Supporting Black film is a requirement. We need to see more Black, but Hollywood wants to see more green. So if we scream for more diversity (deeper than on-screen images of slaves, butlers and thugs), then we have to support the movies and TV shows that people of color currently make. This is where the importance of events like the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) come into play.
Celebrating its 19th year this weekend—June 11-14 in New York City—ABFF is dedicated to giving those behind the scenes, in front of the camera, and with dreams of working on either end the support needed to persevere and navigate through Hollywood. Screenings, master classes, competitions, celebrities and parties are the epitome of ABFF’s four-day event.
Thursday’s sold out opening night film Dope, executive produced by Pharrell Williams and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, featured the story of a geeky group of ’90s-obsessed kids trying to fit in. The star-studded screening attended by ABFF’s celebrity ambassador Taraji P. Henson, the cast of Dope, and countless others set off an old-school themed party where hip-hop royalty Doug E. Fresh and Roxanne Shanté hosted with DJ D-Nice on the turntables.
“Dope couldn’t be a more fitting film to open the festival,” said ABFF founder and CEO Jeff Friday. “[Writer and director] Rick Famuyiwa has taken a classic genre and told a unique story within it, combining all the elements that make a great film—outstanding writing, directing, cast and music.”
ABFF’s dedication to teaching the next generation of Hollywood heavy-hitters takes place Friday through Sunday with master classes on writing and hosting for TV, independent filmmaking and acting. Bringing esteemed instructors and celebrity names to head workshops, this year actress Tasha Smith brings her L.A.-based Tasha Smith Actors Workshop to ABFF.
“I love teaching as much as I love acting. It is my ministry. I have a big sign up in my school that says, ‘This is the church of acting,’ ” said Smith, whose directorial debut Boxed In premieres at ABFF on Saturday. “It’s a short film about a young man with bipolar disorder. And directing is definitely the area I’m going into as the next step of my career.”
After Taraji P. Henson sits with Gayle King for an intimate conversation about her life and career on Friday, EBONY entertainment editor Aliya S. King heads up a talk with “The Men of TNT.” The panel features actor Joe Morton (the infamous Papa Pope on Scandal) speaking about his new starring role on the TV series Proof. He’ll be joined by veteran stage and screen actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, along with fellow thespians Charles Parnell and Jocko Sims.
On Saturday, power couple Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil sitting on a panel discussing “The Life of a Showrunner,” while The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl creator and star Issa Rae shares “how to” knowledge on creating and monetizing a web series later in the day. Sunday, the writers of Empire discuss the particulars of penning the hilarious lines of Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
But it’s not only celebrity interviews (like Tracee Ellis Ross hitting the ABFF stage with Black-ish writer and director Kenya Barris) or talkbacks with Black film icons like director John Singleton (who comes to ABFF Sunday to discusses his groundbreaking classic, Boyz n the Hood) that make the festival necessary edutainment. Always aiming to find and groom new talent, ABFF brings back its multitude of contests focused on searching for up and coming actors (The Star Project), comedians (The Comedy Wings Competition) and filmmakers.
A mentoring session with director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Wedding, Barbershop 3) is part of the grand prize offered to the winners of ABFF’s newest video competition with McDonald’s. A premiere on HBO is the prize for winners of HBO’s 18th annual Short Film Competition. Fruitvale Station writer-director Ryan Coogler won for his film Fig back in 2011.
“We’re still with ABFF because we are a premium brand and we look to partner with like entities. It was a group of HBO executives understanding that we are in this unique position to support diversity in this industry. And the way to do that is to find the next generation of diverse filmmakers and to nurture and cultivate them,” said Dennis Williams, HBO’s vice president of corporate social responsibility.
“Festivals like ABFF allow the creativity of our community to have a home for emerging and now established black talent,” he continues. “And what we send out to the rest of the industry are people and content creators and storytellers who can accurately reflect the experiences of the African-American community in ways that will resonate and connect with all. So the industry is made better by that.”
Presenting its first Television and Media Expo this year, ABFF gives a free public event Saturday and Sunday where the community gets to see networks and broadcasters unveil their upcoming shows and diversity initiatives. Inspiring, educating and entertaining, all of this takes place while a multitude of feature films, documentaries and web originals screen throughout the festival, vying for monetary prizes presented at “The Best of ABFF” Awards Ceremony Sunday night.
Check out the trailers of some films screening this weekend.
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Raqiyah Mays is an author, journalist, radio personality, film lover and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in November 2015.