Film Champion Dennis Darrell Leaves Behind Rich Legacy

Last week, I and many other Charlotteans were shocked to learn of the passing of Dennis Darrell. Dennis was a tireless advocate of independent film, especially black film, here in Charlotte. If you read this column regularly, you may remember a recent piece titled, “Where is Charlotte’s Independent Film Community?” I had the opportunity to interview Dennis for the piece and, as always, he had the most positive outlook on the subject.

He stated: “A community as I see it — as an active network that comes together to view and make independent films — we have that. To demonstrate how much the community is changing, we now have [a number of] groups screening films as opposed to one or two, which is good. The more people, the better.”

While I was pontificating whether we even had an independent film community in Charlotte, Dennis was clear that there was one, albeit small. The fact that it was small and fractured didn’t take away from the existence of an independent film community; rather, it just gave us an opportunity to work harder to close those gaps and work more closely together.

I remember thinking to myself that Dennis has been programming film for a long time (more than 10 years), and he still sees it as a beginning. This was a man comfortable with the fact that change is a process. He was able to see the good in a situation where others, like myself, argued that the local film scene was broken.

Out of the people I interviewed for the piece, he was my last subject. I remember thinking that such optimism is rare and perhaps I should think differently about how “community” is defined. Dennis reminded me in that interview that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must understand that the film community in Charlotte is a work in progress and do what we can to become a part of the process that will inevitably create the desired reality.

It is this optimism that I remember most about Dennis, who welcomed me to the Charlotte film scene with open arms in 2001 when I first moved here from Los Angeles. Many know me as a writer, but few know me as a filmmaker, which is my first love. I met Dennis at a screening that he held at the Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture). We chatted, and like many other filmmakers new to the area, he took me under his wing, introducing me to other filmmakers and programmers. It was Dennis who connected me with the folks at The Light Factory, with whom I developed a great relationship.

It was Dennis who insisted that I screen my short film Wooden Nickels. I didn’t want to show it, because I thought it was too old, having made it in 2000. It was Dennis who told me that it was an important film and needed to be seen, so it was screened. As I was moving closer to academia and writing, and moving further away from film, it was Dennis who asked me to host his annual film festival and field questions from the audience, which reminded passion for film. It was Dennis who said, “You’ve got to get back to filmmaking.”

It was Dennis who organized a dinner to introduce me to other filmmakers like Steve Rutherford and Tre McGriff. It was Dennis who connected me with Beth Petty at the Charlotte Film Office and Robert Crumbine of Charlotte Center City Partners. It was Dennis who let me know that my old friends Christine and Michael Swanson were moving to Charlotte, and of course, we reconnected. Dennis was the king of connecting people. He made so many introductions and wanted nothing in return. That was just the type of person that he was — doing what he could to move film forward in Charlotte. Dennis did this for many filmmakers who moved to the Queen City.

Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail on Monday, May 17, from Tre McGriff and the Swansons that Dennis had passed away. I was stunned and saddened that I would not be able to be there for his homegoing, since I was in South Africa. I knew that he suffered a stroke in the past, but I thought he rebounded. I saw him during CIAA, and during our last e-mail exchange, which was two weeks ago, we discussed screening my documentary on the public servants strike in South Africa this fall in Charlotte. As always he was optimistic that we would get a great venue, have a good turnout and add value to the city.

Dennis was loved and respected in the community at large and, I would argue, the glue of the local independent film community. He will be greatly missed here on earth, but he is in a far better place.

Nsenga serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and feature stories.

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