During June 18 - 22, New York City hosted the annual American Black Film Festival for the first time in its 18 years. This ABFF, launched in 1997 as the Acapulco Black Film Festival, is designed to connect and celebrate Black directors, writers, producers, and actors. The event was founded as a direct response to Reverend Jesse Jackson’s boycott of the Oscars over a lack of Black nominees. The initial idea was simple: uplift and support Black cinema (because Hollywood doesn’t).
Outside a brief touchdown in L.A., the festival has maintained South Beach, Miami as its home base. Migrating to NYC was a power move, to grow and diversify the ABFF audience while increasing visibility and industry participation. On June 4, founder Jeff Friday rang the closing bell at NASDAQ, signifying to all that ABFF has indeed arrived.
The festival kicked off with a screening of director Tim Story’s Think Like a Man Too, the sequel to the star-studded 2012 Hollywood hit. The film was a fun ride reminiscent of The Hangover or Bridesmaids, as the cast (Megan Good, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy and more) takes over Las Vegas for a wedding.
It was certainly smart marketing to center the story around Hollywood’s comedian du jour Kevin Hart, but at times his signature silliness overshadowed the other characters’ personal dramas and took away from the charm and lessons of the franchise’s original offering. This ABFF debut kicked off a stellar first weekend for the film, which grossed $30 million, debuting at number one over Hollywood heavyweights like 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2.
ABFF master classes commenced the second day of the festival, to help behind-the-scenes and on-screen talent hone their craft. Darien Gibson, the national director of SAGIndie, covered the basics and complexities of making indie films in “Pitfalls of Producing.” (Gems of wisdom included: always buy the ambulance insurance and distributor’s assumption agreement; the absence of these auxiliaries can bankrupt your project.)
“Writing for Television,” led by Karen Horne—NBC Entertainment and Universal Television’s VP of programming talent development—provided a comprehensive breakdown of standard TV story structure and tips for navigating the industry as a writer. Guest speaker Terrence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) supported with colorful anecdotes encouraging writers to draw from personal experiences. Success in TV is equally about skills and being a good team player, he shared.
Spike Lee’s latest project—the Kickstarter-funded ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’—made its world premiere on the last day. His horror film was a reinterpretation of director Bill Gunn’s 1973 work, ‘Ganja & Hess.’
Director Robert Townsend’s “Ultimate Pitch Class” is an ABFF staple, preparing filmmakers to present their projects to networks. With Hollywood Shuffle humor and Meteor Man urgency, Townsend guided a fun, interactive, intense lesson in the art of project presentation. He posed tough questions and held no punches critiquing students brave enough to present their concepts. Pre-pitch exercises, candid feedback and specific notes on improving your presentation made this session a must for those seeking to take their work to the next level.
Actors literally flocked from all over the world for master thespian/director Bill Duke’s two-part boot camp. His intense interactive sessions taught budding talent to open their bodies and channel their characters’ voices. Many participants of Duke’s educational series cited these lessons as the highlight of their festival experience.
Beyond schooling new talent, ABFF media partners provided various opportunities to empower and showcase up-and-coming actors and directors. Up TV’s screenplay competition for burgeoning writers and actors tracked selected scripts from table reads to production to distribution. Russ Parr’s Comeback Dad (starring Charles S. Dutton and Tatiana Ali) was a 2012 winner that made its ABFF premier this year; it’s due to appear on the network.
HBO, one of the festivals longest running partners, curated a short film competition to expose new filmmakers. This year, the $10,000 prize went to Muted, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Filmgoers can catch the short, as well as other finalists’ work, on HBO over the course of the year.
In a culture obsessed with reality programming, documentaries are on the rise, so they naturally found a home at the festival. Director Mike Brown’s 25 to Life was awarded the ABFF Grand Jury award for best documentary. His touching narrative showcases the lifelong struggles of William Brawner, who contracts HIV as a child through a blood transfusion. The film delves into his life as a campus playboy who first concealed his illness finally coming clean about his condition and growing into his current role as an HIV/AIDS activist.
Moguldom Entertainment debuted A Genius from the Hood: The Unauthorized Story of Jay Z, the first offering from their docu-entertainment series. Journalists and music execs collectively pontificated about the dark side of Sean Carter, suggesting that the mogul’s success is as much based on intellect and talent as disloyalty, callousness, and opportunism. But if the film’s contributors are remotely familiar to you, you’ve likely heard it all before.
Jigga’s early rap nemesis/mentor Jaz-O and recordings of Damon Dash’s notorious rants (circa the early ’00s disintegration of Roc-a-fella Records) provided the most intimate, albeit dated, insights. With no new information, participation from featured talent, nor current commentary from anyone close to him, one member of the audience questioned why the film was made at all, and why now. Executive producer Barion L. Grant explained that Moguldom is simply bringing what their online audiences talk about to the silver screen. (Sounds like the film equivalent of the “click bait” that made the brand infamous.)
The ABFF began with a moment of silence honoring recently deceased Hollywood icon Ruby Dee, and ended with an encore showing of Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee, a celebration of her legacy, activism and love. Directed by her grandson Muta’Ali, the film was a 2012 gift to his grandmother. His intimate love offering contained exclusive family footage and interviews with Dee and her late legend of a husband, Ossie Davis. The couple’s 57-year marriage was as renowned as their expansive career accomplishments. The life lessons are inspirational because Ruby Dees life was aspirational and this piece is the perfect finale to the large body of work she leaves behind.
Finally, director Spike Lee’s latest project—the Kickstarter-funded Da Sweet Blood of Jesus—made its world premiere on the last day of the ABFF. His horror film was a reinterpretation of director Bill Gunn’s 1973 work, Ganja & Hess. But while there was no shortage of blood and gore, the film lacked the traditional build, suspense, and adrenaline rush of films of this genre. It was more of a love story about two blood addicts killing to satiate their cravings and give their victims and themselves eternal life.
In spite of obvious parallels, Spike Lee firmly protested notions that they were vampires and encouraged audiences to dig deeper and find the metaphors. Indeed, the charm was that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was truly a Black art flick: experimental and complex with obscure messages and jarring imagery. Though some walked out of the theater within the first 30 minutes, the calculated cool of Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and the captivating smart-ass sexiness of Ganja (Zaraah Abrams) kept many in their seats.
In short, this year’s ABFF provided a little something for everyone. Check out ABFF.com for a full recap, as well as updates on projects and programs coming to networks and theaters nationwide. The festival will return to NYC next summer with Black Hollywood favorites and fresh new offerings from our best and brightest.