American Black Film Festival celebrates 25 years

In 1997, Jeff Friday, Founder and CEO of Jeff Friday Media, worked as President of the Film Division of UniWorld Group, a leading multicultural advertising agency based in New York City and founded by legendary advertising maven Byron. E. Lewis. In January of the same year, in search of new clientele within the entertainment industry, Friday went to the Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film festival he attended. It was also the year that award-winning writer-director Theodore Witcher, “Love Jones”, was screened at the festival, ushering in an era of what Friday calls “the glory days of black cinema.” This film, and the experience of seeing it at Sundance, changed the trajectory of Friday’s career.

“It was just around the time of movies like ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’, ‘Love and Basketball’ and Spike Lee,” Friday recalls. “‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ had just happened and there was a ton of buzz around it.” Love Jones “became a classic, and it was proof that good stories are universal, no matter what. color of actors, directors or screenwriters.At Sundance I saw an amazing event – and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all – but it was also a mostly white and male event, like the rest of the company at the time. I saw very few people of color. I saw very few women. I thought, that’s great, but where are all the black people? Where is all the diversity?

From that point on, Friday, “not the type to complain but rather to create change and make an impact,” he said, was determined to foster an environment in which black filmmakers and artists could show their talents and rise professionally in the industry. This is how he co-founded, with Lewis and Warrington Hudlin, the Acapulco Black Film Festival. Six months after this landmark Sundance experience, the Acapulco Black Film Festival launched its inaugural event in June. And while Acapulco may seem like a hit or miss place to kick off a noir film festival, it was a convergence of timing, access, and kismet that brought it all together.

“One of our biggest advertising clients was the Mexican Ministry of Tourism – we were developing advertising campaigns to bring high-end black travelers back to Mexico, and also to rekindle Acapulco’s image as a Hollywood playground. – and the tourism ministry went crazy. this idea of ​​bringing a film festival there, “said Friday.” They said, bring Acapulco. And that’s what we did.

This first year, 90 people attended the festival. “Halle Berry was the first person we called,” notes Friday. “Right away she said yes.

The Mexican government chartered planes and, along with Berry, artists such as Bill Duke, Melvin Van Peebles, John Singleton, Nia Long, Morgan Freeman and Regina King took to the skies.

“The bar was so low – we screened 14 films that year,” said Friday. “We honored Halle as a rising star and immediately a camaraderie formed, and that’s what really made it work. There was a spirit in the air, it was like returning to the sources of close friends. It was also a time before social media, before cell phones took off. It is the miracle of everything.

In 2002, after acquiring all rights to the name, Friday rebranded the festival as the American Black Film Festival and moved its base to Miami.

“It turns out that Acapulco and American form the same acronym,” said Friday.

Now in its 25th year, ABFF, a subsidiary of Jeff Friday Media, is a thriving and powerful event. The festival welcomes some 7,000 to 10,000 participants annually, functioning not only as a showcase for film talent, but also as a launching pad for black artists working both in front of and behind the camera. This year, as the security concerns of the pandemic era persist and the coronavirus affects people of color at disproportionate rates, ABFF is celebrating its quarter-century anniversary from November 3 to 28 through its platform. ABFF Play global online form.

“It was the most difficult decision I have ever had to make regarding festival planning,” the decision to keep things virtual said Friday. “And it was strictly a business-slash-social decision. We’ve seen the numbers go up and the Delta variant go up, and we just didn’t think it was in our community’s best interest to bring people together. Health and safety always come first.

However, the selection of films screened at ABFF will not be compromised. Namely “King Richard”, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic retracing the rise of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams under the tutelage of their tirelessly optimistic father, Richard (Will Smith), opens the festival. A list of independent film screenings, panels, discussions and networking events will follow. The awards season contender ‘King Richard’ festival kicks off marks a ‘loop moment’ for Green, whose ‘Stone Cars’ was a 2013 finalist in the ABFF Short Film Competition, created and sponsored by HBO.

“It is with pride and enthusiasm that we mark our 25th anniversary with Warner Bros. ‘ ‘King Richard’, a film that is a touchstone of ABFF’s legacy of showcasing extraordinary black talent and inspiring storytelling reflecting the brilliance of diversity in Hollywood, ”said his wife, Nicole , President and CEO of ABFF Ventures. “We are especially pleased that the film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, is returning to ABFF as a feature film director – demonstrating the importance of the HBO pipeline in advancing the careers of black artists. This event is quite simply a grand slam at all levels.

Additionally, the independent feature film screening includes “A Message From Brianna” by DeShon Hardy, “Bitter Sugar” by writer-director Malik Isasis and “Trees for Peace” by Alanna Brown, which focuses on four women hiding for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry will also appear at the festival as her 25th anniversary ambassador.

But it’s the HBO short film competition that Friday attributes to the heart of the festival. Previous contest winners are Ryan Coogler, who went on to direct “Black Panther” and Steven Caple Jr., who directed “Creed II”. This year’s finalists are: Lin Que Ayoung (“Cracked”); Omar S. Kamara (“Mass Ave”); Natalie Jasmine Harris (“Pure”); Michelle Beck (“The Serpents”); and Phumi Morare (“When the sun goes down”).

“I have to give HBO credit,” said Friday. “Together in 1997, right after the first year we started, we found something that helped,
and will continue to help, spearheading diversity. The content of the short film is an institution at ABFF and has a huge impact on giving people the chance to work
at Hollywood.

“HBO is committed to finding the best storytellers in the business – diverse storytellers who can share their vibrant imaginations and awe-inspiring vision,” said Dennis Williams, senior vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility, WarnerMedia. “The short film is a great vehicle for conveying ideas and telling stories. The HBO Short Film Competition at ABFF provides a valuable pipeline for emerging filmmakers. He’s produced some of the industry’s most talented artists – Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple, Jr. and Reinaldo Marcus Green whose film opens this year’s festival. We are proud to share ABFF’s mission over the past 24 years to uplift the world of noir cinema and introduce and connect talented newcomers to the industry.

On average, said Friday, the festival annually hosts 600 submissions for short films from across the United States. At first these entries were dominated by men, but over the “last five years, it’s become more female filmmakers.”

“This year three of our five finalists are female directors, which is just amazing,” said Friday. “We created a legacy. Not only are HBO among the finalists, but they put them through some sort of boot camp, they get the chance to meet mentors and fellow filmmakers. It has become an institution in the diversification of black storytelling. For these young filmmakers, it’s not just the start of their career, it’s also a boost in confidence. The most remarkable part: this has now been going on for 24 years in a row. This is the thing I
am most proud – the short film competition.

Will Packer, producer (“Girls Trip”, “Ride Along”), ABFF alumnus and ABFF 2021 jury president, credits ABFF for encouraging its participants to go before in business.

“A lot of times, as a young filmmaker, especially a young black filmmaker, what you really need is validation. “Am I doing this right?” Am I on the right track? Is success even possible for someone like me? ‘ Says Packer. “Without a doubt, I received the much needed confirmation that I had a future in this business from ABFF. To have real industry insiders, Hollywood talent, and moviegoers applauding and rewarding what we were doing was monumental. “

Next year, Friday is looking forward to bringing together the filmmakers and guests in person in Miami, but the spirit of this year’s virtual festival remains intact.
“The big party will take place next June,” announced Friday. “The tone, as always with ABFF, is empowerment and inspiration.”

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