(The Root) — Celebrating its 16th year of showcasing some of the most buzzworthy indie movies about black life, the American Black Film Festival has kicked off this week in Miami. Organized by industry vet Jeff Friday, the four-day event (June 20-23) is what some consider to be the black Sundance — a meeting ground for aspiring filmmakers and moviegoers and the premier venue for black cinema to attract the attention of distribution companies looking for the next breakout hit.
During a call last week, Friday mentioned how he looks forward to continuing to provide a platform for new and established black talent for years to come. "Sixteen years is a long time," he said. "I'd like to have the same history as Cannes and Sundance. I want this to be our event."
This year there are several reasons to think that the festival has a bright future. The Root has already tipped Russ Parr's The Undershepherd with our Q&A with one of its stars, Malinda Williams. We surveyed the other films now at ABFF and have highlighted some of the most promising works. If you're in Miami, try to score tickets. If not, keep an eye out for when the following films are coming to a theater near you.
The festival opened Wednesday with two screenings of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beautifully shot and scored debut from director Benh Zeitlin. If you liked the childlike exuberance, wild imagination and dark edge of a film like Where the Wild Things Are, this movie captures all of that in a unique tale of father-daughter love in Hurricane Katrina-torn Louisiana. Starring amateur actors — the magnetic (now) 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) and the live-wire Dwight Henry, who plays her dad (Wink) — the movie shows the height of what can be accomplished with a relatively small budget and an amazing script.
Friday counts its inclusion at the festival as a major sign of the event's focus on presenting a diverse set of films. "It's an extraordinary movie, and it was not made by an African-American director," Friday told The Root about the film, which is set for limited release on June 27. "One of the things we've been trying to do as a festival is that we don't want to project an exclusionary voice. We want to include people other than our community. We all win when black things are more widely accepted."
Another movie that deserves attention is Better Mus Come. Directed by Storm Saulter, the film is set in 1970s Jamaica in the months leading up to the mass killing of suspected gang leaders by government soldiers. The event, known as the Green Bay Massacre, was a flash point in the island's wave of rampant street violence and federal corruption.
Saulter — who honed his filmmaking chops as a longtime assistant of music-video director Little X — tells the story of a romance between local gangster Ricky (Sheldon Shepherd) and Kemala (Nicole Sky Grey), a young girl from the other side of town. He tries to navigate an unforgiving life in Kingston as he gets caught up in a larger struggle for political power.
The film, which also stars Roger Guenveur Smith, has been making the rounds at several festivals, winning the top award at this year's Pan African Film Festival. "It isn't a movie glorifying the 'badman,' like so many other Jamaican films. It's really about the cause and effect of violence," Saulter told the Fader. "I also wanted to show the roots of today's gang conflicts in Jamaica, that the '70s were a starting point." At ABFF, Better Mus Come is in the running for the Grand Jury Prize for best screenplay, and Shepherd has been nominated for best actor. The film is being screened at ABFF on Thursday and Friday.
Competing against Better Mus Come for best-screenplay honors is Matthew A. Cherry's directorial debut, The Last Fall, which stars Lance Gross as Kyle Bishop, a 25-year-old pro-football player who's trying to figure out life after his NFL days seem to be over. When he gets a last chance to salvage his dream of playing in the league again, it puts some strain on a relationship with his high school honey, Faith (Nicole Beharie).
Cherry boasts intimate knowledge of the emotional ups and downs of being a young athlete trying to make it. As a former wide receiver who bounced around the NFL playing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, Cherry understands what rejection feels like. According to Variety, his first feature-length attempt is not perfect but offers solid performances from Gross and other cast members, including Darrin Dewitt Henson, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Keith David. For the football fans out there, the film screens on Thursday and Friday at ABFF.
In the documentary category, there are several offerings worth mentioning. Byron Hurt's Soul Food Junkies takes a hard and humorous look at the health and cultural impact of eating traditional dishes like fried chicken, mac and cheese and yams. Given the growing national discourse on healthy eating practices and The Root's recent focus on blacks and fat, the film seems incredibly timely.
Hurt's previous film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes was a pointed yet sensitive exploration of masculinity and rap culture. If he's able to bring a similar deft touch to examining the significance of our near-sacred cuisine, then the doc has a good chance of winning the top honors. Soul Food Junkies screens on Thursday and Saturday.
Soul Food Junkies may have a strong rival in the race for best doc with S. Epatha Merkerson's The Contradictions of Fair Hope, a film that explores the history of "benevolent societies" that formed in the South to help freed slaves avoid "abject hunger, illness and fear of a pauper's grave." Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film focuses on one of the last societies in Fair Hope, Ala.
Indications are that this is a compelling portrait of a little-known aspect of black culture that has evolved in troubling ways through the years. Merkerson, talking to WNYC radio about the movie a few months ago, described how the tradition has morphed into a week of partying that also features "various and sundry things." It's a must-listen podcast. Filmgoers can catch screenings on Friday and Saturday.
Brett Johnson is associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.