DeJunius Hughes wasn't nothin' nice. Through grit, mother wit and his fiery determination to realize the autonomy of Black cinema, Hughes changed the Twin Cities film scene. His death leaves enormous shoes for someone to try and fill if Hughes' seminal, pioneering work is to be sustained. DeJunius Hughes wasn't nothin' nice. Through grit, mother wit and his fiery determination to realize the autonomy of Black cinema, Hughes changed the Twin Cities film scene. His death leaves enormous shoes for someone to try and fill if Hughes' seminal, pioneering work is to be sustained.
A curator, exhibitor and producer-director of renown and acumen, DeJunius also executed a balancing act worthy of the most daring high-wire walker: he kept his cultural integrity and got mainstream funding at the same time. In fact, his profound legacy, the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, had its very origin in an updust that saw Hughes defy the status quo and still cash their checks.
Back around the late 1980s through early '90s, he was on board with the Walker Art Center to screen Black film from here and around the world. The way he told it to me (and we talked about it a few times), it was your characteristic instance of those in authority deciding they know how to authenticate your culture better than you do. Hughes being Hughes, Dejunius threw up his hands and embarked on own. Hence the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, which drew innovative work from across the country and around the world. He also spiced the series up with keynote guests (Al Freeman, Jr. for instance), showcasing ground-breaking titles (Eve's Bayou long before the rest of America lauded director Kasi Lemmons).
In a funky little South Minneapolis office suite, DeJunius Hughes would hustle as hard as only a street veteran can, getting the rights to show this film, angling to fund an appearance by that luminary and never have so much as a ruffled feather. He knew how to calmly be in control of what needed to be done and how to do it. At The Playwrights' Center in 1992 or '93, DeJunius attended a town meeting of sorts to address, among other issues, nurturing African American playwriting in the Twin Cities. Flat out refusing to go for the okey-doke, Hughes flatly challenged the organization to put integrity where its mouth was (don't take my word for it, actor-director Terry Bellamy was there, too). Calm went right out the window as he dressed the administrators up and down in no uncertain terms, denouncing their practice of marginalizing Black talent - which included August Wilson who, thanks to then-executive director Carol Bly's concerted intervention, got around Playwright Center cliques ignoring his talent and placed Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Hughes did more than blow hot hair: not long after that, The Playwrights' Center inaugurated Kuumba, probably Minneapolis' first Black playwriting workshop.
DeJunius, needless to say, was a character. Forceful, charming, intuitive and, generally, the wrong guy to argue with: he could get so ornery, you thought about keeping your distance, just in case the boxer (he fought in the ring at one time) in him made an unheralded appearance. And when you got along with him or you didn't, you couldn't deny that he was about an industrious force of nature as ever walked on two feet.
Ultimately, the man changed things. By way of the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, DeJunius Hughes, as only he could, left cinema an enriched field, much more culturally viable than it was when he found it.