The goal of the Urbanworld Film Festival has always been to spotlight the world of filmmakers of color since its beginning in 1997. This year’s event, housed on the top floor of Manhattan’s AMC Theater on 34th Street, showcased 72 short and feature length films, along with TV pilots, educational panels, screenplay competitions, performances and celebrity conversations. Marking its 18th year of lending a supportive hand to those hoping for film financing, distribution and the applause artists often need to encourage creative efforts (themes that clearly shined in the spotlight of 2014’s festival), women and social commentary.
The opening night of this year’s four-day event kicked off last Thursday, with the premiere of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights. Hitting theaters November 14, the movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Danny Glover and Minnie Driver in the story of a pop star succumbing to fame and disease.
The film’s take on mental health and self-esteem provided the basis of thoughtful questions and candid responses during the cast’s post-screening panel discussion, moderated by director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man). Prince-Bythewood moved the crowd by sharing her own personal experience with pain.
“I was adopted and tracked down my birthmother. And found her and she was White. Finding out the circumstances of my birth was very troubling and not the fantasy I had envisioned,” said Bythewood, who also admitted to having a friend who attempted suicide. “I’m grateful to her for giving me up and she was going to abort me. I’m grateful to my adoptive parents. But it was a very crushing thing to find out how I came in to this world. But this as great to be able to write and get that out and get past it.”
The following day, the festival’s truthful energy continued to resonate with its female filmmaker and social issue themes. Up-and-coming writer, producer and director Kiara C. Jones premiered an afternoon screening of Christmas Wedding Baby, a touching film about a family of women struggling with their issues and outlooks on marriage. Friday night’s spotlight conversation featured the men of Addicted, a film adaptation of author Zane’s 1990s erotica debut. Starring Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe, Tyson Beckford and William Levy, Kodjoe walked the red carpet to not only promote the project, but to speak on an issue prevalent in the movie.
“It’s one of those topics that has been taboo in our community and it’s something that needs to be talked about. Sexual addiction is just as serious as any other drug addiction.” says Kodjoe, who costars as the husband of a cheating wife (Sharon Leal) willing to break her vows because of an uncontrollable need for sex. “That disease has to be addressed and we haven’t done that.”
The panel discussion, moderated by fashionable TV personality Bevy Smith, featured the entire male cast along with director Billie Woodruff and Zane herself. Sharing some of the film’s steamier clips to an audience of predominantly women, the lighthearted conversation had moments of what Zane hoped people will take away from the film when it’s released on October 10.
“I hope people take away from this movie how important it is to communicate. Communicate with your mate,” said Zane, who also revealed that her next project will be her first stage play The Other Side of the Pillow, set to open this October in Dallas with reality star Jennifer Williams from Basketball Wives. “A lot of people have issues with their relationship and they don’t even realize they exist. So I hope that’s the underlining message that people take away and it’ll spark some type of discussion in their relationship.”
After Zane and Kodjoe brought attention to one issue, later that evening HBO and Cinemax highlighted another. Premiering the action film Falcon Rising, starring actor Michael Jai White and Laila Ali, the movie focused on a Navy SEAL suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Urbanworld Film Festival continued into Saturday with midday screenings of narrative shorts in multiple theaters. Many of the 15-20 minute films were written and directed by women with a focus on topics rarely addressed in any community. Contamination, by director R. Shenae Williams, tells the disturbing, unforgettable story of a young sister struggling with OCD, while Muted, written by Brandi Ford and directed by Rachel Goldberg, emotionally chronicles the sad disappearance of a young Black girl and the difficulties in getting the media and authorities to care.
But the most anticipated and exciting event of this year’s affair by far was the spotlight conversation with writer and director Ava DuVernay. Moderated by Urbanworld executive producer Gabrielle Glore, never-before-seen clips of DuVernay’s upcoming film Selma were presented to the sold-out crowd in attendance. All were moved to pin-drop silence and rousing applause after seeing an intense two scenes of a film that already has many buzzing with Oscar talk.
Based on three months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his fight for African-American voting rights, the Christmas release of the Paramount Pictures film (backed by executive producer Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitts’s Plan B) features a powerful all-star cast: Winfrey herself, André Holland, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce and an amazing David Oyelowo (who literally transforms from slim Brit into the powerful presence of Dr. King).
After watching clips with the audience, Oyelowo, who hadn’t seen any parts of the movie until Urbanworld, cried after witnessing scenes with him as the stocky, southern civil rights leader. “I was obsessive in my pursuit of the truth,” he said, wiping away tears and composing himself, “and that being the truth behind that phrase, ‘I have a dream.’ ”
During the juicy panel discussion, interesting details of the film’s arduous, nearly decade-long, journey to the screen were revealed, including that directors Steven Spielberg, Lee Daniels, Spike Lee and Michael Mann had all been attached to direct, years prior to DuVernay coming on-board 13 months ago. Oyewole, who’s been part of the project since 2006, helped bring both DuVernay and Winfrey onto the Selma team after working on Middle of Nowhere with DuVernay and The Butler with Winfrey. “Oprah has fallen in love with Ava,” he said. “I think Oprah sees a little of herself in Ava.”
Opening in New York and Los Angeles on December 25, with a nationwide full release scheduled for January 9, 2015, Duvernay’s goal with Selma was to show a larger, multifaceted view of MLK. “I think Dr. King has been homogenized in so many ways. He’s been relegated to a speech and statues for so many people. So the first thing I wanted to do was bring out the nuances of who he was: just a regular man who did extraordinary things. He was a complicated guy, but he was a brilliant strategist, executor and mobilizer of people. And he didn’t do it alone,” she said.
“So I hope people walk away having a more kind of total view of him. Because I think part of the way that you dismantle a radical person’s legacy is by cleaning them up and putting them in a box. And I feel like that’s what’s been done. He’s either villainized or he’s a saint. And you know, the brother was complicated. And I think his memory is worth exploring.”
Before the evening’s end, DuVernay broke down why she supports the Urbanworld Film Festival, which has screened nearly all of her features, shorts and projects over the years. “Someone asked, ‘Why are you bringing Selma to Urbanworld?’ And I said, ‘Because Urbanworld is home.’ She shrugged her shoulders. “Jason Rietman takes his films to Toronto [Film Festival]. I take my films to Urbanworld.”
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and advocate. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays