A tribute to DeJunius Hughes, founder of Twin Cities International Black Film Festival

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DeJunius Hughes wasn’t nothin’ nice. Through grit, mother wit and his fiery determination to realize the autonomy of Black cinema, Hughes changed the Twin Cities film scene. His death leaves enormous shoes for someone to try to fill if Hughes’s seminal, pioneering work is to be sustained.

A curator, exhibitor and producer-director of renown and acumen, DeJunius also executed a balancing act worthy of the most daring high-wire walker: he kept his cultural integrity and got mainstream funding at the same time. In fact, his profound legacy, the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, had its very origin in a dust-up that saw Hughes defy the status quo and still cash checks.

Back around the late 1980s and early 90s, he was on board with the Walker Art Center to screen Black film from here and around the world. The way he told it to me (and we talked about it a few times), it was your characteristic instance of those in authority deciding they know how to authenticate your culture better than you do. Hughes being Hughes, DeJunius threw up his hands and embarked on his own. Hence, the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, which drew innovative work from across the country and around the world. He also spiced the series up with keynote guests (Al Freeman, Jr. for instance), showcasing ground-breaking titles—including Eve’s Bayou, long before the rest of America lauded director Kasi Lemmons.

In a funky little South Minneapolis office suite, DeJunius Hughes would hustle as hard as only a street veteran can, getting the rights to show this film, angling to fund an appearance by that luminary and never have so much as a ruffled feather. He knew how to calmly be in control of what needed to be done and how to do it.

He wasn’t afraid to get angry, though, when it was necessary to. At the Playwrights’ Center in the early 90s, DeJunius attended a town meeting address, among other issues, nurturing African-American playwriting in the Twin Cities. Flat out refusing to go for the okey-doke, Hughes challenged the organization to put integrity where its mouth was. (Don’t take my word for it: actor-director Terry Bellamy was there, too). Calm went right out the window as he dressed the administrators up and down in no uncertain terms, denouncing their practice of marginalizing Black talent—which, it’s common knowledge, included August Wilson who, thanks to then-executive director Carol Bly’s concerted intervention, got around Playwright Center cliques ignoring his talent and placed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Hughes did more than blow hot air: not long after that, the Playwrights’ Center inaugurated Kuumba, probably the first Black playwriting workshop in Minneapolis.

DeJunius, needless to say, was a character: forceful, charming, intuitive, and generally the wrong guy to argue with. He could get so ornery, you thought about keeping your distance just in case the boxer (he fought in the ring at one time) in him made an unheralded appearance. And whether you got along with him or not, you couldn’t deny that he was about an industrious force of nature as ever walked on two feet.

Ultimately, the man changed things. By way of the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, DeJunius Hughes, as only he could, left cinema an enriched field, much more culturally vibrant than it was when he found it.

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