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American Black Film Festival

American Black Film Festival Diary: Day 1

Black Hollywood mingles amid diversity strides

Hollywood is a secret Ivy League society that doesn’t give membership to just anybody.

And with very few exceptions, black Hollywood hangs on the outskirts, creating film without nearly the same resources as the major players. Black Hollywood finally got sick of being on the outside looking in, sick of questioning why it couldn’t have as much fun — or impact — as the Good Old Boys.

Twenty years ago, that’s where the American Black Film Festival came in.

ABFF was and is a respite for creators of black content designed for TV and film, a place to learn how to gain access, and how to get … well, put on. The festival also functions as that much-needed family reunion, a place to discuss how while much progress has happened over the last of two decades, there’s so much more work to be done.

But on Wednesday night? The festival’s kickoff evening? It was time to celebrate the good. And there was plenty of it.

The night’s message came early, and truthfully, it needs to be a trumpeted theme throughout the course of the weekend: “If we don’t tell our stories,” said HBO’s vice president for corporate social responsibility Dennis Williams, “someone else will.”


First day in, and ABFF is a joyful gathering, a place where elongated vowels happen — “Heeeeeeeey (insert anyone’s name here)!” Friendly catcalls are shouted from across hotel lobbies, movie theaters and neighboring cafes. Kisses are exchanged, dap is given, and hugs are welcome on a muggy Miami day that features some warm rain.

Alas, the show must go on.

And Wednesday night, at the opening film, Warner Bros. Central Intelligence, which stars Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and Kevin Hart, it did. The film was a big get for the festival, which has worked hard to get major studio support. The studio also sent the film’s co-star Danielle Nicolet (Born Again Virgin) to introduce the film, and to share her excitement. Johnson and Hart — superstars really, if we’re being honest — weren’t physically there, but they sent over a prerecorded video from their junket, where Johnson purposefully lowered his vocal register to inject some more soul in his voice. Why? He’s half-black, he told Hart, and he’s talking to black folks. This got a rousing laugh from the crowd. They were certainly entertained.

Long-standing filmmaker Bill Duke is like the ABFF godfather. The Dark Girls creator found his seat early at the Olympia Theater, and engaged in conversations with all who struck one up with him. Actors such as Wesley Jonathan and Robert Ri’chard trickled in off the red carpet fairly early to grab their seats, and Jonathan (Soul Man) made sure to pay quick homage to Duke. The TV One family rolled in deep: host Roland Martin entertained a small group throughout much of the night and founder Cathy Hughes got a shout-out from the stage from festival organizer Jeff Friday.

This is a space where Robert Townsend gets his just due. He’s the beloved uncle here and proudly sits on his appropriate, mythical pedestal, and he engaged with many film festival friends. Relative newcomer Deon Cole (Black-ish) got some love too — the funnyman will stump today for his TBS show Angie Tribeca, which stars Rashida Jones. Also good for a quick laugh is Chris Spencer, a festival staple who gives out advice on launching a career in stand-up comedy.

Rapper and actor Common was the biggest name of the night, and he certainly got the loudest cheers as he joked about having to figure out how to take advantage of his festival “ambassador” title for the weekend. The ABFF has picked up some steam in its last 20 years, and sponsors and specialty networks such as TV One come in and host small, private events. Cadillac hosted a kickoff luncheon earlier on Wednesday, where singer Estelle entertained a small, private group. After the show is the after-party, and on Wednesday night, DJ D-Nice spun Auntie-friendly sounds on the 1s and 2s.

Much more to come from the rest of this week, and The Undefeated will keep you in the loop!

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.