For the first time in 18 years, the American Black Film Festival is taking place in New York City. Running this year from June 19 to 22, it brings with it an impressive lineup of movies and stars. From the opening-night film, Think Like a Man Too, to Spike Lee’s closing-night movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, audiences will be treated to a smorgasbord of black filmmaking. There is a documentary about Ruby Dee, directed by her grandson, that will make its world premiere at the festival. There is also a spiritual thriller from Russ Parr and a film starring Oscar winner Mo’Nique as another “bad mother.” At a time when black cinema is experiencing a tidal wave of interest and awards, the ABFF is a welcome vehicle to showcase smaller films and unknown talent.
The latest Spike Lee “joint” makes its world premiere at the festival. Lee has kept Da Sweet Blood of Jesus under wraps, but the festival describes it as “a new kind of love story about human beings who are addicted to blood.” The filmmaker, however, is clear to point out that “it is not a remake of Blacula.” Lee ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie, which IMDb lists as having a $1.2 million budget and a 16-day shooting schedule, both tight by Hollywood standards. It stars Michael K. Williams, Felicia Pearson and Elvis Nolasco. Lee’s last big-budget film, OldBoy, did not draw wide audiences—nor did his last indie, Red Hook Summer—so lots of eyes will be on this movie to see if Lee has his groove or “joint” back.
Blackbird, based on the novel of the same name, is, according to the festival, “about a young singer who struggles with his sexuality and the treatment of others while coming of age in a small Southern Baptist community.” It stars newcomer Julian Walker in the lead, with Oscar winner Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington playing his parents. Mo’Nique has not been in a movie since Precious, so it’s definitely nice to see her back on the big screen. As in that film, she plays a bad mother here. According to the film notes, she does not accept her son’s sexual orientation and blames him for various family issues. Mo’Nique is also an executive producer of the film, along with her husband.
The film is about “brotherhood and forgiveness,” according to its Facebook page. The festival expounds on the subject, saying, “Nearly 20 years after a tragedy, the reunion of four high school friends opens old wounds, exposes long-hidden secrets, and paves the road to forgiveness and redemption.” Cru was written and directed by Alton Glass, who is quoted on Facebook saying, “Why do I still make films? Regardless of how hard they are to make, I must inspire, depict genuine life, tell stories that show the rest of the world who we are as a people.” The cast includes Keith Robinson, Richard T. Jones, Melissa De Sousa, Antwon Tanner, Sammi Rotibi, Harry J. Lennix and Alison Eastwood.
A “romantic comedy that takes you on an enchanting journey into the complex world of Internet dating,” according to the festival, First Impression stars Lamman Rucker, from Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, as an aspiring writer and Lisa Arrindell Anderson, known for Madea’s Family Reunion, as the head of a publishing company. It is set in Atlanta and has all the elements of a classic rom-com, including the shiftless male friends, overzealous girlfriends and the requisite preacher. The film was written and executive-produced by Regis Brown, who, according to his bio, “developed it based on a personal experience he had with online dating.”
This documentary tells the story of William Brawner, a black man who was infected with HIV as a young child and kept it a secret for more than 25 years, possibly infecting many of the women with whom he had unprotected sex. The story is not new, but the retelling of his story is, promises one of the film’s producers, Leah Natasha Thomas. She says that much of Brawner’s backstory is not known, and the documentary explores that, as well as the choices people make. 25 to Life is also a look at HIV and AIDS through the perspective of a middle-class African-American family and community. Brawner grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Howard University.
A documentary about renowned black trauma surgeon Dr. Edward Cornwell III, Transcending Surgeon shows how gun violence in the inner city has transformed his role as a trauma surgeon, focusing on the challenges he faces as well as how he confronts them. The film also looks at how other African-American doctors who came before him paved the way. Filmmaker Sam Hampton ran an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project. He says on the fundraising site, “I find, as an African American, that there are too many negative stories that focus on the failures and struggles of people who look like me, leaving a void of stories that reflect the good values of African-American people.”
The film “chronicles how hip-hop’s most successful rapper of the past two decades reached the top,” according to festival press. What it took to get there and the not-always-smooth ride are packed into 60 minutes, which the savvy production company behind the film has also made available on Amazon.com. A Genius Leaves the Hood promises a rags-to-riches, or “Marcy Projects to Madison Avenue,” journey as told through interviews with friends, former business partners, music execs and loads of others. Plus, there’s that business of the breakup with Damon Dash and Roc-A-Fella Records.
The documentary is told in the style of an open letter by the famous actress and civil rights icon to her grandson, filmmaker Muta’Ali Muhammad. He interviews several of Dee’s and Ossie Davis’ famous friends, including such notables as Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier and Angela Bassett. The stories lead us through the couple’s life together, from fighting for equality in the Deep South to screen time in Hollywood. Muta’Ali includes family photos that bring to life the story of a couple who can easily be described as American black royalty. Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee is making its world premiere at the festival. Unfortunately, Dee died before she was able to see the fruits of her grandson’s labor of love.
A film “about a 13-year-old girl who attends her first school dance and rediscovers a dream that she thought was lost,” Brakedown/Through a Black Lens was inspired by the winner of American Family Insurance’s Through a Black Lens contest. The company asked people to share their dreams for the future, and the winning submission was turned into a film. The director is Morris Chestnut, who is also the festival’s celebrity ambassador. Although the film is premiering at the festival, it will be made available on June 23 for viewing at the Through a Black Lens website.
Described as “a fictionalized account of true events,” Rise Up tells the story of “an educated Nigerian girl’s return to her rural community to become the leader of a local movement fighting against the polluting oil company.” Shot in Los Angeles and Nigeria and directed by Jeta Amata, with a multiracial cast including Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Akon, Wyclef Jean and Enyinna Nwigwe, the movie premiered in New York in 2012 under the title Black November. The festival says it is being relaunched with a different name, along with a big push from Akon, and hopes are that the film will pick up a distributor this time. When it premiered in 2012, The Root spoke with Akon, who said, “This message should have been told a long time ago. There is so much extraction of natural resources in Africa, but it’s actually corrupting the land and killing off the people, and no one is doing anything about it. And now oil and energy happen to be the big thing.”
Writer and director Russ Parr calls Hear No Evil a “spiritual thriller.” The film notes say, “A freak accident jolts 15 year-old Shelby Carson from her peaceful world of silence and seclusion to the center of a world of chaos, confusion and imminent danger. What seems to be a blessing from God on the surface could very well be a curse.” Hear No Evil stars Jahnee Wallace, a young actress known for TV’s Sleepy Hollow, along with Richard T. Jones, Jill Marie Jones and Jackie Long. Parr’s 2012 film, The Undershepherd, also dealt with themes of religion, but it was about a corrupt pastor, played by Isaiah Washington. That film did not go over well with some in the faith-based black community. Besides being a filmmaker, Parr is also a nationally syndicated DJ.
Making its world premiere at the festival, Myra’s Angel is nominated for six awards, including best picture. Filmmaker Skye Dennis tells The Root, “It’s about a man’s journey for redemption as he tries to clear his name of a robbery he didn’t commit.” But he goes on to say it’s about so much more, including family ties, jealousy, love and loss, with, of course, a surprise ending. It was filmed in the Philadelphia area and stars Tobi Gadison, who is one of the festival’s three best actor nominees, along with Keith Robinson of Cru and Neil Reidman of Hard Time Bus. Gadison’s co-star Tiffany Green, known for Silver Linings Playbook, is up for best actress, along with Hard Times Bus’ Naomi Ryan and Una Vida’s Aunjanue Ellis. Myra’s Angel also stars Christopher Mann and Brian Anthony Wilson, who were regulars on HBO’s The Wire.