By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times
Many people in Birmingham know T. Marie King as a community activist with a commitment to improving race relations and quality of life for people of color in Alabama and beyond. But while she’s been organizing workshops and panel discussions on diversity and inclusion, she’s been just as busy helping Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival become one of “the coolest film festivals in the world,” as the festival was recently called by MovieMaker magazine.
This year the nationally recognized event will celebrate the 25th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival presented by Regions Bank from August 21–27 in downtown Birmingham’s historic theatre district.
Moviegoers can catch films at the Alabama Theatre, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, First Church Birmingham, Kress Building Ballroom, and Lyric Theatre.
Another festival venue, Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema, located on the lower level of The Pizitz Building, was opened by Sidewalk, a federally recognized 501(c)(3) organization, in 2019 to bring together Birmingham creatives year-round.
King has been dedicated to ensuring that Sidewalk offers films for everybody. She spearheaded the launch of Black Lens, which highlights films that not only center on Black characters and Black culture but also are created by Black filmmakers.
“I wanted to see different stories from the Black community highlighted,” she said, explaining that she was interested in seeing a variety of Black films, including comedy, horror, and love stories.
“I’m trying to make sure I hit the intersections within our community,” added King, who serves as lead shorts programmer and Black Lens programmer. “We’re not a monolithic group of folks.”
Chloe Cook, who serves as executive director of Sidewalk, has been with the organization for nearly 15 years, and she understands why some people think the Sidewalk Film Festival isn’t for them.
When a friend suggested that she apply to work for the festival, she resisted because, as much as she loved watching movies, she had no idea how to make one. Though she didn’t study film in college, Cook’s background in marketing made her perfect for the Sidewalk team. Today, she uses her marketing skills to get out the message that Sidewalk is for all.
“You’ve got to have safe space for everybody in your community to feel like there’s something there for them, … they’re welcome, and they don’t have to have a master’s degree in film critical studies to come and enjoy the festival,” said Cook, adding that she credits King, who started as a Sidewalk volunteer, for much of the strides Sidewalk has made to highlight Black filmmakers.
“She had a bunch of ideas around what we could do and was pretty adamant that she was not going to be involved anymore until we’d done something more intentional,” Cook said.
More Than Movies
Each year leading up to the festival weekend, Sidewalk hosts special previews that spotlight select films. King is excited about Black Lens Spotlight Night, which is set for August 24. There will be happy hour at 5 p.m., a screening of several Black Lens shorts at 7 p.m., and Black Lens bingo at 9 p.m.
Among the short films scheduled to be screened on Black Lens Spotlight Night are “Ashley M Jones: Trust the Voice Within,” a nine-minute documentary on Alabama’s first Black and youngest poet laureate; “Mamba Murals,” a look at murals of Kobe Bryant painted throughout Los Angeles after the basketball star’s untimely death; and “The Orchestra Chuck Built,” which follows a Black-and-Latino youth orchestra assembled by former lawyer-turned-conductor Chuck Dickerson.
During festival weekend, the Black Lens track will include “Invisible Beauty,” a documentary that follows fashion revolutionary Bethann Hardison and her journey as a Black model, modeling agent, and activist fighting for racial diversity in the fashion industry.
A throwback screening of “Poetic Justice” will be a treat for fans of Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductees Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur. These are just a few of the events awaiting festivalgoers, who will have the opportunity to view about 250 films, as well as attend and participate in workshops, panel discussions, and filmmaker Q&As.
This year’s festival is extra special to King not only because it marks the 25tth anniversary of the event but also because this year’s lineup will include a film that she co-produced. “Shuttlesworth,” which King co-produced with J. Hardy Whitson through the support of Alabama Public Television, chronicles the life and work of Birmingham Civil Rights activist the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth.
“It’s sad that a story hadn’t been done on him, but I’m glad Birmingham natives were the first ones to actually do the story,” King said of her first full-length documentary.
Even though the film recounts the ways that Shuttlesworth and his family were terrorized by those against his fight for equality for Black people in Birmingham and beyond, King hopes no one feels ashamed of Birmingham after watching the film.
“It should make our whole community proud that we had that type of leader,” King said of her Emmy Award–nominated film.
King has been fascinated by television and film since she was a child. “I’ve been watching TV since I was 2, according to my mother,” she recalled, noting that some of her favorite shows were “The Facts of Life,” “Webster,” and “Punky Brewster.”
“I’ve always liked television, and I’ve always liked film,” she said. “I probably knew at [age] 8 that I wanted to [be involved with those mediums]. I just didn’t know what that looked like.”
The Birmingham native couldn’t find opportunities to learn more about film in her hometown, so she applied for and was accepted into an internship program with Disney. She got to learn about all aspects of the work done by the mass media and entertainment conglomerate, as well as do a deep dive into production. After completing the Florida-based program, King eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked as a freelance videographer.
King, 43, returned to Birmingham in 2008 to heal from some health issues. Her plan was to stay one year and leave, but she started volunteering and teaching a healthy relationships class to high school students across Jefferson County. She then managed the Family Resource Center for the YWCA in Woodlawn.
Today, King is a W. K. Kellogg Foundation–trained facilitator, who leads race-reconciliation workshops across the region. Still committed to empowering younger people, King currently serves as the director of Youth Pathways and Experiences at the Birmingham-based Jones Valley Teaching Farm.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban and Global Economic Development and a master’s degree in Leadership and Divinity, both of which inform her community work. The “Shuttlesworth” documentary marks a perfect union of King’s love for film and her passion for activism.
More than a Film Festival
Sidewalk, more than a film festival, offers King another way to serve her community. In 2019, the Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema opened its doors. The 11,400-square-foot facility, located on the lower level of The Pizitz Building, offers two state-of-the-art theaters, a multipurpose room, two lounges, and a full bar area serving cocktails and concessions.
The Cinema gave King the opportunity to host Black Lens Spotlight Week in February 2023. The event included film screenings, game nights, and mixers featuring specialty drinks with names like “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” She also invited local Black-owned businesses to set up as vendors throughout the week.
King hopes the upcoming Black Lens Spotlight Night will open doors for other groups that are often underrepresented in film. “My goal with Black Lens was not just to put Black folks in the forefront. Other communities are coming behind us,” she said. “I think we need more representation when it comes to Hispanic and Latinx stories, Indigenous stories, and Asian stories.”
For anyone who thinks the Sidewalk Film Festival isn’t for them, King said, “I get it. There was a time I felt like it wasn’t for me, as well.”
Still, she urges everyone to give Sidewalk a chance.
“When you feel that way, I think it’s an opportunity to investigate,” King said, “Sometimes I hear people say they’ve never come to the Cinema or attended the festival, [but] you don’t know if it’s for you or not because you haven’t actually showed up. So, take a leap, come visit us, come hang out. I think you’ll find, especially if you’re a film lover, something you enjoy. If you’re not a film lover and just want to be around other creators, I think you, too, will find something you enjoy.”
Black Women in Media
“Law & Order” star S. Epatha Merkerson will participate in a panel discussion on Black women in media during this year’s Sidewalk Film Festival. In addition, the festival will feature an encore screening of “The Contradictions of Fair Hope,” which she co-directed. This award-winning film, narrated by Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT)–award winner Whoopi Goldberg, examines a little-known aspect of African American history, when newly freed people once enslaved throughout the South established benevolent societies as a response abject hunger, illness, and the fear of a pauper’s grave.
The film, which focuses on the Fair Hope Benevolent Society, one of the nation’s last remaining organizations of this type, was shot in Uniontown, Alabama, located about 100 miles southwest of Birmingham. The screening will include a post-film panel discussion also featuring Merkerson.
King said she hopes these panels will offer local creatives tools and inspiration to move forward.
“I think you can learn from other people’s experiences,” she said. “If we’ve got somebody who’s willing to come, let’s bring them and let them share their expertise.”
The 25th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival presented by Regions Bank is set for August 21–27 in downtown Birmingham’s historic theatre district. For tickets and a complete schedule, visit sidewalkfest.com. For more updates, follow Sidewalk on social media @sidewalkfiilm.