Making films is hard and making good ones even harder, so the American Black Film Festival, held last weekend in Los Angeles, adheres to the old adage that 90 percent of life is just showing up. To paraphrase a panelist during one of the festival's events, "I've seen Citizen Kane and that shit was boring. What about Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"
I don't think Citizen Kane is boring, but whether or not you agree with panelists underlying point – that black audiences have different needs and expectations – festivals like the ABFF do present a distinct and different image of who we are and what we want.
As a result, reviewing the ABFF is a bit like reviewing a reunion or convention. Unless you're a first-time attendee, the festival is a fairly known quantity. Much like your family, professional organization or graduating class, it is better at uplifting (and occasionally exasperating) than it is surprising or challenging. The alcohol was free, the people were beautiful and black, the business cards were flying, and the parties were packed. Only the proverbial hater of elite media lore would turn away from all that good stuff in order to take a particularly close look at the actual movies being screened. Thankfully, there is at least some good news to report. But, more on that later.
Originally launched in 1996 in Acapulco as the Acapulco Black Film Festival, the ABFF's first incarnation was notable for the sunny intimacy it created between industry insiders and well-heeled black movie fans bored with the Vineyard. In its second life on Miami's more accessible South Beach, it had a successful run as a sort of upscale, moviemaking Jack the Rapper convention, with tourists, aspirants, straight-to-DVD distributors and multicultural marketing reps from brands like Lincoln and HBO coming to mix and mingle. (Black executives bearing gifts from blue chip corporate sponsors eager to show their commitment to black consumers were the event's real stars.) The ABFF has since relocated to Lalaland, where it aims to deepen its portfolio as a yearly professional development seminar, networking mixer and celebrity-spotting opportunity.
But the bulk of films shown at the Beverly Center multiplex for the festival come to the ABFF through an open call, meaning the yearly competition lives and dies according to whatever independent films happen to wash up in its offices every year. The festival can only show what it gets and is unlikely to pull a Zadie Smith and close up shop when the pickings are slim. (The British novelist caused a stirlast year when she refused to give an award for a writing contest she was judging because the submissions were just too crap, as the Brits like to put it). This limited pool of submissions may mean it's unfair to harp on the generally low ambition and poor technical quality of way too many of the films on display, especially among the narrative features. But, hey, I never said I was fair.
That said, though, the festival included some noteworthy documentaries and short films. There were a few urban vérité surprises among the features, like a Nigerian film called Small Boy about a runaway in Lagos. The festival also screened classic features tied to its yearly theme; this time it was romance and black sexuality, so folks got a chance to see prints of Carmen Jones, She's Gotta Have It, Waiting to Exhale and, er, Mandingo. But when your best features are foreign or 40 years old, something is amiss.
I've had the pleasure of experiencing this event as a writer, friend of a filmmaker and an employee of a festival sponsor, and this year's divide in quality is true to form, docs and shorts shining while the best of the narrative features are headed for a bottom shelf at Blockbuster. The reason is fairly straightforward: There's no money or glamour in making short films and documentaries, and they tend not to attract the blactor-writer-director-comedians who churn out sorely under-directed comedy sketches and camp horror flicks that populate the narrative category.
ABFF documentary competition winner Slaying Goliath, by husband-wife directing team Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, was likely the best full-length film this year and would have earned kudos at any festival. Goliath takes a charged, evocative look at 10 days in the life of a boy'sfifth-grade basketball club from Harlem. It follows the kids and parents—including the filmmakers and their own son, who plays on the team—as they travel to a national competition in Florida. Whole worlds are laid bare with skillful economy, as grown-ups and coaches grapple with the sometimes diverging demands of parenting and winning. The difficulty of raising black boys, as well as the difficulty of being a real team, come to the fore as the group frays, while tantalizing questions of how a filmmaker should document the events of their own lives hovers around Goliath's edges. (Brewster and Stephenson are actually in the eighth year of an important 12-year project tracing their son's journey through an elite private school from kindergarten to college.)
Title of second best goes to a lively, engaging documentary by Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes called Pip and Zastrow: An American Friendship, which follows the 40-year relationship and political partnership between a white mayor of Annapolis, Md. and a black man he met while playing basketball. Making excellent use of smartly-shot archival photography and period music, Pip and Zastrow create a memorable cast of characters (literal and figurative) that shed light on a powerful chapter of the Civil Rights Movement that I, for one, knew little about.
Even the much maligned BET—well, BET J—scored a documentary win. The rebranded "BET for Grown-ups" screened several good selections from their Reel Stories documentary series.
Festival goers looking for the ecstatic shock of discovery had to rely on the HBO Short Film competition to get their kicks. Between the cachet of HBO and the monkish devotion it takes to spend a year on a short, the HBO program weeds out pretenders and provides a yearly treat.
Shades of Brooklyn, a series of spot on vignettes assuredly written and directed by Daoud Bey and Dahkil Hausif, used the rhythms and languages of New York's largest borough to score both laughs and social insight. (The best vignette, about cat-calling on the street, used text by spoken word artist Ishan Muhammad to powerful effect.)
Short film competition winner Premature, by Rashaad Ernesto Green was an unexpectedly searing and genuine look at a Bronx girl who discovers she's pregnant. Fourteen-year-old actress Zora Howard gave a career-making performance as the teen in question. By the end, everyone who wasn't on their feet clapping was knocked back in their seat. "Now that's a filmmaker," I said to the woman sitting next to me who was too overwhelmed to reply.
Premature was only 15 minutes long and barely had two pages of dialogue, but it made the entire weekend worthwhile.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.