A scene from Darol Olu Kae's "Keeping Time"

Melissa Lyde on the Extraordinary Projections of Alfreda’s Cinema

In New York where there’s a dazzling array of screenings on any given night, the programs of Alfreda’s Cinema have a habit of standing out.

“It’s so easy to do what everyone else is doing, so why not do something different?” says Melissa Lyde, the founder of the microcinema that has popped up in all of the city’s most venerated venues from Film Forum to BAM. “That’s really what I enjoy focusing on, as an avid cinephile in NYC. I’m exposed to so much, I need to discover new and never-before-seen films and create once-in-a-lifetime film experiences. And if it’s special for me, I know it’ll be special for our audience.”

A pair of programs in the next week will showcase the kind of vibrant curation that Lyde has become known for, first partnering with the Museum of the City of New York’s Sarah Seidman for the series “Black Documentary Shorts” this Saturday, February 10th as part of an ongoing “Activists on Screen” survey, in which 1970s films “Black Faces” and “We Need A J-O-B So We Can E-A-T,” capturing the Black experience in Harlem and Queens, respectively, will sit alongside contemporary films “Down the Barrel (of a Lens)” and “RADIANT” that reflect the ever-present shadow of police on communities of color. Then on Thursday, February 15th, Alfreda’s Cinema will be taking over the BAM Rose Cinemas for “Most Powerful, a message to the Black Man,” affording a number of exciting filmmakers on the rise to break ground formally themselves as they tell stories about self-expression, from Anthony Jamari Thomas’ “Okomfo,” which enlists dance artists Niara Hardister and Jay Parel to relate a Ghanian myth about siblings whose bond transcends the natural world, to Darol Olu Kae’s “Keeping Time,” which profiles the Pan African Peoples Arkestra out of Los Angeles during a transitional period for the revered avant-garde jazz collective as a torch is passed between generations. Films from Greg Harris (“Silhouettes”), Jard Lerebours (“Pandrog”), Zonqu (“a feeling people”) and Jamil McGinnis (“As Time Passes”) promise powerful articulations of identity separate from any societal constructs, with deeply rooted storytelling traditions renewed and refreshed for a new era.

For Lyde, the cinema may respond to what’s happening in the moment, but it becomes a space removed from time where one is bound to see the future as much as history and with Alfreda’s Cinema, she’s been unbound by conventional notions of what a movie experience can be and instead thinks of what it should be. She once staged a screening of “Daughters of the Dust” on Riis Beach in Queens to recreate the feeling of being around the Gullah, complete with dancing and sonnets, and even when screening inside a more typical theater, finds a way to give audiences something to take with them, whether bringing together rare and personal shorts such as her 2022 program “Let’s Just Do It Ourselves” that presented Black women enduring the slings and arrows of living in the city could inspire others to carry on, or taking more well-known fare such as “Love Jones” and having people cross the street to essentially step into the world of the film with a poetry reading. While Alfreda’s Cinema is taking steps towards a permanent brick-and-mortar home with an ongoing crowdsourcing campaign, it has already secured status as an institution in the city with Lyde giving a view of it more akin to what it looked like to her growing up there and recently, she generously took the time to talk about her upcoming programs, the evolution of Alfreda’s Cinema and how she came to trust her curatorial voice.

How did this series “Most Powerful” come about?

I really wanted to give a platform for emerging black men and men of color, and at the same time, I had also been struggling with masculinity in terms of how it’s been perceived in the public lately. There’s been a real discourse on toxic masculinity, but there’s so many aspects and masculinity is a shade of it, It’s not just one thing, and it was just feeling like a conversation I think we need to have [about] how is masculinity redefined by the younger generation, and what it really means to them. Overall, in the space of creating this program, it felt like a lot of these men were speaking to divine masculinity, which, in my opinion, is being present in your purpose, so a lot of the films reflect that, just being secure in yourself and speaking to your masculinity as a power.

These are filmmakers who I’ve worked with in the past, who’ve been incredibly supportive of Alfreda’s Cinema, specifically Darol Kae. I’ve been following his career for a while when he started with [the experimental shorts program] Black Radical Imagination, and then to see him transition into a filmmaker, and to experience his work, it was so profound to me. It was the film [“Keeping Time”] that really kicked off this program as a whole and then the other filmmakers who were so supportive to Alfreda’s Cinema, and [were] speaking to poetic cinema as well as Darol’s work was a great opportunity to showcase all of them together.

When you are dealing in poetry, was it interesting to figure out the right order to play these in?

It was more serendipitous than interesting because when you’re specifically looking for something that feels like poetry, then the films definitely start to speak to one another before you even have an opportunity to really put it into a sequence. I allow them to just happen overall, but it was fun to put them together because then you start making connections. A lot of them have a very strong musical element — a dynamic soundtrack if not a physical performance, so these films speak in tandem to music.

I noticed a connection between this program and another you’ve recently helped put together, “Activists on Screen: Black Doc Shorts” with the inclusion of Zonqu’s work in both. Does one idea lead to another?

They didn’t, but Zonqu is a filmmaker and artist who has really dedicated so much of their attention to being such a visual aspect for Alfreda’s Cinema that when I was putting together both of these programs, it was so easy to ask them to contribute to both. Sarah Seidman, one of the curators at the Museum of the City of New York, invited me to participate in an “Activists on Screen” program, and so we’ve been showcasing films since November, and our series continues through the end of April. This particular focus is on short documentaries that really speak to the Black experience as it relates to public services and our interactions with the police in New York and how that has affected us. Two films that I’m really excited about in that series are “Black Faces,” [which] I have screened before, but this is the first time I’m screening “We Need a J-O-B So We Can E-A-T” to the public [which] I’ve only seen it privately, and it was loaned to us by a special collection of Jake Perlin.

You actually programmed a wonderful series at Film Forum, “New York Eats Its Young,” which like the doc program would be as much about a relationship to New York as much as anything else. Is that of interest?

I was actually brought into working with the museum because I was a part of a committee of curators and programmers and film scholars and professors tasked to put together an exhibition on New York on film, and in tandem with the exhibit that’s currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York, Film Forum had invited me to specifically program a selection of short films that initially was to recreate James Baldwin’s “Harlem” to really speak to what it feels like to grow up in New York as a person of color. “New York Eats Its Young” was that program, and it was very well received.

As a born-and-raised Brooklynite, the city is so much a part of my visual history, visual landscape. I can’t help but cherish it. But it’s funny that you mentioned that only because I would love to do a program on like Black L.A., so as much as I do focus on New York, I’m looking forward to offer more experiences of life lived in other parts of the nation and the world. But I also still feel like the [cinematic] experience of growing up in New York programmed by a New Yorker is still rare. A lot of that programming isn’t done by people actually from here, and I really just wanted to give that its own special focus as a born and raised native.

What you’re doing is so special and it’s been interesting to see you do it all without a permanent home. How have you navigated programming in the city?

I initially started Alfreda’s Cinema as a residency at Videology and then it was picked up as a residency at Metrograph, [where] we were for four years. It was great, and I really got a chance to just learn the craft of programming because you really do need to learn how to do it versus going to school for it. That really gave me the space to expand our reach in terms of social media and helped to build my reputation, [which] made it a lot easier when I introduced myself to other theaters. Then there were some shifts at that theater,, and I was looking to see what the next phase for Alfreda’s Cinema [would be]. I’ve been working [towards] opening up my own physical place, but I do enjoy collaborating and brainstorming with other cinemas to create something special for their audience and my audience at the same time.

Is there a program that you’ve been particularly proud of putting together from over the years?

Honestly, every single program I’ve ever done has been genius, so it’s hard to choose one. But “The Education of Sonny Carson” felt like a moment where I had come into my own. It took me seven years to find the copyright owner for that film because the main person had passed away some years ago and it certainly was a film that had gone lost over the years, so this was a real excavation. Sourcing the print materials was as difficult as it was to find the right people to speak to about pursuing this film and it was a lesson in how everything could go wrong. But it’s so funny because once the film starts, the audience has absolutely no clue what you went through to show the film. They don’t even think about it. All they see is the film, and honestly, I love that part of it.

The filmmaker Michael Campus passed away, but we were able to bring in two of the current living stars of the film Joyce Walker and Rony Clanton, who is Hampton Clanton now, and they hadn’t [been in] a Q & A [together] in over 50 years, so it was very special, And a lot of the screenings I do really are things that speak to my personal growth. I didn’t go to school for [programming]. I went to the school of hard knocks, so you really have to just figure it out and understand what the audience is looking for, what’s working for them, and at the same time, be true to yourself. People really respond to what you’re passionate about, and if that resonates, then everyone has a wonderful night. That’s the most important thing is to be both entertaining and give people their money’s worth.

“Activists on Screen: Black Documentary Shorts” will screen at the Museum of the City of New York on February 10th at 3 pm and “Most Powerful, a message to the Black Man” will screen at BAM Rose Cinemas on February 15th at 7 pm. To keep up with Alfreda’s Cinema programming, you can follow them on Instagram and X.

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