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American Black Film Festival: For the Filmmakers & Aficionados

by Pamela K. Johnson /

No fewer than four cities and two countries have hosted the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) over the last 19 years and this weekend filmmakers and film lovers will settle into New York City June 11-14.

ABFF Founder Jeff Friday sees value in keeping the fest on the move. After it spent a few years in Acapulco, Mexico, under a slightly different name, it decamped to Los Angeles, Miami, and more recently the Big Apple.

“ABFF was conceived to be a destination thing,” says Friday. “We formed it that way because it’s my belief that people bond when they get away from their environment. Something interesting happens, and that has been the glue of the fest.”

“It’s not enough for black people to be talented, people need to know about it.”

The entrepreneur and his team screen between 800 and 900 films annually, curating a program of 60 features, shorts, documentaries and web series. The fest also includes master classes on such aspects of production as writing, cinematography and acting.

This year, ABFF tweaked its schedule to embrace storytelling on the small screen, including sessions on Writing for Television and The Life of a Showrunner, and by tapping actress Taraji P. Henson of TV’s breakaway hit Empire as the fest’s “ambassador,” a celebrity post that changes from year to year.

“TV is going through a major renaissance as it relates to diversity,” Friday explains, adding: “Look at Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.” And of course, look at Empire, which everyone is doing, in part because of Henson’s over-the-top performance, swaying millions to #TeamCookie.

“She’s the hottest person on TV this season, and one of my favorite actors,” says Friday, acknowledging the support Henson gave ABFF in its run up to the fest. The actress is also slated to sit down in a one on one with CBS anchor Gayle King at one of the consumer panels, which are open to the public. Others sessions on tap: Kenya Barris and Tracee Ellis Ross (Blackish); Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), and Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane).

 Henson's delight to be chosen as ABFF's Ambassador American Black Film Festival

“You don’t have to be a filmmaker to come,” Friday explains. “This festival is for the film fan as much as it’s for the filmmaker.”

ABFF attendees get a sneak preview of TV One’s Runaway Island, about a group of strangers who share a transformational experience on an island steeped in African- American culture. The script, by Christopher Brandt, won ABFF-TV One’s best screenplay competition last year. He and several cast members, including Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black, Selma), will attend the screening. (The TV One premiere is June 25.)

Another hot ticket is the documentary, Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions, about the making of the singer’s 13th studio album. While Turner Classic Movies sponsors ABFF Remembers: Boyz in the Hood, for which director John Singleton will be on hand.

A popular component of ABFF is its HBO Short Film Competition. The top five are shown on HBO during African-American History Month, while the first place winner walks with $10,000.

For the first time, the fest is poised to turn out a TV host. Sponsored by NBC, 20 pre-selected performers from around the country will participate in a program from which one will emerge with a real life, television hosting gig.

Finally, the fest closes with a tribute to veteran actress Jenifer Lewis. “She’s always funny and brilliant,” Friday observes, “and we’re proud to have that opportunity to let everyone know how we feel about her.”

The entrepreneur gets similar valentines from those who appreciate black independent film. Derek Dingle, senior vice president of Black Enterprise—ABFF’s media sponsor—says: “Jeff is the visionary who created this powerful vehicle of discovery and opportunity.”

Dingle applauded the fest’s star-making power with such filmmakers as Will Packer (Stomp the Yard, Takers) and Coogler; its spotlight on rising stars like Halle Berry (in 1997) and Power’s Naturi Naughton today; and the way it continually engages veteran directors such as Bill Duke and Robert Townsend.

Friday is proud of the supporting role ABFF plays in the careers of many a participant. “It’s not enough for black people to be talented, people need to know about it.”