A long line of people posed for a photo in front of a projection of the JXN Film Festival logo and QR Code
Filmmakers and staff stand for a group photo at the Jxn Film Festival press conference on July 10, 2023, at the Capri Theater, the first movie theater in Jackson in decades. The theater will host multiple film screenings for the Jxn Film Festival, which begins on July 23, 2023. Photo by Aliyah Veal

‘We Are All We Need’: Jxn Film Festival Tells Mississippi Stories, Builds Local Film Industry

Dr. Tonea Stewart remembers a time she encouraged a young lady who loved singing and acting to leave Mississippi and attend the University of California, Los Angeles for theater after she graduated college. The woman did not believe her skills were honed enough outside the confines of Jackson, Miss., but Stewart was firm.

“Let me explain something to you,” the professor, an actress herself, said. “A lot of creativity is born out of pain, and Mississippi has a lot of pain. It’s highly creative. We have world-class writers, singers and creatives that come out of here.”

“You should pursue it,” Stewart insisted.

What Stewart did not know when she gave that advice, though, was that the graduate needed to remain in Mississippi to tend to her disabled mother so that her sister could attend college. She had to abandon her dream for the time being because Mississippi had next to no active outlets for professional acting.

Years later, the former student attended a screening of Maximus Wright’s film, “Soul Damage.” She felt the film suffered because of a casting choice that resulted in a subpar portrayal of a key character. Sensing an opportunity, the woman introduced herself to Wright and told him she believes she could embody the character more accurately.

Dr. Cynthia Milton in a black top and white necklace
Dr. Cynthia Maxie Milton got her first speaking role in one of Maximus Wright’s films at the age of 40 after letting the craft go due to the lack of outlets in Mississippi. Photo courtesy Dr. Cynthia Milton

The following year, she landed her first speaking role in a film in Mississippi at the age of 40. She actualized something she thought was impossible, and she was proud. That woman, Dr. Cynthia Maxie Milton, went on to become the public relations director for the Jxn Film Festival.

“And that’s what that is about. It’s about dreams. It’s about us telling our own stories. It’s about moving forward. It’s about economic development,” Milton said of the Jxn Film Festival at a press conference inside the Capri Theater on July 10, 2023.

“I so wish that that 21-year-old me would have had an outlet to learn film, to act and to still say, ‘I can still pursue this dream. I don’t have to go to L.A., and I can still take care of my mom,” Milton added.

‘Creating 100 Mississippi Filmmakers in Seven Years’

The Jxn Film Festival will host workshops, screenings and a black-tie gala at different locations across Jackson from July 23 to July 28. This year, the festival has received 73 submissions, and some of those entries will include international filmmakers who are attending the festival for the first time.

“What you are gonna see is variety. You’re gonna see variety from across the world. China, Canada, North, West, East coast, here in the South,” Maximus Wright, the festival’s founder and director, told the audience. “The diversity of the festival is very unique. What you’re gonna expect that week is transformative interaction. And what’s gonna happen is that you’re gonna have people come in and make relationships.”

Wright said he is most impressed with the repeat filmmakers who probably did not take home any wins at last year’s Black Tie Gala but have come back motivated, ready to learn and to win awards.

Men sit in a dim auditorium for the Jackson Film Festival
Jxn Film Festival founder and director Maximus Wright (right) listens to Dr. Tonea Stewart in 2022 as she holds an acting masterclass that the Jxn Film Festival organized last year. File Photo by Lukas Flippo

The director said the festival is not just about showing great projects, but about building infrastructure and providing the training necessary so that Mississippi filmmakers can compete with anyone in the world.

“I have a mission to create 100 filmmakers in the next seven years,” he said. “And filmmakers are not just people who stand behind the camera. Filmmakers are everything from makeup artists to set designers to people who edit to people who camera operate.”

Wright said Mississippians need to focus on building the infrastructure for a local film industry and getting the workforce here trained to meet the standards Hollywood expects. As of now, studios filming here have to import talent from other areas because our workforce does not largely have the kind of nuanced training needed to get those jobs.

“Those are the types of things that we have to get our legislature to buy into and let them see that this is workforce development,” Wright explained. “And if we do that, then we’re saving millions of dollars, and we’re keeping them here to stay.”

A man speaks from a podium labeled Jxn Film
Maximus Wright told an audience at the Jxn Film Festival press conference inside the Capri Theater on Monday, July 10, 2023, that he has a goal of mentoring and breaking out 100 Mississippi filmmakers in seven years. Photo by Aliyah Veal

The festival founder also wants to encourage film-induced tourism, which can only be done if we start controlling the narratives and show the beauty and diversity of Mississippi, he said. After filmmakers shot the 1970s movie “Deliverance” in Rabun County, Ga., the local area drew thousands of visitors each year for white-water rafting.

“That’s why it’s very important that we create films that show who we really are because based off what they see on television, some of us shouldn’t even be in the room here,” Wright said. “And this theater would still be segregated.”

Mississippi: ‘Moving and Shaking’ the World

The Jxn Film Festival has also developed a partnership with HBCUs in L.A. HBCU students with an interest in film; those who can demonstrate their talents may qualify for internships in California, New York or Georgia. There, they can work with companies like Paramount, Disney, Pixar and other major companies.

“We have also reached out to the Hinds Community College Utica campus’ cosmetology department with Dr. Lychanda Coleman-Brown, who is part of the 100 filmmakers, and she is also training,” Wright said. “We just sent our first student there who graduated from Germantown High School with the hopes of being part of the HBCU in L.A. program.”

The Jxn Film Festival seeks to not only highlight Mississippi filmmakers but build infrastructure for a local film industry and develop a workforce that meets the standards of Hollywood. Photo courtesy Jxn Film Festival

The festival is run as a nonprofit, so students can also gain knowledge, experience and community service hours by volunteering for the Jxn Film Festival. The festival welcomes any and all volunteers who would like to help provide a welcome experience for people new to the state.

“We are trying to make an impact, and if we’re going to be inviting people to the state, we can’t look like we’re barely getting over,” Wright said. “We’ve got to make an impression. We have to be the hospitality state.”

Mississippi Film Office Director Nina Parikh said their goal at the film office is not only geared to economic development but nurturing the emerging storytellers in Mississippi so that we’re telling our own stories.

“Hollywood doesn’t always get those nuances correct, but maybe if we’re telling our own stories, we can share that with the world in a much more honest and nuanced way, so that we can make a bigger impact in the world,” Parikh said at the press conference.

“We are hoping that we will recognize what I’ve always known: we are all we need,” Wright said at the podium. “If Mississippi comes together, there’s absolutely nothing we can’t accomplish, and I absolutely believe that. When you really start looking at the people who are moving and shaking in the world, they’re from Mississippi.”

To register for events during the Jxn Film Festival and learn more about the nonprofit, visit jxnfilmfestival.com. The Jxn Film Festival will take place throughout Jackson starting July 23 and ending on July 28, 2023. 


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