oct. 7 Black & Brown Femme Films showcase. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Her belief that every filmmaker should have a chance for their work to be seen inspired her to create an opportunity herself. Howard’s Black & Brown Femme Films, or BFF, gives Black and brown femme filmmakers a platform and community to show their films in a rotating showcase.

“There’s a whole community of filmmakers out there, Black and brown women of color, who need a venue,” she said. “So I’m creating a community and giving that and offering that to them.”

At its core, BFF is more than just a showcase; it’s an all-encompassing celebration of the “Femme” movement. Regardless of one’s gender identity, ‘Femme’ embodies the essence of the feminine and celebrates diversity actively and inclusively.

Black & Brown Femme Films is a proudly inclusive event, spotlighting the voices and talents of filmmakers and performing artists who identify as Black, brown and femme. The showcase is set for Saturday, October 7 at the Music Box Theatre. Find more information on the BFF website.

For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Vici Howard discusses her background in film, growing up on the South Side and the importance of community support in filmmaking.

What made you want to make films?

When you’re in the theater, the dark theater and the 400 foot screen and the stereo sound just goes through your body and you’re part of a whole community… You don’t know these people, but for that 90 minutes, or that 120 minutes, that’s your community. You laugh when they laugh, and you cry when they cry. The emotion that I feel watching movies, I love that and I want to recreate that over and over again, and I want to be able to do that for movie-goers. I want to elicit that emotional feeling. I want to be a part of that. 

Where are you from?

I’m from Chicago, Illinois, the South Side! South Side born and bred. I grew up in the Greater Grand Crossing area, right off of 72nd and King Drive. Growing up on the South Side, back in the, oh my gosh, is that back in the ’70s and ’80s? Actually, it was great! Because I was raised by my grandparents.

And so the entire community, the entire block that we lived on, the people who live there were from the Great Migration, they all came from down south — my grandmother from Alabama, my grandfather from Mississippi, and they came in the 1940s. So it was a community, I knew everybody on the block, and they were all in our business. And they helped raise the kids. It really was, like, it takes a village. I remember all of the old folks that was there, the Mrs. Ellingtons and Mr. Nelsons and the Mrs. Raymonds and all of them. It was really nice. It was truly a community. 

Vici started Black & Brown Femme Films as a means to provide community and a platform for filmmakers hoping to find a place in the industry. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

When did you get into writing?

I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing. I remember, I think I was maybe like 13 or something like that, and I got it in my head to… I wrote a book, longhand. And I sent it off to a publisher. And I remember writing this book on blue paper, and I sent it out.

And I said, “Daddy.” I said, “Can you take me to the post office? I need to…” Because by that time, he was retired, whatever, so he took me to the post office and I sent off my book. And it was probably maybe 80 pages at 13 years old. And the publisher actually, they sent it back with a rejection, but a handwritten note saying, “You really need to invest in a typewriter.”

My uncle Bubba, shoutout to Uncle Bubba, he gave me an old hand-me-down typewriter. It was click, click, click. And I always loved movies, too. When I would watch movies, I could see myself like, “Oh …” I didn’t know that directing was it. I didn’t know the name, I didn’t have a name for it. But I did know that I want to do that. I want to write stories that’s on TV. I want to write stories that’s in the movies. 

Did you study film?

I went to Columbia College. And everyone told me, “What are you doing? Go be a teacher … go to the post office, go get a real job. What are you gonna do? You’re just wasting your time!” It’s just, it’s not practical. But when you’re young, you don’t know. All you know is your passion. All you know is, “This is what I want to do. This is what’s driving me. This is what gives me pleasure.” I had a wonderful time at Columbia College, in the Film department. Wonderful time. We were actually making movies, 16 millimeter film and, yeah, spending hours in an editing room with the razor blade and splicing and, yeah.

And then I fell in love and I got married and I started my family. And so I raised my family. Now that my babies are gone, I was able to get back into filmmaking. Actually, I thought that filmmaking, I thought I was done. I said, “Okay, well, I’m just going to travel the world and I’m going to eat all over the world.” That’s what I thought I was going to do! And something just, it was there and it never went away. It was just laying dormant, the love of filmmaking and writing. I was like, “There it is!” It never went away. It was like an old friend that came back to say, “Hello!

What was the impetus for starting Black & Brown Femme Films?

With a writing partner, I wrote a screenplay called 11 Hours. And it was about a trans-questioning person of color. That screenplay was a finalist at the Urban World Film Festival. I was able to go to New York City for the screenwriting competition. I did not win, but that was a wonderful experience. I made a movie, a short, last October, called The Singles. I’m coming off of this high from being in New York at Urban World, I’m thinking, “Okay, next year at this time, I’m going to be back at Urban!” Because now I feel like I’m an Urban World alum, right? So there’s no problem at all, The Singles is going to be at the Urban World next year.

So I got rejected, and that was heartbreaking, like, how could I get rejected? And so I submitted The Singles to 20 film festivals, didn’t get in, not one of them, not one. And so then I did a deep dive into film festivals, and how do you get into film festivals? And kind of what’s the politics of it? And things like that. And what I didn’t realize is that only 1 to 10% of filmmakers are actually accepted into film festivals. 

Vici’s work is deeply rooted in Chicago. “In all of my films, you’re going to see Chicago,” she says. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

I think every filmmaker should have a community where, if they don’t get into film festivals, if you don’t have that venue then, get a group of other filmmakers and rent out a theater and get your family and your friends and be your own distributor. There’s a whole community of filmmakers out there, Black and brown women of color, who need a venue. So I’m creating a community and giving that and offering that to them. 

Black & Brown Femme Films is an inclusive, submission-free, rotating film showcase. I don’t want to say it’s a festival, but it’s a showcase. And it’s also open to performing artists, as well. 

How has Chicago influenced your work?

Chicago is in everything that I do. And sometimes I don’t even recognize it. I write a screenplay and I will get feedback. And if someone is not from Chicago, this is how I don’t even realize that Chicago’s in it, they’ll read it like, “What does this mean? What’s ‘pop’? What’s a rib tip? What’s a hot link?” So I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m writing from Chicago. And I don’t even realize it until someone who’s not from Chicago reads it.

Like, “Oh, Chicago is in everything.” Chicago is in all of my characters. There’s a spirit in Chicago. We have this grit about us, but then we have this humanity about us, as well. We’re very kind and loving, but we will cut you out and put you in your place. But we’ll help you, and we’re going to feed you, too, and direct you to the nearest rib joint and chicken shack while we do it. So yeah, Chicagoans definitely have a personality. And you’re going to see that every time. In all of my films, you’re going to see Chicago. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Meija

Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Blake Hall

Written introduction by Morgan Ciocca and Blake Hall

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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