by A. Thomas
Jeff Friday had no experience in filmmaking. He simply was a movie enthusiast who saw a diversity vacuum in the industry. Armed with a MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, he seized an opportunity by establishing the American Black Film Festival.
Today things have come full circle for the American Black Film Festival, whose genesis emanates in Chicago.
Twenty years ago, a confluence of events prompted the Howard University alum and Newark, N.J. native to start a fledgling venue to showcase the talents and achievements of people of African descent and to promote diversity in the film industry. Similar to today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy was embroiled in controversy. Of the 166 Oscar nominees for the 68th Academy Awards, only one was black. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, called for a boycott.
Less than a year later, Friday got a call from actor and friend Larenz Tate (Crash and Menace II Society). Tate, who was born in the Windy City, invited Friday to the Sundance Film Festival to see a film starring Tate and Nia Long (Soul Food and Boyz n the Hood). He went and fell in love with the movie, love jones.
Chicagoan Theodore Witcher directed the movie, which became one of Friday’s favorite films. Friday also noticed the event’s lack of diversity.
“I saw like five black people,” Friday tells several hundred attending the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) Chicago Buzz party recently. “I left wondering, ‘Why can’t we do something like this in New York.’”
The romance about black professional artists in Chicago became a cultural and generational classic. It also inspired Friday to create a vehicle to provide African-Americans with the same opportunities and access to information and Hollywood that their mainstream counterparts enjoyed.
This month, the ABFF will mark 20 years of nurturing African-American talent and fostering diversity in the film and television industry with the inaugural “ABFF Awards: A Celebration of Hollywood.” BET Networks is collaborating with ABFF to produce the show with host comedian and actor Mike Epps. It tapes Feb. 21 at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles and premieres at 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday, Feb. 23 on BET and Centric channels.
“It’s like a blessing,” Friday says about the awards show. “It will be memorializing what we have been doing for 20 years. People don’t always know about your work. It’s great to have an opportunity to be on a televised stage to talk about the festival and the work we’ve done over the past 20 years and celebrate some of the people being honored this year.”
The show celebrates African-American culture and recognizes individuals, movies, and television shows of the past year with a significant impact on American entertainment. It also honors people who have advocated diversity and inclusion in Hollywood.
“We believe the time has come to recognize both Black icons of Hollywood who blazed the trail for today’s generation, and the current innovators who are creating unique platforms to share diverse stories,” Friday says.
“Our intention is not to ignore or replace the industry’s traditional awards ceremonies, but rather to embrace the exceptional, but sometimes overlooked, talents of these artists across the entertainment industry.”
One of the night’s highlights is the recognition of legends and budding artists. Among those honorees are Regina King (American Crime) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies) who are receiving Excellence in the Arts awards. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) is receiving the Rising Star award. Diahann Carroll (Julia) earns the Hollywood Legacy award, and producer Will Packer (Straight Outta Compton) receives the Distinguished ABFF Alumni award.
The 68th Academy Awards controversy is not unlike the brouhaha swirling around this year’s Oscars, which failed to yield a single African-American nominee in the acting categories for the second consecutive year. And just like then, African-Americans have key roles in the show’s production. Whoopi Goldberg hosted the Oscars while Quincy Jones produced the show in 1996. Chris Rock hosts and Reginald Hudlin co-produces the 88th Academy Awards this year.
It is not a new problem, Friday acknowledges. He points out that the greatest barrier remains the lack of access to the $11 billion film industry and Hollywood’s infrastructure.
“Hollywood is a business masquerading as art, and that industry is primarily ran by white men in their 60s,” Friday says. “They run it like a private party, and you have to be referred in if you don’t know anyone. Our greatest barrier is lack of access because with access comes information.”
Recognizing the major inequities in Hollywood and the lack of opportunities for African-Americans, Friday launched the ABFF in Acapulco, Mexico in 1997 with the support of his employer and mentor UniWorld Founder and CEO Byron Lewis Sr.
Originally, it was called the Acapulco Black Film Festival with the tagline: Because Holly wouldn’t. The event drew about 19 people the first year, Friday recalled. Among them were several faithful Chicago supporters, including Robert Townsend and Randy Crumpton, who has hosted the Chicago Buzz party for a number of years.
Hundreds chatted, danced, mingled and networked about opportunities and breaking into the industry during this year’s Buzz party. Friday, who attended the pre-festival event, thanked Chicagoans for their commitment to his vision from the start and for providing the spark to start ABFF.
“There’s no city I love coming to more than Chicago. It’s real simple. Chicago shows me love and shows me respect,” says Friday, who worked briefly at Chicago’s Burrell Communications before joining UniWorld, a multicultural ad agency in New York.
Now, this four-day event attracts 19,000 people, some of whom work in the film and television industry as well as those who aspire to join. Renamed the American Black Film Festival in 2002, the event is held annually in June and considered the largest assembly of black film and television enthusiasts. This year’s gathering is June 15-19 in Miami Beach, Fla.
Since its inception, this celebration of the arts also has been in Los Angeles and New York City. The Festival has drawn supporters such as actor and director Bill Dukes, actress Halle Berry, actor and rapper Common, director Spike Lee, screenwriter and producer Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane), and one of the hottest up-and-coming directors Ryan Coogler (Creed and Fruitvale Station).
New to the festival this year is the Technology Center, a hub for discussions and demonstrations around nthe convergence of technology and entertainment. ABFF also has created a new division called ABFF Studios, which will develop digital content for the Web. Its first product, called “For the Love”, is a series in which celebrities talk about the love of their craft. It airs on Comcast.
Friday attributes the festival’s longevity and success to the same strategy he uses to pry open opportunities for African-Americans. He champions diversity and inclusion.
“We invited all the studios to participate. We built it by being inclusive and inviting people to be a part of the diversity effort,” Friday says. “Twenty years later, it is an interesting place for us to be. It has come full circle. Because we’ve been there on the front lines of diversity in Hollywood, people are looking to us for answers now.”
And so are artists hoping to break into the industry. Che Smith, known as Rhymefest, recently collected a NAACP Image Award for his role in a documentary titled In My Father’s House. He credits the ABFF with receiving the honor and giving the film exposure.
“They premiered my movie. When my film premiered at the ABFF, that made the Essence Festival say we want to premiere your film. After premiering at the Essence Fest, the NAACP nominated our film for an Image Award,” Rhymefest explains to those gathered at the Buzz party. “None of that would be happening without Jeff Friday and the ABFF.”