Because 'Hollywouldn't': The American Black Film Festival Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary

Article excerpt

Jeff Friday, Byron Lewis and Warrington Hudlin were having dinner one evening in early 1997 when the conversation turned to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's latest call to action. Only one African American had received an Oscar nomination for a movie made in the previous year, and Jackson wanted people to boycott the Academy Awards, which would be televised that March.

Lewis, president and CEO of UniWorld Group, Inc., a multiethnic advertising and marketing firm, and Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmakcrs Foundation, supported the boycott. But Friday, then president of UniWorld's film division, did not.

"I said that I didn't believe that the Oscars is a racist organization." recalls Friday. "I said if you point the finger, it has to be at the studios."

The evening's conversation shifted to what types of films get nominated. Friday argued that, for the most part, either grand epics or artistic, story-driven films get the nod. Hollywood studios rarely produced Black-themed movies of cither ilk, giving Black actors few opportunities to show their range. (This was five years before Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won top acting honors at the Academy Awards in 2002.)

Furthermore, Friday noted that competitive film festivals, such as Sundance, served as a virtual pipeline to the Oscars. Where was the pipeline for African American movies - artistic or otherwise'? Before long, the three men were plotting ways to create their venue for showcasing Oscar-caliber - or at least diverse - films.

The Acapulco Black Film Festival (ABFF) - renamed the American Black Film Festival in 2002 - debuted in 1997. That first summer, about 290 people came to the Mexican resort town for the event. For the 2006 festival, to be held July 19-23, about 2.500 people are expected to descend on Miami's South Beach - the festival's home since 2002. In fact, this summer marks ABFF's 10th year.

When Friday, Lewis and Hudlin started ABFF, there were other festivals in the United States that reflected the diversity and complexity of people of African descent. UrbanWorld - which is multicultural - had also launched in 1997. The Newark Black Film Festival was perhaps the oldest, and the PanAfrican Film Festival, launched in 1992, was the largest.

ABFF's cofounders wanted their festival to present a variety of films from the Black diaspora, too. But they also wanted to create a more intimate space where independent Black filmmakers and Hollywood insiders could connect and make deals; filmmakers and actors could work on their crafts; and movie fans could have a great vacation. In addition, the festival would honor the achievements of Black Hollywood during its closing night awards ceremony and hold competitions with substantial monetary prizes for independent filmmakers. HBO was the first company to become a sponsor.

"One of my biggest goals as an executive at HBO has been the creation of diversity platforms, specifically those linked to the Hollywood independent film community," says Olivia Smashum, executive vice president of affiliate marketing and business development. "As founding and presenting sponsor of the Film Life and HBO American Black Film Festival for the past nine years, we've been able to play a large part in helping empower and inform a new generation of talent."

Among this new generation is independent producer Roger Bobb. "The ABFF has a different vibe. You're around your people, people who appreciate the images you're putting out there, people who understand the struggle of being an African American filmmaker trying to get your film made," says Bobb, the youngest Black to become an assistant director (AD) member of the Directors Guild of America. "And the monetary prizes are second to none - [unmatched] by any other festival."

Bobb should know. As one of the few working Black ADs in the industry, he's attended most of the major festivals, including Sundancc, Toronto and Cannes. …