Jennifer Hudson’s Old Neighborhood Gets a Film Festival

Jennifer Hudson’s Old Neighborhood Gets a Film Festival
Mark Harris discusses the Englewood Film Festival.

Jennifer Hudson’s tight-knit, blue-collar childhood neighborhood of Englewood has a notorious reputation for crime that’s second only to the defunct Cabrini Green projects.

For decades, local media have told the story of Englewood on their respective police blotters. From time to time, the community makes national headlines because of shocking crimes:

In 1998, Englewood made national headlines when the youngest murder suspects in Chicago history, two boys — ages 7 and 8 — were arrested and, later, cleared for the murder of 11-year-old honor student Ryan Harris. A decade later, the horrific slaying of Jennifer Hudson’s family dominated the news.

Today, Englewood residents are fleeing their neighborhood in droves, and abandoned properties have outnumbered occupied homes, according to one report. Rarely is Englewood’s booming creative arts and entertainment legacy told, even when luminaries Jennifer Hudson, Bernie Mac, Lorraine Hansberry and Gwendolyn Brooks have called Englewood home.

Let’s not forget that a Chicago Bulls player named Derrick is also the Rose that grew from concrete.

Englewood is on the forefront of education with the state-of-the-art Kennedy King College and the all-boys charter school, Urban Prep Academies, that boast 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates.

There are good things happening on the block, and that’s why filmmaker Mark Harris and his 1555 Filmworks are throwing the Englewood Film Festival, to celebrate the stories and the soul of Englewood. “Many of my films are set in Englewood,” Harris beams.

Harris sat down with rolling out to discuss filmmaking and his vision for his beloved neighborhood.

How did you become a filmmaker?

I didn’t go to school for film. I didn’t go to school for writing. When I decided to film, I hired a crew. The director works with the actors and photographers and tell them where to actually put the camera. It was on-the-job training. I became familiar with how to direct, and I began to get more comfortable and more secure behind the camera. My project, I Used to Love Her, did very well and went into the different film festivals and screened in Germany and Canada.

How did you learn the process of making films?

I bought this book, Screenwriting by Sid Fields, and that book taught me how to use structure to write screenplays. That was the book that showed me the format of how to write screenplays.

How did you get the seed money to start making films?

I knew I was a new filmmaker and in order to get my vision out there I knew that I had to invest in myself.
When I start to go out and look for investors, I can show them that I make a film, for a very low budget, and they’ll get a return on their investment. For me, a low budget film is $5,000-$10,000.

How do you keep your film budget under control?

I, Ricardo Islias and Don Warden have done about 10 films, and we have distribution deals for our films. Ninety-eight percent of our filmmakers can’t do what we’ve done.

When you make a film, you’ll need an entire crew. What we do is unique, and that’s why we’re able to keep the budget so low. We’re a three-man team. We wear many hats.

What kinds of films do you prefer to make?

I’ve always produced different kinds of films, but, when it comes to my films, I’ve always stayed with the drama or romantic. As producer, I find the financing, the crew and some of the cast members and put the entire project together.

What are some of your favorite black films?

Do the Right Thing, Black Orpheus … That’s my all-time favorite. There’s a black and Latino film, I Like it Like That. Love and Basketball and Devil in a Blue Dress.

How did you conceive the Englewood Film Festival?

I’m from 68th and Justine, the heart of Englewood. When I started to make films, I read about Mao Tse-Tsung and how he used the arts and culture to change his [Chinese] community. I have a love for my community, and I wanted to see what I could do in order to change the Englewood community.

And since writing and filmmaking is my passion, I thought, “Why not use that to change the condition of the people?”

Is it hard to convince sponsors that Englewood deserves a film festival?

Basically, we did the ribbon-cutting event, and we went to different sponsors, and people are afraid to really deal with the Englewood community. The papers are always talking about the violence. I presented a question on Facebook: “Who is afraid to come into the Englewood community?”

And some people said, yes, they are afraid to walk through the Englewood community. Englewood gets a bad rap, and there are communities that are far worse. But, you don’t hear them talk about those communities the way that they talk about Englewood. If you read the papers, you would think that Englewood was the worst community in the city of Chicago.

Are things improving in Englewood?

It’s not as bad … but there is crime, and those are some of the things that we want to change. However, Englewood is not like those crazy war zones that people imagine — that, if you walk down the street, you’re going to get shot. It’s not like that.

What can participants expect from the Englewood Film Festival?

We will show films, and we’re going to conduct workshops and seminars. We want the festival to not just tell their story. We want to use that festival to actually change the thinking. Once you change the thinking of a community, you automatically change the condition.

Our main objective is to use this festival to drop seeds, and let people know that there is something much better than we see everyday in Englewood.


Jennifer Hudson’s old neighborhood received a letter of support from new mayor Rahm Emanuel for the Englewood Film Festival, Harris adds. There’s no word if the diva herself will make an appearance.

The Englewood Film Festival will take place on October 21-22, 2011. Please visit for details.

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