MIAMI, FL – The American Black Film Festival has come to a close, but this year’s event showcased a dizzying array of Black excellence. From Tupac Shakur to Malcolm D. Lee’s Girl’s Trip to Terrence Howard to the cast of Queen Sugar to Issa Rae, the 21st annual Film Festival showed just how far opportunities in Black television and film have come in the last two decades.
Started out by visionary Jeff Friday as the Acapulco Film Festival, and held at various times in New York City and Los Angeles, the American Black Film Festival is now the preeminent destination for film and TV professionals, aspiring filmmakers, actors, agents, producers, and executives. Approximately 10,000 attendees come to share information, knowledge and inspiration with those looking to start or build on a film or TV career. The festival has also become a popular destination for regular folk who come to enjoy the panels, screenings and parties.
Filmmakers like Will Packer credit Friday and ABFF for launching their film careers when they couldn’t get into other festivals.
Over the years, the festival has expanded as have roles and options for African-American talent. The growth of streaming media on platforms like Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and now YouTube and Facebook and Black creative entrepreneurs doing it for themselves have led ABFF’s growth. This year’s festival underscored how far Black representation on film and TV has come and how far we still need to go.
Here are some of the highlights.
BLACK GIRL MAGIC
The ABFF’s packed opening night screening of Girl’s Trip was an example of the way films coming out of festivals generate their own buzz. Easily the most crowd-pleasing mainstream film of the festival, Girl’s Trip should make a ton of money for director Malcolm D. Lee and super producer Will Packer. While Latifah, Regina Hall, and Jada pretty much do what they do, it’s the lesser known Tiffany Haddish that steals the movie right out from under them all.
As for documentaries, Step is the must see movie of the year. It’s the feel good, take your daughters and nieces that tells the uplifting story of three seniors at an all-girl’s charter school in Baltimore. Uplifting and Baltimore’s Black community aren’t usually terms applied together, but in this movie it is. And if she wants to go that route, Blessin (no ‘g’) Giraldo has the kind of onscreen presence that may lead to acting offers down the line.
Empire star Terrence Howard was one of the keynote Business of Entertainment speakers at ABFF this year. His agent, Cameron, took Terrence through an overview of his career and he shared some helpful tips – among them that it’s better to go into auditions and life not trying to get people to like you but to be confident in your own talents. In answer to an audience question, he also acted out his arrest in the 90’s when he was charged with stealing his own car from a police impound lot. He said that the emotions of that arrest, which involved multiple police officers, was one that he used for his acclaimed performance in Crash years later.
Who knew exactly what Claws was about? I didn’t. The new TNT show starring Niecy Nash and Karrueche Tran screened it’s already aired first episode for the ABFF audience followed by a Q&A with the show creator and cast members Tran and Judy Reyes. The show is not the sitcom it looks like but an hour drama about a group of nail techs and the salon’s owner played by Nash, who are struggling to get out from under some serious situations. The multicultural cast and the universally relatable story of women who have to use their wits and their sexuality for survival will likely resonate for many. It has the potential to be a breakthrough for both veteran Nash and Tran, who is surprisingly good.
As expected, despite a new showrunner (Ava Duvernay is still a producer but no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the show) Queen Sugar continues to rule as the best Black family drama on TV. Sorry This Is Us fans, but I’d call Queen Sugar the best drama on TV though the NBC show is more widely known since it’s on a major network. Come on Oprah, where’s the stand alone OWN app? The show starts off right where it left off with the slow-burning performances and nuanced relationships its fans have come to expect. The cast was cagey about the upcoming season except to say you can expect to see each character transform this season. Hmmm. I can tell you if you have a son, the first episode will have you alllll in your feelings.
COMEDY WINGS Competition
Several aspiring comics competed in the Comedy Wings competition, which showcases new comic talents. The audience was supportive even when comics weren’t necessarily killing it. The ultimate winner was Philadelphia-born Turae, who was by far the most seasoned at the age of 44. Turae has been in the business for a while, but this may prove to be the last acknowledgement needed to help him take his career to the net level. His victory proves its never too late to keep pushing for your dream career, even in a business that is often youth-obsessed.
NEW FACES ON TV PANEL
Queen Sugar’s Dondre Whitfield hosted two panels at ABFF, but his panel on “New Faces On TV” was one of the festival’s most inspirational. Not only did Whitfield encourage those still hoping for a break to remember that their season of drought is temporary and a good time to prepare for the deluge of good fortune that may come, he unwittingly provided an example of how one person’s success can inspire it in others.
A man in the audience who identified himself as Dondre’s childhood friend got up to thank him for providing the example that he followed to his own entertainment career. Panelists Merle Dandrige of Greenleaf, Jessie T. Usher of Survivors’ Remorse, Dewanda Wise, of She’s Gotta Have It, Dawn Lyen Gardner of Queen Sugar and Marque Richardson from Dear White People talked about how they shaped their careers through trial and error and what dealing with newfound fame after years of working toward it has been like.
ALL EYEZ ON ME PREMIERE
Jarrett Ellis, Annie Ilonzeh and Dominic L. Santana of All Eyez On Me
Everyone and their mama showed up at ABFF for the official premiere Closing Night screening for All Eyez On Me. Omari Hardwick, Erica Ash of Survivor’s Remorse, Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Parker, MC Hammer, Hollywood Exes Andrea Kelly, E-40, Sevyn Streeter and more all came out to see the movie that was 20 plus years in the making. Despite some brutal and mixed reviews, the movie fairly straightforwardly detailed Tupac’s life and legacy.
I would imagine some of the controversy – aside from Jada’s issue with the dramatic license taken with her and Pac’s relationship, has to do with omissions, and some inaccuracies that people who lived through the era would recognize. (Two glaring ones are that Hill Harper basically plays Kevin Powell, who interviewed Tupac for Vibe but is played as an older writer when the two were close in age and the complete erasure of actress Jasmine Guy, who was close to Tupac and his mother.) Demetrius Shipp, Jr. does his best with the nearly impossible task of recreating Tupac one of the most charismatic rappers of all time but it’s Jarrett Ellis who makes the most of his few lines as Snoop by effectively delivery his pimpish cadences.
AND THE PARTIES:
One more note: if DJ DNice returns to deejay next year, make sure you don’t miss The White Party. Terrence Howard jokingly called it the geriatric party as he said no one at the party was under 30, but uf if you were there then you know, the older crowd knows how to turn up better than the youngins. Believe it.
For more info on ABFF and next year’s festival, click HERE.
All Photos courtesy of ABFF Film Festival