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Alumni Spotlight: LaRome Armstrong

Reprinted with permission from UTD Mercury
Written by Lauren Buell

LaRome Armstrong doesn't shy away from a challenge.

Armstrong created the Dallas Black Film Festival (DBFF) in 2003, persevered in challenging classes at UTD and wrote a letter that earned him public recognition from Spike Lee. He recovered from a film project sabotaged by a crew member and continues to direct. He learned the Ethiopian language Amharic from his grandmother and friends, and Portuguese from a girlfriend. Armstrong graduated from UTD in 1994 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, and said he still values lessons learned at his alma mater.

Armstrong said he created the DBFF because nothing comparable existed in the southwest at the time.

"At end of 2002, I noticed there were a lot of independent film festivals throughout the nation. I'd go to places like Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Florida, Colorado and encounter mainstream film festivals and ethnic film festivals, and I said, 'no one's doing this in Dallas or even in Texas. I'm an independent film maker myself, why don't I try to put together a film festival,'" Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the DBFF awards first, second and third place honors to films screened at the festival, but also screens seminal films by and about African Americans to pay homage to independent black filmmakers who were ahead of their time. The festival was originally staged at the Act of Change Cultural Institute in Oak Cliff, but gradually outgrew the venue. The sixth annual DBFF will appear at the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park in summer 2008.

Armstrong remembers classes with Dennis Kratz, dean of Arts and Humanities, and general studies professor David Wright as particularly influential experiences at UTD.

"I made a short film called "It Came from Fableville" in Dr. Dennis Kratz's class and he thought it was pretty good. He was a fun professor. I learned a lot from him-he was open minded, had a broad focus about the world and he was a big influence on me," Armstrong said.

Wright taught a class about the nature of intellectual inquiry that profoundly affected his world view and tested his academic determination, Armstrong said.

"Wright intimidated a lot of people. The first few weeks we had 60 people in the class, and by midterms half of them had dropped. He combined a lot of different disciplines in the class-science, math, literature, religion and ethics. We had to be able to do math, but we also had to be able to do critical analysis," Armstrong said.

Wright's class galvanized Armstrong's determination to succeed. He'd thought of attending other universities, he said, but selected UTD because of its strong academic reputation. Armstrong said he watched people transfer to other schools that were more expensive, but were supposed to be less academically challenging.

"Wright would make comments on my papers, essentially saying 'do you think you can handle this?' At the end of the semester, I told him 'I thought you were a racist. I thought you were being tough on me because I was this black guy in your class who seemed cocky, because I sat in the front and participated in every conversation.' Wright said, 'no, I never thought that at all. I actually thought you were very sharp, that's why I challenged you regularly,'" Armstrong said. "It made me reevaluate how I looked at people in terms of race relations. I ended up getting an A or B in his class, maybe one other person got an A."

Armstrong worked full time while he attended UTD, and said a vegan diet and teaching and performing many styles of dance helped him sustain the energy level and discipline his schedule required. He's been a vegetarian since he was 20.

A Dallas native, Armstrong came from a family of eight. His father died when he was six. Armstrong's mother, who he said still hopes he'll complete a master's degree, became his greatest role model. He said his mother taught him responsibility, respect for education and the importance of travel and exposure to the world. Armstrong said his childhood exposed him to friends from different races and cultures.

Armstrong is a social worker in Dallas, helping people he says have been "thrown out of society." He says his work puts him in contact with interesting people who inspire his art and sometimes have horrific stories to tell.

Spike Lee became a mentor to Armstrong after a 1989 letter to the iconic black filmmaker led to regular correspondence. "Do the Right Thing," a film about racial conflict in Brooklyn, had just come out, and Armstrong and several friends wrote to Lee and asked for assistance with their own artistic careers.

"I said I was interested in being a filmmaker, and asked his advice. In his first letter, he suggested things to do, told me what not to do and wished me luck. He signed the typewritten letter and included his address and phone number. I didn't ask him to do anything for me, I just wanted advice. I wanted to do these things on my own, as opposed to saying "can you help me,' or 'help a brother out.'"

Armstrong said he framed the letter because it remains more meaningful to him than the letters that followed. He believes his sincerity and personal initiative earned him a reply, while Lee met more demanding letters from Armstrong's friends with silence. Lee's suggestions and warnings have proven correct over the years, Armstrong said. The filmmaker pen-pals met face-to-face when Lee spoke at UTA in 1992.

"I went with my friends and it was completely packed. Lee spoke, then someone asked what he needed to do to be in one of Lee's films. He said, 'why don't you ask-is LaRome Armstrong in the audience?' I stood up and everyone was like, 'You know Spike Lee?' He thanked me for the letters, and I thanked him. Lee told the guy, 'You need to ask LaRome what's going on in Texas, and maybe you can make some movies.' That made other people come up to me and say 'I want to work with you.' It got me the my crew for my first film in Texas, 'Across the Bridge,'" Armstrong said.

Armstrong describes "Across the Bridge" as "the best film never made." After months of work shooting in three film formats, an ex-girlfriend paid a sound engineer to steal several of the DAT tapes that contained the audio for the film.

"I had a good crew-I found them all through the Spike Lee recommendation, but the sound guy I found through someone else. It left me quite sad. I've shown as much of it as I could at film festival, but without audio, you can only show so much. I'll probably redo it as a short film at some point," Armstrong said.

Armstrong is directing a docudrama called "Brothers and Sisters Let's Talk," which showcases opinions and dialogues from men and women about relationships, economics, religion, education, politics and race relations. He says the film explores the diversity within the black community, a topic he said came up in Kratz's class.

"Some people seem to think blacks are this unified group with a leader, and Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan speaks for all black people. That's incorrect… We might share a common experience of being black in the country, but that doesn't mean that experience is relevant to our day to day experience," Armstrong said.

The ways people live and deal with conflict, Armstrong said, is based on their upbringing, mores and social environment. On film, he said, these differences make for interesting social commentary.

Armstrong said gender issues often accompany race issues, and "Brothers and Sisters Let's Talk," addresses gender issues involving men, women, gays, bisexuals and lesbians. He hopes to screen the film before next summer's DBFF.

More information about the DBFF can be found at www.dallasblackfilmfestival.com.

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