It’s before noon on a lazy, hazy Saturday and the usually buzzing Crossroads Collective food hall on the East Side is mellow and serene. It’s my first interview with Geraud Blanks, Milwaukee Film’s first chief innovation officer. I find him seated, waiting with a pensive look on his face that conveys both calm and a sense of urgency. He sips on a blood orange San Pellegrino as we peel back the layers of his winding journey: scholarship track athlete to college drop-out, band manager and music writer, social worker and, finally, his true passion – man about film.
Nowadays, he’s busy making up for the 10-year gap between leaving UW-Milwaukee and finishing his undergraduate degree. At times, that catch-up led him to juggle multiple jobs, working every day and 60 hours a week. His multitasking continues now with his full-time role, working on a Ph.D. dissertation – which he describes as a bombshell about Black identity in America – in communication studies from Northwestern University, and being a husband and dad of three. Detours aside, Blanks embodies one of his favorite quotes by Greek philosopher Archimedes: “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.”
There’s no doubt that the 43-year-old has big plans for himself and the Milwaukee Film Fest, which he wants to make as iconic and noteworthy as Sundance.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is establish something that is uniquely Milwaukee,” says Blanks. “I want people to respect this city.”
Since Blanks’ arrival, Milwaukee Film has launched or grown several new series under his direction, including Black Lens, Cine Sin Fronteras and GenreQueer. The inclusive, multicultural strategy was a call to claim a safe space for all and bridge the gap between festivalgoers, who were 90% white, and the rest of this majority-minority city. It’s grown into Cultures and Communities, a department-level branch of Milwaukee Film helmed by Blanks.
While that effort formally began with Black Lens in 2014, its roots go back to the showing of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete at the Oriental Theater’s big house during the 2013 film festival. The coming-of-age story by two Black filmmakers from Milwaukee – George Tillman Jr., director of Men of Honor, and Michael Starrbury, a writer on the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” – packed in a sold-out, primarily Black audience of about 1,000. That’s when it clicked that, “Holy crap, this could actually work,” says Jonathan Jackson, Milwaukee Film’s CEO.
This community outreach and selection of films to attract Milwaukee’s Black audiences would coalesce into Black Lens, which Blanks co-founded with Donte McFadden, a seasonal film programmer, friend and longtime collaborator from UWM. When McFadden spent his summers in New York teaching, Blanks shepherded the program. What was initially conceived as a relatively compact film series began to grow. “Some people were saying, ‘This was supposed to be eight films; what are they doing?’” says Blanks.
In its first year, 2014, Black Lens had the momentum of a crawl rather than a stampede. Blanks recalls one disappointment in particular: A talkback by director and Black film icon Robert Townsend at a screening of his cult classic Hollywood Shuffle. “We couldn’t give tickets away,” Blanks says.
That turned around in 2017, when a 20th anniversary screening of more recent cult favorite Love Jones, with a discussion led by lead actor Larenz Tate, became a hit. “People had it memorized,” Blanks says, describing the scene in the theater that night. “They’re talking out every single line. … It was great.” Blanks credits the success to a stronger marketing strategy, using social media and radio ads rather than just word of mouth, for a broader reach.
Jackson says Black Lens has always exceeded expectations, even in its inaugural year, and commends Blanks for his savvy film programming, community outreach and community building.
Blanks believes Milwaukee Film is in a class of its own, not only for Black Lens and paying to bring in filmmakers – many other festivals do not – but for the organization’s award-winning education department established from day one.
Milwaukee Film’s four principles, Jackson explains, are making a world-class film festival, promoting youth arts education, achieving year-round engagement, and supporting artists and local filmmakers. Now, with the Cultures and Communities department, a fifth principle has emerged: connecting and centering multicultural programming and diverse audiences.
The Cultures and Communities Festival, a rebranding of Minority Health Film Fest, will take place this month as a weeklong slate of events that balances the educational with the entertaining. It’s a lesson learned from the previous Minority Health fest: People can only take so many statistics on trauma and disease. Now the festival takes a more holistic approach to health. “There’s been a lot of great academic work that wellness is not just dealing with disease and disorder,” Blanks says. “It is preventative, and part of that … is dealing with the things that give you peace, joy and pleasure. Those things actually help you live longer.”
In 2019, Blanks was offered and accepted a full-time position as the director of Cultures and Communities. In a little over a year, his current role was created for him. Today, he’s listed second, beneath only Jackson, in Milwaukee Film’s online directory.
The criteria for Milwaukee Film Festival’s Abele Catalyst Award, named for Milwaukee Film founder and board member Chris Abele, read like a Geraud Blanks mission statement: “think big, aim high, and understand we can always do better.”
And yet Blanks was surprised that he received the 2021 Abele Catalyst Award, in part because getting to where he is now – and the buy-in from his bosses – has taken time, convincing and, ultimately, asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Most of his years with Milwaukee Film he was just a part-time staffer, quietly building upon his big ideas that eventually became Cultures and Communities. “I got pushback six out of the seven years,” he says.
Pathfinding his way from volunteer and part-time staffer in 2014 to his current role was a personal triumph for Blanks – two or three jobs becoming one, seven days a week becoming six. (A habit like hard work is tough to break.)
And he retells with excitement the moment that, as Blanks describes it, Jackson admitted that he’s always right. When I tell Jackson about this, his boss bursts into laughter. “I will say that I’m somewhat known for my sarcasm,” he says. “I don’t know about that ‘always,’ but I’d for sure say frequently.”
The criteria for Milwaukee Film Festival’s Abele Catalyst Award read like a Geraud Blanks mission statement: “think big, aim high, and understand we can always do better.”
The blueprint for Blanks’ methods began with rejection.
Blanks, then a student on a track scholarship at UWM, presented the Black Student Union with an idea for a poetry open mic. They declined.
While lamenting to his then girlfriend, Janina Lundy, she noted that any UWM student could start their own student organization. It was Blanks’ “aha” moment.
It led Blanks and an ambitious squad of friends, including McFadden and Lundy, with later help from Nichole Yunk Todd, to create SCOPE (Student Creative Outreach Providing Education/Entertainment), a student organization that, in its prime, was a pillar of Black culture at UWM.
The group proved themselves visionaries for social programming. They were able to book literary giant Maya Angelou to speak in 2000. Blanks was told that it was the largest crowd for a non-sporting event at the university’s Klotsche Center and Pavilion in UWM history. (Blanks humble-brags that Angelou was their third choice, after Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison.) They launched Woodson Week, a series of events and programs on Black culture that ran for 10 years in honor of Carter G. Woodson, a historian, journalist and father of Black History Month. SCOPE’s open mic became one of the city’s hottest at that time.
Blanks produced the spoken-word CD Soul Unseen, which featured notable Milwaukee poets. He developed and managed the nationally performing social hip-hop group Black Elephant, which drew comparisons to The Roots for its combination of rap vocals and a live band. Just 20 years old at the time but driven by passion, Blanks managed to finesse the Bader Foundation with his causes, raising nearly $75,000 for SCOPE.
After UWM, he worked 10 years in social work, including stints at Sojourner Family Peace Center and other organizations working with the homeless and domestic violence survivors. With so much experience in large-scale programming, music production and media (Blanks also worked five years as a freelance music writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), social work might seem like an awkward fit. Rather, his experience is more like gumbo – a mixture of diverse ingredients melding into one finely curated skillset that allows Blanks to understand people beyond face value. It’s the bedrock of his history of successful events and community outreach.
Blanks points to two life-changing moments that prompted him to go back to school full-time in 2013. First, his daughter, Karma, was born in 2011. And then he was passed over for a job for which he says he was uniquely qualified – because he didn’t have a degree.
Blanks reflects that with his first college-go-round, he didn’t have the right work ethic.
Today, that work ethic is “off the charts,” according to his mom, Deborah Blanks, who’s both counsel and coach to her son and a trailblazer in her own right.
“My mom is one of those rare people who knows how to do a little bit of everything,” says Geraud. She’s also never missed his sports games, cheering on her son in baseball, football, basketball, tennis and track during his formative years from Morse Middle School to Marshall High despite the high demands of her career, which ultimately positioned her as CEO of Social Development Commission, a Milwaukee community action agency, from 1997 to 2013.
She passed down her love of sports, film, creativity and history – she began quizzing him on Black history facts at the age of 10 – all of which continues to nourish their relationship, friends as much as mother and son.
She and Geraud took her longtime dream of publishing a Black history book, and repurposed it into an app to educate today’s youth on their culture, Blackistory, which launched during Black History Month this year.
In 1979, when Geraud was less than a year old, Deborah divorced Geraud’s father, Kenneth Blanks, deciding to raise him as a single mom. They moved from Champaign, Illinois, and ended up in Milwaukee.
That decision, no doubt, is what created the unbreakable bond the two share not only as family, but also business partners and even neighbors in Shorewood.
Though Blanks has a relationship with his dad, the father figure he had growing up and models himself after was his maternal uncle, Tony Clements, who died of cancer in 2017. Blanks credits the unrelenting drive that’s now his calling card to wanting to make his mom and uncle proud.
“I was really torn up because when he died, I felt like, damn, I didn’t get there yet. But he left a legacy for me and my family,” he says. “I think about legacy all the time.”
Today, Deborah runs Kairo Communications, founded by Geraud in 2001. The family- owned business that consults organizations on developing culturally responsive practices published her first book, Weaving Diversity into the Fabric of America, in 2001, as well as Black Elephant’s music and a number of other collateral projects. Throughout his life, they’ve served as each other’s sounding boards.
Luckily for Blanks, being surrounded by exceptional women is a lifestyle. Both his wife and daughter (elder to twin brothers, ages 3) are equally orbiting stars. Element Everest-Blanks recalls how she first won his respect as a talented singer-rapper before winning his heart.
The two met in college, during the photo shoot for Soul Unseen. Element came with her friend, a featured poet on the CD, but after performing her rap verse for Geraud, he wanted her on the project. Ultimately, the synergy of Element, Derrick Harriell and Dameon Ellzey formed Black Elephant, one of Milwaukee’s beloved bands that made three albums as a group from 2002 to 2005.
After experiencing break-ups almost simultaneously, Geraud and Element soon discovered a bud of romance that has blossomed into a young family.
Their eldest is a social media influencer at the tender age of 10. Karma is the premier creator on Zigazoo, an app comparable to TikTok that gives kids a safe space to create, learn and be social in an age-appropriate manner. Karma’s account, @trendingwithkarma, has over 3,000 subscribers, second only to the app’s founders. Element recently brokered a deal with Zigazoo that covers past and future pay for all of Karma’s
content. She’s now an official Zigazoo content creator with 15,000 views on her first video, and recently started an Instagram page.
She’s walking her parents’ creative paths in other ways, as well, assisting with Atwater Elementary’s Black culture programming. Making it all the more impressive is Karma’s diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum.
Her 3-year-old twin brothers, Kairo and Nazir, are budding creatives, too, with their own Zigazoo profile.
While life is nonstop, duty calls. One of Milwaukee Film’s biggest takeaways from the past 18 months was how to pivot and thrive virtually, thanks to COVID-19. Though the virtual festivals were successful (513 passes sold for the Minority Film Fest in 2020 and a million media impressions for 2021’s Black History Month programming), corporate sponsorships all but came to a halt.
In an effort to respond to the needs of organizational donors dealing with efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion, Milwaukee Film established Engage and Activate. The organization describes it a “film-based vicarious learning model” that uses “the affective power of film to confront stigmas and remove barriers to understanding, as it provides insight into the shared human condition.”
“If you could imagine, it’s Ahmaud Arbery, it’s Breonna Taylor, it’s George Floyd, all of this is happening,” Blanks says. “People were going to work not sure if they wanted to be there.”
Blanks hand-picks films based on a business’s proposed topics and curates discussion questions that promote understanding and bridging of cultural gaps. It’s the emotional release people need to cope, all built around film.
One late Thursday afternoon, Blanks and I are sitting at his desk in Milwaukee Film’s offices at Nō Studios. During a non-pandemic festival season, the space is bustling with about 20 people, but today we have the area of cubicles to ourselves. Before I can ask why he doesn’t have his own office, Blanks heads me off: “I prefer it out here. I like the space.” He says he’s been urged multiple times to take an office, and has briefly considered it, calling attention to his disheveled desk and several dozen plastic bags scrunched, collected and stuffed in a vertical shelf visible to passersby. Discarding them seems wasteful, he says.
Daylight streams through the slit of window left from drawn shades that line the exuberantly designed turquoise and tangerine space. The bright colors are offset by exposed brick walls to the south of the building and accented with wood paneling that trails up the painted walls, across the ceilings throughout the offices like a roadmap.
Blanks is dressed smart-casual – a navy gingham plaid shirt, dark slacks and practical brown sandals.
The interview loses focus, the conversation drifting into Black culture on TV and film, and the Catch-22 of representation, success and rapid growth, from “Martin” to “Good Times” to Netflix’s contentious Malcolm and Marie. The largely panned, one-location film tells the story of a dysfunctional couple in a claws-out, revolving argument.
“There were parts where I saw myself in him,” Blanks admits, referring to the title character, a filmmaker on the brink of Hollywood glory. “I am driven to the point where I don’t care about anything at all other than what I’m trying to get to, and a part of that drive is the feeling that you’re never gonna make it unless you keep working.”
It’s a feeling he credits to hovering insecurity. The critic in him comes out as he continues.
“There’re parts of it where I was struck by the utter brilliance of it, but then there were moments of it that felt like torture. And then it just felt like a writer falling in love with his words” – a problem he says he can relate to with his own screenplays.
And that, of course, is his first love. “I got an Oscar waiting for me on this screenplay, and I got this dissertation,” he says. “Remember when Ta-Nehisi Coates hit? It ain’t gon’ be nothing like this dissertation.”
He warns it’s controversial. “It’s about the connection of Black death, trauma and suffering to Black identity,” he explains. “Because of slavery, because of all the movements that have happened since then, a lot of how we think of Blackness is through surviving trauma.”
With the last question answered, Blanks picks up a campaign he began back in his first interview: for MilMag to upgrade the piece to a cover story. We both chuckle, but then his eyes widen, voice booms and arms flail as
he leans in: He’ll be bigger than big; it’s just a matter of time. “When that book hits, when that screenplay hits, if I get the cover now, then I’ll come back to you.” Despite the sly smile curled across his lips, he’s not joking. [Editor’s note: Sorry, Geraud – #BucksinSix!]
Much like Archimedes, Blanks fully appreciates the power of opportunity and leverage, and he’s not taking either for granted.
Five Picks: Cultures & Communities Festival
Milwaukee Film’s Cultures & Communities Festival runs Sept. 6-12 in a hybrid format that allows guests to attend events in person or take part on a virtual platform. More events and details at mkefilm.org/ccf
1. Michelle Williams: Getting Real About Depression. A headline conversation with the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, Destiny’s Child member, actress and author of memoir Checking In: How Getting Real about Depression Saved My Life – And Can Save Yours. Sept. 8
2. Culture Clash: Fusing Culinary Traditions That Bring Us Together. Chefs Jason Alston and Alex Hanesakda combine African American and Laotian barbecue – plus a discussion of the rich tradition of Black barbecue with 88Nine Radio Milwaukee host Tarik Moody and culinary historian and barbecue judge Adrian Miller. Sept. 9
3. Minari. Overlooked by audiences due to the pandemic despite being one of the year’s best films, this movie follows a Korean-American family facing instability and challenges after moving to an Arkansas farm. Sept. 11
4. Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo. Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma has screened for only a few audiences in the United States, and this will soon be one of them. Her 2019 documentary follows the sudden re-emergence of soul singer D’Angelo. Virtual screenings only, Sept. 6-10
5. All These Sons. This film from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Bing Liu (Minding the Gap) and co-director Joshua Altman shows the impact of crime in Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods. Sept. 10 – Mary Ellen Ritter