By Michael Dennis
(Ed. Note: Michael Dennis, of Mt. Airy, is an award-winning filmmaker who in 1999 founded Reelblack, an organization that promotes African American films and filmmakers. Dennis is a graduate of both NYU Film School and The American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In addition to writing, producing and directing, Mike curates and co-hosts {with Monica Peters} a monthly screening series at International House called “Reelblack Presents,” which promotes “discoveries and rediscoveries in African-American film.” Reelblack/Syncopation is a full-service film and video production company dedicated to creating and promoting “good movies ‘bout Black Folks.” For more information, visit

Helen Frances Dennis, who lived in Mt. Airy for more than 50 years and died Sept. 2 at the age of 94, was an inspiration to her grandson filmmaker, Michael Dennis, and worked on three films with him in recent years.

As those of you who follow Reelblack on social media are already aware, my grandmother, Helen Frances Dennis, made her transition Sunday afternoon, Sept. 2, around 1 p.m. She was 94 years old. She was born in Delaware but spent her entire adult life in Philly, including the last 50 years or so in Mt. Airy.

Many of you got to know her through my 2008 short documentary, “The 13th Amendment,” which captured her energy the day she voted for Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary. The film “went viral,” playing major festivals, was licensed by YouTube (where it has over 400,000 views) and won the CNN IReport Film Festival, giving Helen an unexpected 15 minutes of fame at age 90.

But she was much more than that. She was an inspiration; the product of a teen mother, she quit school after the 8th grade. She was a matriarch — a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great- grandmother to our clan. None of the family is on drugs or in prison. All have had the opportunity to become educated and are successes in life. Helen had an amazing sense of humor and always kept it real.

She was the silent partner in Reelblack. Without her support, this simply wouldn’t exist. Her unconditional love gave me the belief in myself to pursue my dreams. She also helped financially, investing in my films, my education and travel. Occasionally she underwrote expenses like Reelblack buttons and t-shirts when the membership dues were not big enough to do so.

She was full of wisdom, and she helped shape my worldview. Movies weren’t necessarily her thing, but my love of music and comedy come directly from her.

We made three short films together, and she had a cameo in my 2004 short, “Next Tuesday.” I was looking forward to making another film with her in November, when she voted again for Barack Obama (she had a LOT to say about PA’s voter ID law), but alas, there was a greater plan at work…

In short, any success you see in me is directly attributable to her. I used to grimace when people would say we looked a lot alike. Now I wear it like a badge. I wish everyone could be as lucky as I am to have a Nana in their lives. It’s hard for me to believe she’s gone.

Our loss is heaven’s gain. I intend to keep doing her proud.