In the age of digital babysitting, where parents routinely use their iPads to keep their kids occupied, Jeff Friday’s mother was ahead of the curve. Barbara Scott was a single mother raising three kids in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. Trying to keep her kids off the streets, she had the brilliant idea of making her children watch TV while she attended graduate school at Columbia University and NYU.
The next day, Mrs. Scott would inquire of her kids: “Tell me what happened last night on Good Times and The Jeffersons.” Friday initially thought that this was because his mother (a teacher by day and a PhD candidate by night) wanted the skinny on the latest Black shows. But she later divulged her true motive: she was trying to keep him off the streets, and these television reports were her way of holding him accountable. Jeff Friday puts his love for the media quite simply. “My consumption for media began as a child as a baby sitting device from my mother,” he says.
In one conversation, Friday asked his mom why all of the so-called “Black shows” shared one underlying theme: “An economic struggle, some element of moving on up, just barely getting by.” Her answer profoundly affected him. “The people who are in these shows are not the same people that make these shows,” she’d said. “The people making them have a very limited perspective about the diversity of the Black experience.”
“Thirty-five years later,” Jeff says with a sigh, “we’re still having this same discussion: the lack of diversity on television [and films], and the fact that the studios are still in control.”
The 2014 Hollywood Writer’s Report published by the WGA West supports this contention. Dr. Darnell Hunt (the study’s author and, coincidentally, a friend of Friday’s) lamented the fact that there is no correlation between the diversity of the population and the bottom line in Hollywood.
“It seems that content creators, studios [and] networks don’t acknowledge the African-American and Hispanic audiences, how much [media] we consume and the fact we are still getting crumbs,” Friday says. “The brilliance of Hunt’s report, for me is that Hollywood is not green. If Hollywood were truly about the green, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Hollywood has a lot of institutional biases. They’re still largely in control of our stories, and a lot goes missing.”
Jeff Friday wants to change that. And his film festival, the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), currently in its 19th year, is his vehicle of change.
ABFF is now the largest film festival catering to Americans of African descent. It’s the little engine that could, borne out of frustration from his attendance at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1997. That year, Love Jones won the audience award, in spite of the fact that virtually no Blacks were in attendance at Sundance. It was proof positive the mainstream will support a good story, no matter the race of the actors and producers.
After returning from Sundance, Friday, then an advertising executive, approached his boss and mentor, Byron Lewis, about putting together a film festival supporting Black films and the actors, writers and directors who tell our stories. Lewis put $500,000 into an account with Friday as sole signatory, and three weeks later, they had the concept for the Acapulco Film Festival.
Jeff reached out to his industry friends—Debbie Allen, John Singleton, Larenz Tate and Nia Long among them—to spread his mission; called Halle Berry to honor her as a rising star; and that summer, 90 industry veterans celebrated the first festival.
“We bonded, we talked about movies, about life and supporting each other. Just one of those moments that can’t be duplicated,” Friday recalls. “Everyone who was there remembers the first year more than any other, it was just fresh and new.” The festival has since traveled to Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City, and changed its name from the Acapulco Black Film Festival to the American Black Film Festival when he brought it stateside.
Over the years, the ABFF’s mission, which started as a vehicle for diversity and highlighting our stories and storytellers with 90 attendees, has grown into the largest film festival highlighting films, TV shows and artists of African descent. Last year, the Festival’s attendance reached 19,000, and since its inception, ABFF has featured more than 800 independent films, with the largest number of competitions for on-air talent, and consistently features master classes and informative panels designed to “educate, encourage career development and inspire Festival attendees.”
Realizing several years into the Festival that “we don’t control whether studios buy our films,” Friday has narrowed ABFF’s mission into something he can control. “It’s now more about breaking new talent and the discovery of people, in addition to promoting diversity and providing a platform for people in front of and behind the camera. We seek consistent means to reward and encourage artistic excellence,” he says.
Friday seems to have an eye for picking and rewarding up and coming talent, starting with Berry in 1997. Other ABFF alumni success stories include veteran producer Will Packer (Ride Along, Think Like a Man), producer/director Rob Hardy (Stomp the Yard, Think Like a Man), and scribe Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), each of whom has been awarded or lauded by ABFF prior to their well-deserved mainstream success.
Friday is never one to rest on the Festival’s laurels and strives to keep the festival topical and in step with the current industry trends. Realizing that “television [and cable] networks have accepted and embraced the need for diverse programming and studios haven’t made that same commitment,” Friday and the ABFF board of directors decided to include more TV-related content this year.
ABFF 2015 features Taraji P. Henson as the festival’s Celebrity Ambassador, incorporates a Television and Media Expo, and includes television panels like “The Life of a Showrunner” (featuring Janine Sherman-Barrois of Criminal Minds), Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane), Salim Akil (Being Mary Jane, The Game), and Chris Spencer (Real Husbands of Hollywood); “Empire Talks Back: Inside the Writers Room,” a talkback with the writers and creators of America’s hottest new show; and “Inside Black-ish,” a conversation with creator Kenya Barris and star Tracee Ellis Ross.
That doesn’t mean Friday has abandoned the film market. Quite the contrary. He and ABFF continue to highlight compelling films. This year’s line up features Dope, produced by Forest Whitaker and executive produced by Pharrell Williams, which was picked up for distribution at this year’s Sundance and was a closing selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. ABFF will also showcase Tasha Smith’s Boxed In, which shines a much-needed light on mental illness in the Black community, and a host of other critically acclaimed films.
For all its success, Friday recognizes the festival’s growth hinges on their media partners. “We wouldn’t be here without them and we try to give them something back in return,” he says. From founding sponsor HBO’s Short Film Competition to newcomer McDonald’s, which sponsors a Lovin’ video competition, each sponsor is asked to become intricately involved in the festival’s artistic and creative process.
Although the ABFF’s location and mission have altered, one thing Jeff Friday says will never change is the festival’s heart. “I like honoring people who are deserving that might not be at the top of the headlines, but are deserving because of their accomplishments in media.” This year, ABFF is honoring Jenifer Lewis, and Friday says he couldn’t be more pleased. “She’s been in something like 70 movies and deserves to be recognized for all of her outstanding accomplishments and staying power.”
The 19th Annual American Black Film Festival will be held June 11-14, 2015 in New York City. Visit ABFF.com for Festival information and tickets.
Lisa Bonner is a New York Based Entertainment Lawyer, who regularly pens Op-Ed, pop culture and luxury travel pieces for various publications. Follow her on social media @lisabonner.