Lights, Camera, Black Folks

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  • MIAMI, FL-For anyone interested in a film or television career, Miami was the place to be this past week as celebrities, filmmakers and TV and film executives gathered at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami to celebrate the best in black film. The ABFF is now in its 16th year and is one of only three annual film festivals that specifically cater to black films. Founder Jeff Friday says this festival is one not geared just to sell films, like the more mainstream Tribeca, Sundance and Toronto film festivals but to assist new talent with getting a foothold in the industry.

    But there were awards given out in narrative film, actor and actress, documentary, webisode and short films for films showing at Miami’s Colony Theater and at the Miami Cinematheque. Tracee Ellis Ross was this year’s ABFF ambassador, but actors Vanessa Williams of “Soul Food” fame, Rockmund Dunbar, Malinda Williams, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Boris Kodjoe, Mekhi Phifer, actor/director Bill Duke, Issa Rae, creator of the webisode series of “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” director Tim Story, Nelsen Ellis (“True Blood”) Michael K. Williams (“The Wire,” Boardwalk Empire”)writer/director Mara and Salim Akil and CNN’s Don Lemon were all there.

    Panels held at the Ritz-Carlton, were well-attended and featured a dynamic list of TV and film behind-the-scenes folks. The highlight of the four-day festival might have been Rainforest Film’s Will Packer, who was the comic relief on a panel with his partner Rob Hardy, director Tim Story and actor Terrence J. The four talked about their film marketing techniques, which included using the Twitter followings of actors Terrence J. and others to help market their films. Terrence J., there with girlfriend Selita Banks, told audiences that the most important thing to have, aside from an inability to hear “No,” was supportive family and friends.

    Mara and Salim Akil held a panel where “Sparkle” director Salim shared a story about actor Omari Hardwick, who once showed up late for an audition. He told the audience that despite that gaffe, he pulled Hardwick aside to tell him that he believed in him, but that he needed to do better. That kind of generosity in the black film industry was in evidence at the “Black Women In Hollywood” panel where actress Malinda Williams said that competition among black actresses was muted.  “If someone else works, that’s good for me because that means they may recognize the need for more black actresses,” she said. Williams who starred in “The Undershepherd” which won the Narrative Feature prize won the award for Best Actress at the festival for her work.  She plays a emotionally abused wife with an eating disorder and choked up when talking about her own experience in an abusive relationship. “There was  a time when I was in my own home and didn’t know what room I was in,” she said.

    Other noteworthy panels included an HBO Presents panel with black actors from their shows  and a panel on digital syndication with TV host April Woodward.  The range of film in this year’s festival was broad but the struggles of black men provided a common theme. In “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, a father and daughter relationship unravels amid abject poverty.

     In “The Undershepherd,” a pastor in waiting’s ego spirals out of control when he gets the top spot. In “The Last Fall,” a washed-up NFL journeyman struggles with romance, family and career,  and in “Luv” a middle schooler’s impromptu day out with his ex-con uncle turns out to be a harsh education in life. Kimberly Townes, a recent UCLA film school graduate and competitor in the Short Film category with her film “Zero,” says the support ABFF gives upcoming filmmakers is invaluable.

    “ABFF is the gold standard in artistic validation from the African American entertainment community. For this reason, I'm ecstatic and honored that my UCLA thesis film, “ZERO,” was one of five films nominated for the ABFF HBO short film competition. I look forward to networking with other top level artists and executives who have a vested interest in our stories for future collaborations.”

    ABFF Winners
    Webisode Challenge:
    Creator Donnie Leapheart, “Osiris: The Series”
    Grand Jury Prize Best Narrative Feature: “The Undershepherd,” USA/106 min – Produced and directed by Russ Parr

    Grand Jury Prize Best Performance by an Actor (Male or Female) ***TIE**
    Sheldon Shepherd “Better Mus’ Come”
    Malinda Williams “The Undershepherd”

    Grand Jury Prize Best Director
    Russ Parr “The Undershepherd”

    Grand Jury Prize Best Screenplay
    Matthew Cherry “The Last Fall”

    Grand Jury Prize Best Documentary
    “Soul Food Junkies” – Produced by Lisa Durden/Directed by Byron Hurt
     
    Short Film
    “Cherry Waves” – Carey C. Williams
     
    Screenplay Competition
    Nzinga Kadalie Kemp

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