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By Vee Wright
Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez in Lila & Eve. The film premiered on Lifetime last year and is Davis' debut as a producer.Viola Davis Facebook page / Viola Davis Facebook page

The acting career of Viola Davis has been on a steady rise since she graduated from Juilliard and soon began winning awards for her work in theater, film and television.

Her latest film role is as a beleaguered family court judge in "Custody." Not only does Davis get top billing in the film - it marks her debut as a producer of a film for the big screen.

"Custody" is also among a number of films to watch out for at the 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), which kicked off Wednesday.

At 15, Tribeca is coming into its own as a true film festival, a marketplace where emerging filmmakers and producers can show their work alongside their more established colleagues.

In its young life, the festival founded by Robert DeNiro has gotten a reputation as an extension of the Hollywood moviemaking machine. (Considering the economic impetus behind its founding that is not at all surprising.)

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Is it any wonder, then, that in serious film circles it is not as well regarded as it would like to be. One doesn't whisper Tribeca in the same breath as Toronto and Sundance. Certainly not with Cannes and Berlin. Absolutely not.

To be sure, TFF 2016 has plenty of mainstream Hollywood fare such as "Custody" coming to the metroplex near you. However, there is a significant increase in smaller, non-mainstream films and other programming such as "Vincent N Roxxy." Zoe Kravitz and Emile Hirsch are the title characters in this action thriller. When Vincent spirits Roxxy away from her abusive ex-boyfriend the two find themselves in a whole world of other trouble - scored by Questlove.

Graphic of "The Argus Project."The Argus Project Website / The Argus Project Website

Another small film is "Mr. Church." Eddie Murphy - in a rare dramatic role that was initially intended for Samuel Jackson - is a chef hired to make meals for a dying girl. FROM the director of "Driving Miss Daisy," this film will no doubt get more notice because Murphy is attached to it.

Among the issues-oriented works at TFF 2016 are a few that at least nominally touch on the tensions between law enforcement and elements of the black community. The most notice is likely to go to Spike Lee's "2 Fists Up."

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Listed as a sports documentary produced with one of Lee's companies and ESPN Films, "2 Fists Up" chronicles the lead up to the resignation of University of Missouri-Columbia president Tim Wolfe after members of the university's football team threatened to boycott practice and games.

The main thrust of the film, however, is how involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement spawned the activism of students concerned about the lack of diversity on the teaching staff and racial incidents on the campus.

Step into the Tribeca Experiential space where storytelling unfolds outside of the confines of the film lens to incorporate elements of virtual reality and other experiences.

For instance, at the center of "The Argus Project" is a suit of tactical counter-surveillance armor embedded with body cameras. Also in the interactive installation is video featuring stakeholders, including police, activists, and family members adversely affected by interactions with police.

Christine Turner is director of the short, "You Can Go."Christine Turner Website / Christine Turner Website

In Tribeca Experiential, too, is "Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor." A police stop in Brooklyn spirals out of control along with four different recollections. Meanwhile, "police are killing black males" is the plaintive cry reverberating across the nation.

In Carlos Javier Ortiz's "We All We Got," the outcry concerns black males killing black males in Chicago as a representative of the too-often brutal urban landscape.

One new program at Tribeca this year is Tribeca Tune-In, highlighting "some of the best in television," a few of them world premieres. Two in this category are "Greenleaf." Chronicling the titular family and the goings-on at its Memphis megachurch, it premieres on OWN. "Greenleaf" is also remarkable for being Oprah Winfrey's return to television as an actor in a recurring role.

Elsewhere at tune-in, it's not exactly Alex Haley's iconic version but it is "Roots." The eight-hour miniseries premieres on the HISTORY channel on Memorial Day. This "historical portrait" of American slavery follows one family starting with Kunta Kinte. A conversation with cast and directors is scheduled after the screening of each series.

Visitors to Tribeca Experiential may also want to stop by "Intersection of I." This is who I am is the assertion in the video installation. And I am white, says these millennials who are at least part white.

On a lighter note in the identity space is the film, "Little Boxes." A biracial boy named Clark, going into the 6th grade after summer, has moved with his parents to a small town from New York City. Alas, the new kid on the block has to act "more black" to be cool and accepted.

Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Melanie Lynskey in "Little Boxes." Tribeca Film FestivalTribeca Film Festival / Tribeca Film Festival

Chris Rock once had acceptance issues in "Everybody Hates Chris." Now he is among those participating in the "Tribeca Talks" series. He and J.J. Abrams, directors both, may at least jaw about "Star Trek." The classic sci-fi series turns 50 this year.

What would a film festival be without documentaries? It would be without the aforesaid "2 Fists Up," and "Life, Animated" among others, for starters.

Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams chronicles the story of an autistic young man who learned to speak after years of watching Disney animated movies. Also from ESPN Films is the short, "A.C. Green: Iron Virgin." The former L.A. Lakers power forward often said no until he relinquished his virginity at 38.

Former L.A. Lakers power forward A.C. Green in "A. C. Green: Iron Virgin."Tribeca Film Festival / Tribeca Film Festival

Meanwhile, digital media specialist and street artist Bradley Theodore almost lost his mind. He kept it together enough to teach himself how to paint and is now in demand the world over. His story is "Becoming: Bradley Theodore."

Madonna's Blonde Ambition Tour took a group of talented young dancers around the world. "Strike a Pose" is their where-are-they-now story.

Film festivals must also have their share of narrative shorts. They are grouped under themes such as "New York Now," "New York Then," "Triptych," "Mixed Feelings" and "Whoopi's Shorts." As in Goldberg.

Oliver Crumes strikes a pose then and now. He is featured in the documentary about Madonna's Blonde Ambition Tour, "Strike a Pose.Strike a Pose Facebook page. / Strike a Pose Facebook page.

Animated affairs for the 14 and older set along the lines of the delightful-sounding "The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse."

Other noteworthy shorts:

At "Nkosi Coiffure," Frederike Migom characters in an African quarter of Brussels are supportive until they get the details of Eva's argument with her boyfriend.

A troubled student requires the intervention of a high school administrator (S. Epatha Merkerson) in Christine Turner's "You Can Go."

Brian Burton's subject is an L.A.-based actor, artist, musician. And "The Chauffeur."

TFF2016 opened with "First Monday in May," a chronicle of the hugely popular The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute (MET Gala) exhibit, "China Through the Looking Glass."

The closer is "the bomb," a multimedia installation that addresses the nuclear threat.

Visit http://www.tribecafilm.com to learn more about the 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival, including schedule, screenings and how to purchase tickets.