On June 11, the American Black Film Festival returns with more of its engaging workshops, master classes, panel discussions and films catering to African American filmmakers, actors, directors and producers.
And since this is the year of the indomitable “Empire” (FOX), none other than Taraji P. Henson has signed on to be the festival’s official celebrity ambassador. Other highlights include the premiere of Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, produced by Forest Whitaker and executive produced by Pharrell Williams and P.Diddy; and a most-deserving award for longtime comedic actress Jenifer Lewis (Black-ish.)
And according to ABFF founder Jeff Friday, this year is expected to be bigger than ever. “We’re expecting 20,000 people to attend,” he told TNJ.com.
Here, we caught up with Friday just days before opening night to talk about both the origins, and the current state of Friday’s “Black Sundance.”
TNJ.com: How did ABFF come to be?
Jeff Friday: It happened in 1997 after I attended the Sundance Film Festival. At the time, I was president of the Entertainment division at UniWorld Group. My primary focus was to solicit major studios as advertising clients. We wanted to do ads for film. I took a trip to Sundance and that triggered the formation of ABFF. Early in Sundance history was a great time. I loved what I saw: the intersection of the Hollywood establishment and the new jack generation of new directors. Diversity was sparse, and I wondered where the Black filmmakers were.
That year, the film Love Jones starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate won the audience award. The event was all about great films, good stories and work for everyone. I came back and wanted to try a Black film festival as a hobby. At the time, the Mexican government of tourism was our client, so I called my client and said I wanted to do a Black version of Sundance. They agreed to host it in Acapulco. There were 89 people there – Debbie Allen, Bill Duke, Nia Long; it was magical. I replicated the experience I had at Sundance and it was successful! 19 years later, we’re still here.
TNJ.com: What were some of the challenges in getting it off the ground?
J.F.: The challenges were different from now. The main challenge was figuring out how to pay for it. Now, we have a lot of major corporate sponsors like Walmart and HBO. But 19 years ago, we had no sponsors so UniWorld Founder Byron Lewis put up the money. Without him, there would not be an ABFF today.
We also had to establish credibility. My friends in the industry like John Singleton attended, which added a level of enthusiasm. Without them, it would not have been the same.
Then there was the issue of fundraising. And that journey continued every year; we had to keep going back to the well. And back then there were no cell phones or social media and Internet. The big challenge was getting the word out. Black radio and snail mailing list were the ways to communicate with people. That was how we build our audience. Sundance was in January and our first event was in June, so it was a true miracle that 89 people showed up! No Facebook and no Twitter!
TNJ.com: What are some of the present-day challenges?
J.F.: Today, the fundraising and the credibility are there. We have under our belt 20 years of helping people in the film industry. Now, they are working in the industry. HBO has been a sponsor for 19 years; American Airlines, we’ve had for 17 years.
The challenges now have shifted, but we feed off of them. We constantly have to keep up with the times. Now, we have to be able to talk digital distribution. You have to be able to change platforms because programming is a lot more complicated these days.
TNJ.com: What’s different this year?
J.F.: In November, we made the announcement that we are including television in this year’s event. We now have a 50/50 split of TV and film. Diversity is really happening a lot more on TV versus film. I just don’t see the movies changing as aggressively. So we now consider ourselves a film and TV event. In fact, our new tag line is, ‘The nation’s largest gathering of film and television enthusiasts.’
TNJ.com: What are some of this year’s highlights?
J.F.: Opening night, we’re premiering a film called “Dope.” It’s a coming-of-age story starring Kimberly Elise, A$AP Rocky and Zoe Kravitz. It opens in theaters June 19.
We?ll also have a conversation with Taraji on Friday afternoon; an HBO short film competition; a panel about being hot in Hollywood will feature up and coming actors; we?ll have a Black-ish panel with creator Kenya Barris and actress Tracee Ellis Ross, an Empire panel; and we?ll end with our awards show. This year, we?re giving an award to actress Jenifer Lewis, so we?ll start our awards presentation off with a tribute clip package about her. She has done so much in the industry including 60 some-odd movies, but a lot of people don’t know that. Jenifer has done voiceovers, theater, one-woman shows, and she is one of the most talented people alive. Sometimes our industry focuses on mainstream names, but it’s important that we, as a community, recognize people who are not as popular when it comes to mainstream notoriety.