Long before Hollywood entertained modern-day diversity or inclusion conversations, Urbanworld, founded by onetime Motown Records and Miramax Films executive Stacy Spikes in 1997, was already expanding the “urban” landscape in film, pushing beyond racial, geographic and other limits, and freely mixing music and other aspects of urban culture. It’s a mission the festival, in its 20th year, has not forgotten.
Over the years, Urbanworld has bolstered diverse filmmakers, especially those who defy categorization, ranging from Nelson George (A Ballerina’s Tale) and Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned) to Byron Hurt (Beyond Beats and Rhymes) and Damon Dash (Paid in Full). Celebrity supporters, including Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, Chris Rock and Salli Richardson-Whitfield, are far too numerous to name.
The five-day multicultural film festival, which kicks off in New York City on Wednesday, is chock-full of noteworthy highlights. Here are just 10 reasons to drop by.
1. Festival Ambassadors Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo
Longtime Urbanworld champion Ava DuVernay, who also founded ARRAY, an indie-film distribution and resource collective to support diverse filmmakers, has not let prepping for her $100 million Disney film, Wrinkle in Time, or executive-producing her hit television series, Queen Sugar, keep her away from this year’s festival. She, along with David Oyelowo, who starred in her films Selma and Middle of Nowhere, both presented at previous Urbanworlds and serve as the official festival ambassadors to support and encourage the next wave of filmmakers.
2. 20th Anniversary Opening Reception
Keyon Harrold, the acclaimed trumpeter behind Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, helps set the tone for this special Urbanworld milestone with a performance at the invitation-only soiree at the swanky cocktail lounge the Skylark, which officially kicks off this year’s festival Wednesday.
“Our Africa: Opportunity on the Continent,” featuring Quartz Africa Editor Yinka Adegoke and Africa Creative Agency founder Colin Gayle, among others, is the lead session of this important exploration into the urban digital realm. But the conversation with Russell Simmons and HBO Chairman-CEO Richard Plepler, moderated by Elvis Mitchell, is perhaps the highlight of the special presentation. HBO Theater (1100 Sixth Ave., Manhattan), 1-7 p.m. Thursday.
Get an advance look at the film about the remarkable story of unlikely Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, starring newcomer Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, and delve into the intricacies of the film with a post-screening Q&A with director Mira Nair and Oyelowo. AMC Empire (234 W. 42nd St., Manhattan), Theater 13, 7:45 p.m. Thursday.
Get a sneak preview of the long-awaited HBO comedy from Awkward Black Girl Issa Rae that is sure to be must-watch TV, and hear Rae and members of her cast, including Jay Ellis (The Game), and team, most notably television producer Prentice Penny (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs), chat with Bevy Smith Friday. AMC Empire, Theater 10; red carpet, 7 p.m.; screening, 8 p.m.
Get a sneak peek at Fox’s anticipated television drama, which explores the aftermath of a racially charged police shooting, from husband-and-wife creative duo Reggie Bythewood (New York Undercover) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights). Then delve deep with a conversation with the Bythewoods; stars Stephan James (Jesse Owens), Tristan Wilds (The Wire, The Breaks); and more, moderated by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), who directs on the show. AMC Empire, Theater 12, 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
BET is feeding the buzz for its television event about one of Boston’s most famous groups in a major way by premiering clips from the film and hosting a conversation featuring BET execs Stephen Hill and Zola Mashariki; director Chris Robinson; executive producer Jesse Collins; stars Bryshere Gray, Luke James, Wood Harris and more; as well as New Edition members Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe. AMC Empire, Theater 9, 9 p.m. Saturday.
8. Black Plays on Romeo and Juliet Story
The spirit of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story lives on in this unlikely film set in Brussels, where a Moroccan bad boy falls for a Congolese girl, a recent immigrant, and sets off a gang war. Belgian hip-hop and North African beats really help bring the story to life. AMC Empire, Theater 12, 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
Take the guesswork out of what to see and get a glimpse of the future with this showcase highlighting a block of shorts, like the 13-minute A Silent Night, about the betrayal of infidelity, from the United Kingdom; and Loved Like This, in which a young girl struggles between her love for her girlfriend and her grandmother’s expectations. AMC Empire, Theater 13, 5 p.m. Saturday.
Close out Urbanworld in Brooklyn with a lively, estrogen-fueled conversation between documentary filmmaker Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Chisholm ’72 ) and visual artist Shantell Martin, who designed this year’s official Urbanworld poster, moderated by Allison Davis, associate artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). BRIC (647 Fulton St., Brooklyn), 4 p.m. Sunday.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.