Filmmaker Chriss Williams, a William Paterson University professor, discussing his short, "The Dynamite Gang," at the city's cultural arts center, where a festival is taking place. Photo by Tyson Trish.
Filmmaker Chriss Williams, a William Paterson University professor, discussing his short, "The Dynamite Gang," at the city's cultural arts center, where a festival is taking place. Photo by Tyson Trish.
Posted: Tuesday February 21, 2012, 11:54 AM
Film Fest: Bringing a community together with film

In an attempt to connect with an ever younger, busier and more fragmented community, the city's African-American civics club has turned to a forum famous for bringing people together: the cinema.

The city's first African-American film and arts festival, which opened Monday, is the latest to be added to a roster of community events sponsored by the Hackensack African-American Civics Association, or HAACA. The group reorganized and changed its name in 2010 to reconnect with a population whose interests and needs are changing, President Jonathan Gilmore said.

"We're trying to build a sense of community," Gilmore said. "We all have busy schedules. We have our technology at home, our cable, so many other options of things to do that we don't get together as a community very often."

The Arts and Film Festival, running until Sunday at the city Cultural Arts Center on Broadway, features works by two local artists, along with several critically acclaimed blockbusters, an open mic and an essay contest. It draws on the same concept as the family fun day that HAACA rolled out shortly after it reorganized and a hip hop summit at the high school — the second of which will be held on April 21, Gilmore said.

The strategy seems to be working. In the past three years, the group has grown from a basically dormant organization to one with about 20 active and 50 casual members, Gilmore said.

Historically a stronghold of Bergen County's African-American population, Hackensack's demographics are changing. The black population in the city's central and southern districts dipped to 7,100 from 7,800 in the past decade, according to a recent analysis of census data by The Record. Demographers attributed the shift to a rising number of black families moving to the South, reversing a century of northward migration.

The Hispanic population has meanwhile firmly taken the position of the city's largest minority group. In 2011, the city was 35 percent Hispanic and 24 percent African-American, according to the census.

Harder to organize

Eugene Marshall, a longtime Hackensack resident who was the last president of the Hackensack Neighborhood Civic Association before it became the HAACA, said that the city's black residents' needs have changed little since the group first formed in 1947, but that it has become harder to organize the community.

When the group started, he said, the city's black homeowners wanted a forum to promote black property rights and advocate against housing discrimination.

The group also promoted civic pride by prodding residents to maintain their yards, he said.

Marshall said those issues are as important as ever, a point he supported by referring to racial discrimination in mortgage rates uncovered in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. The group's new goals include increasing black voter turnout in the city and advocating for more diversity in school district administrative appointments.

But the group's aging membership was having trouble connecting with younger, working families, said Marshall, who is 82.

"There was a time, I guess, when we knew each other," Marshall said. "Now, there's a new African-American community, with people coming from all over the country and other parts of the world, so that community is not there as it used to be."

A broad range

The films selected for the festival are meant to appeal to a broad range of interests: There's "Love Jones," a romantic comedy about a black poet from Chicago; "The Princess and the Frog," Disney's retelling of the Frog Prince fairytale set in jazz-age New Orleans with a black heroine and "Remember the Titans," a critically acclaimed drama about a high school football team the first year after desegregation.

The festival is also bookended with works by filmmakers with connections to Hackensack High School. Chriss Williams, a William Paterson University film writing professor who penned the two opening night productions — a short film titled "The Dynamite Gang" and a feature film titled "Bellclair Times" — is a 1985 graduate. Jordan Coleman, who wrote and directed Saturday's marquee film, "Payin' the Price," is a 16-year-old junior.

Email: akin@northjersey.com