Geraud Blanks’ latest role: making sure films reflect under-represented voices in the community

Geraud Blanks’ love affair with cinema began at the age of 6. Since then, he has built his career ensuring that those who come from under-represented communities see themselves in the films he chooses. (Photo provided by Milwaukee Film)

At 6 years old, Geraud Blanks went to see films every week with his mother.

It has become “their thing”.

“My mom and I went to the movies all the time. If I was really good, we would go to the record store, Audio Vibes, and I could get a tape or maybe two, “Blanks said, referring to the now closed independent record store located on North 23.e Street and West Capitol Drive specializing in hip-hop and underground artists.

The weekly ritual would ignite her lifelong love of cinema – and music.

Now 43, Blanks’ appreciation for all things filmmaking has come full circle in his role as Director of Innovation for Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit arts organization and operator of the Oriental Theater and the force behind the Milwaukee Film Festival.

This week, banks will focus on guaranteeing the Cultures & Communities Festival goes off without a hitch. The hybrid event, formerly known as the Minority Health Film Festival, began Monday and runs through Sunday, September 12. It shines a light on under-represented communities and offers 20 films, several workshops, panels and in-person events at venues across the city.

While the film is at the heart of her preoccupations, the festival tackles topics such as love, trauma and family.

“The community informs everything we do,” Blanks said.

Among the highlights of this year’s festival will be Grammy-winning singer Michelle Williams, who will speak in person Wednesday on his battle with depression, as well as a resource fair and panel discussion focused on Black maternal health.

‘A work in progress’

Along with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement has also taken center stage, and Blanks is cautious when considering what types of films to show.

This year’s lineup focuses on social justice themes, but also shows the lives of other under-represented communities, including LGBTQ +, Asian American and Indigenous groups.

“One of the things I really worked on this year was saying that we need to have a better balance to make sure we capture all of these experiences,” Blanks said. “I have to be careful because as a black man my point of view naturally revolves around the African American experience. In particular, the African American male experience.

“We’re really trying to find that balance. It’s a work in progress, ”added Blanks.

To improve, MKE film runs focus groups and listening sessions with community members throughout the year to better understand what is important to show. Some topics like social justice or violence against women are difficult, and Blanks considers optics when showing heavy topics.

“We are sensitive to it. We want to have films that touch on deep and important topics, but we want to balance that with love, sexuality and celebration, ”Blanks said.

Blanks said he looks for movies with strong characters and meaningful messages because he understands the role movies can play in a person’s life.

“Geraud and I have reinforced the importance that the communities you are trying to reach throughout the MKE movie, there is not just a program component but an outreach component,” said Donte McFadden, who, with Banks, co-founded Black lens, a branch of Milwaukee Film, in 2014. Black Lens features African-American filmmakers.

The two met as undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the late ’90s and collaborated on several projects.

As Black Lens took off, Blanks juggled graduate school at UWM while working full time. He would watch up to 60 movies every few weeks before selecting which movies to show.

In 2018, he was offered his current position at Milwaukee Film while studying for his PhD at Northwestern University. He plans to complete his program in 2022. Blanks is also married to his wife, Element, and the couple have three children: daughter Karma, 10; and the 3-year-old twins Nazir and Kairo.

And one way or another, he manages it all.

Lights. Camera. Action. Pandemic.

Hosting a film festival during a pandemic has created its own set of challenges, Blanks said.

All theaters across the country were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the film industry has had to find new ways to present films to people.

Film festivals, in turn, have had to adapt to the move to an online format.

Unlike other film festivals across the country, which began in early 2020, Milwaukee enjoyed a start date of September 2020.

This timing allowed Blanks to see what was working and what was not. He said MKE Film was successful because by September people realized that theaters weren’t going to open anytime soon and that first-showing movies at home or on a laptop would become the norm.

“Now, a year and a half later, our theaters are open, but we’re still doing virtual,” Banks said. “It will probably always be a part of what we do now because people are used to movies at home. There is a balance between welcoming people and providing access via a virtual platform. “

The changes “made us more agile,” he said.

A love is born

Born in Champaign, Illinois, Blanks and his mother, Deborah Blanks, moved to Milwaukee when he was 3 years old. Her mother worked for Cigna but wanted to move to go on her own and gain a sense of independence.

“When I was little, I thought about what I could do with my life based on the movies I saw,” he recalls.

Blanks said he came of age in the late ’80s and early’ 90s with the Spike Lee and John Singleton films. “It was just seeing me on screen. It was a magical feeling.

One of the first films he remembers having an emotional connection with was “The Karate Kid”, which he watched over and over when it was released on video.

The character in the film was raised by a single mother, and Blanks said he grew up facing similar challenges, including sometimes feeling like an outsider and wanting to fit in.

“I saw myself in this character. His mother was my mother, ”he said.

Much like the character in the film, Mr. Miyagi, served as a mentor to the Karate Kid and was instrumental in his development, Blanks’ uncle Tony became a strong male figure in his life and education.

Although he knows his father and they talk to each other often, he did not grow up with him at home.

Mentors help fill in the blanks’ gaps.

“I don’t know of anyone who considers themselves successful and can’t nominate at least one, if not multiple mentors,” Banks said.

Her daughter, Karma, appears to have caught the movie bug from her father. She’s a content creator with her own channel on Zigazoo, a children’s social platform, and she even made an appearance on ABC News this summer.

Meanwhile, Blanks and his mom still go to the movies together, usually on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“My wife knows that, and after the holidays she says, ‘Okay, go do your movie thing,’” Blanks said with a laugh.

How to attend the Culture & Communities Festival

For virtual passes and in-person ticket information for this year’s film festival, click here.

Rebecca R. Santistevan