When the 17th annual American Black Film Festival kicks off in Miami Beach this weekend, one of the highlights is sure to be Fruitvale Station, based on a true story of a young man killed by a cop in an Oakland train station.
The film won top prizes at Sundance and Cannes, but "what people don't know," ABFF founder Jeff Friday says with no small amount of pride, "is that the director, Ryan Coogler, got his start with us. His Fig won the short film competition at the ABFF three years ago."
Miami alone is hosting more than 20 film festivals in 2013, but Mr. Friday sees an indispensable role for his.
"Studios are owned by big media companies, and every time they make a creative decision, they're thinking of shareholders," Friday says. "Ryan's film is a perfect example of that. There's a zero percent chance that it would have been made by a studio. But now that it has been made, it's been bought by the Weinstein Company and people are talking about Oscars.
"My biggest source of discomfort with Hollywood is that when studios make a film about African-Americans, in most situations, they see minorities as a single, monolithic people, who like one or two kinds of movies."
By contrast, the ABFF features an impressively broad range of films. Here's a look at some of this year's top picks:
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete: Two young boys in Brooklyn are left to fend for themselves during a summer after they are abandoned by their parents. "Obviously, we're really exited about it," Friday says. "It's the opening-night film and stars Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, and Anthony Mackie. Alicia Keys is one of the executive producers. Great film."
Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain: The closing-night movie was filmed at Hart's sold-out Madison Square Garden stand-up show. "Kevin is the hottest comedian on the scene right now," Friday says. "It's really funny, and because it's the world premiere, we're expecting a really nice turnout."
In the Meantime: An engaged couple decide to take a six-month break from their relationship to pursue their passions and decide if what they have is true love. It was directed by Roger Bobb, who has produced many of Tyler Perry's films, and it won the screenplay competition sponsored by the UP television network at last year's ABFF. "They're a family-friendly entertainment company," Friday says of UP. "Indie films tend to be gritty, realistic, and adult-oriented. There's no other competition that we know of that focuses on this kind of film and then actually makes the film."
Playin' for Love: During the Film Over Miami showcase, works by South Florida filmmakers will be shown for free at the Colony Theatre from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Afterward, the ABFF will host premiere screenings of Robert Townsend's Playin' for Love, a basketball-themed romantic comedy. "It was shot only five months ago in Miami and partially funded by a grant from the city. Robert used a training program that involved a lot of students from the University of Miami to work on the film with him."
The Best Man Holiday panel: In addition to films, the festival also hosts craft workshops, tributes, and panel discussions. Friday is particularly enthusiastic about the event built around The Best Man Holiday, the sequel to the hit comedy The Best Man. "Universal is bringing the entire cast: Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, the director Malcolm Lee. They're all coming down. The film isn't done yet, but they're going to discuss the making of it, take questions."
Friday conceived of the ABFF after visits to the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. His goal is to combine "the allure, the sexiness, the upscale feeling of the South of France" with "the sense of community and the good of being isolated in Park City."
The choice of Miami as a location was obvious to him.
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"To be frank, not many cities can offer what Miami does in terms of infrastructure. We need a venue that holds 1,000 people, and the Gusman is gorgeous -- and the Colony," he says. "We attract between 4,000 and 5,000 people from around the world. People ask, 'How can you get so many people to come?' Well, Miami doesn't hurt."
The 17th annual American Black Film Festival runs this Thursday through Sunday, June 20 to 23, at various local venues. For tickets and schedules, visit ABFF.com. Tickets cost $12 unless otherwise noted below. Presale discounts are being offered to South Florida residents.