Sergio Mims, a film critic, journalist, historian and raconteur who made a career out of written and audio commentary on cinema, and who put his love and encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and opera to use on a longtime WHPK radio show, died on Oct. 4 at the age of 67.
His Sun-Times obituary reports that he had been in failing health.
He was born in 1955 to Ulester, who preceded him in death, and Gladys Mims, who survives him, and attended Kenwood Academy before matriculating at the University of Illinois Chicago.
He was a movie buff from a young age, and in 1982 helped found Chicago's first Black-oriented film festival, the Blacklight Festival of International Black Cinema, with Terry Glover and Floyd Webb.
Mims had been working in Los Angeles at the time of the festival's founding and was an assistant director on Jamaa Fanaka's 1979 blaxploitation drama "Penitentiary" in addition to some other films. Screenwriter Dwayne Johnson-Cochran, who met Mims in the 1980s, thinks those early experiences compelled him to promote Black filmmakers.
"He was such a film impresario and knew everything about what was going on in Chicago," Johnson-Cochran said. "He loved filmmakers who were Chicago-based or moved to LA to become filmmakers. They'd call Sergio when they wanted to have a screening or have their film reviewed. He would sit with Siskel and Ebert up there at the State and Lake screening room all the time, and he would really, really push all types of films."
Webb recalled Mims’ knowledge of early cinema when they first met, noting his contacts with Phyllis R. Klotman of the Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University Bloomington.
"I started the festival kind of out of the need of going back and forth to LA and being told that there was no market for Black cinema, and we decided to create our own network. So Sergio joined with us in that," he said.
Mims stayed with the festival after Webb left the project, which evolved into the Black Harvest Film Festival, the 28th edition of which will run from Nov. 4 through Nov. 27 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 S. State St.
While Mims was known for his expertise in early depictions of Black people on film and the blaxploitation genre, a movement of exploitation films in the 1970s largely made by Black filmmakers for Black audiences, longtime friend Keith Boseman said he was also "phenomenal in world cinema."
"He was a master of it, and he could compare Black cinema movements with the French 'nouvelle vague,' with Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Éric Rohmer," Boseman said. "He was diverse across all those fields, and he was able to make associations between Black cinema and world Black cinema. He was part of Black Lights, but he knew African film, Caribbean film, films from Papua New Guinea. He was able to take that to another level."
Action movies, epics and Westerns were other favored genres; Walter Hill, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were favored directors. But so were the actors James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Humphrey Bogart, icons of the film noir era.
"He knew about all that stuff. He was an encyclopedia of cinema," Boseman said. "He knew about genre."
Mims was able to put that expertise to use through a large number of professional means. He was a sought-after panelist for talks and film festivals and provided audio commentary on a wide variety of movies. He co-founded the African diasporic-focused Shadow and Act film and television web portal, wrote criticism for the website Indiewire and N'DIGO, the longtime Black Chicago lifestyle publication, and critiqued scripts.
Johnson-Cochran recalled that Mims would ask him to put him in touch with filmmakers whose work he poorly reviewed so that he could give them personal feedback; he was also tough on people who did not fulfill their potential. He would also say when filmmakers' work was beyond their wheelhouse and instruct them to go back and work in the genre they did well.
"He was interested in filmmakers doing what they do well. That's what his big thing was," Johnson-Cochran said. "He understood the box office."
Mims told South Side Weekly in a 2014 interview that he did not consider himself a film critic anymore.
"I consider myself a film journalist," he said. "I don’t write reviews much anymore — I will do reviews on the radio show, but I find it’s much more interesting to write about the business and what’s going on than, 'Gee, I like this movie, and this is why I think you should go see it.' Anybody can do that. But it’s really just what I’m interested in, since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in movies, seeing every film I could see, writing screenplays, even working as an assistant director years ago.
"It’s just part of who I am, I don’t try to stop and think, 'Gee, why?' If I started to think about it, I would go crazy."
So, too, was Mims a classical music obsessive; Boseman estimated that he had 4,000 classical music CDs, and his WHPK show, "Stuff From My Collection," consisted of selections from only that. He loved the German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and a number of conductors like Georg Solti, the longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and 20th century master Herbert von Karajan. He traveled internationally and across the country annually to hear orchestras and check in with friends who were musicians and conductors.
He recalled to South Side Weekly beginning his collection at age 10 from classical records bought at the local A&P after his father gave him a recording of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert's comic opera "The Mikado."
"Why classical music? I don’t know, that’s sort of an eternal question. It’s just something that spoke to me; I just gravitated towards it more than any other music," he said.
Boseman called him "a renaissance man beyond compare." "Everybody goes, 'Well, he's a scholar of Black cinema.' Yes, yes he's a scholar of Black cinema. But that just touches the surface of this guy."
Today, after Hollywood's early-1990s Black cinema boom went bust, African American filmmakers are seeing a resurgence, from the critical and commercial success of "Black Panther" to Barry Jenkins’ "Moonlight" to the works of Jordan Peele.
"I do think he felt that Black cinema was coming on, that it was going to be great. I remember when Black Light was starting out and we were talking to these filmmakers, Serg felt that Black cinema was coming on and that it was ultimately going to be great," Boseman said. "They were telling stories that had not been told. He was very happy about that. They were telling stories that had not been told, and he felt that the future was very bright."
In addition to his mother, sisters Judith and Lisa Mims survive him. The Sun-Times reports that the family is interested in establishing a memorial foundation to help Black students interested in film.
"I just wish that Sergio would have promoted himself more in Chicago. He was a brand that he never took advantage of," Johnson-Cochran said. "He pushed filmmakers at Black Harvest every single year to the point that they made another film to play at Black Harvest because they knew he would promote them. And that's a brand. That's a person who gets it, understands what his influence was to filmmakers. And you don't find people like that in Chicago or anywhere. And he was a champion."
Why did he stay in Chicago instead of moving to Los Angeles?
"He wanted filmmakers in LA to know who he was, and he thought Chicago was a great hub. And it still is," said Johnson-Cochran.