For Jeff Friday, the Oscar-winning success of Moonlight, a film shot in Miami by a black director and starring an all-black cast, hardly means anything has changed for African-Americans in the movie business.
"I don't really see Moonlight's success as being an indication of Hollywood's appetite for black cinema, because if you look at the slate of black films, it's actually very paltry," Friday says.
He would know. The founder of the American Black Film Festival has been gathering filmmakers and stars for 21 years to shine a spotlight on some of the highest-profile films with black characters at the center of their stories. This year's program includes the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and the world premiere of Universal Pictures' Girls Trip, starring Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Queen Latifah, opening night at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami.
Though he is proud of the festival's movie premieres, Friday says, the more significant platform for black stories is television. "The key difference is really the economics," he explains. "Films live or die at the box office, whether people go and see them or not, and TV lives or dies on advertising and ratings, and so the dynamics of how movies and TV shows survive or are successful are so different."
Black television is in the midst of a renaissance, with series such as Insecure, helmed by web-series-creator-turned-HBO-star Issa Rae, and Queen Sugar, created by esteemed director Ava DuVernay, earning both critical acclaim and wide popularity. And this week, Miami is at the center of that renaissance, as the American Black Film Festival hosts premieres, red carpets, and panel discussions with some of black TV's biggest players. The casts of Insecure and Queen Sugar will attend red-carpet screenings of their series' season-opening episodes. Snowfall, a new show on FX, will get its own world-premiere screening with executive producer/writer John Singleton. And TNT's new series Claws will also debut its first episode at the festival, where cast members Niecy Nash, Karrueche Tran, and Judy Reyes and executive producer Janine Sherman Barrois will discuss the show.
"The TV business is becoming diverse," Friday says. "Now that the networks are highly interested in black content, you got so many black shows. You got Queen Sugar, Insecure, Atlanta, and Luke Cage. It's an endless list. Two or three years ago, none of these shows were on. I mean, there was Scandal and Blackish, but right now I think there are 40 networks that have at least one black show, which is amazing."
That upswing has increased interest in his 21-year-old festival. "Now people are going, 'Hey, where can I showcase my shows?' And so all of a sudden ABFF is on the top of their minds. It's interesting, because 20 years ago we were fighting an uphill battle getting Hollywood to acknowledge our audience and also our talent in front of and behind the camera. Now it's just the opposite. I kinda feel like we've become an overnight sensation."
It was 1997 when Friday found inspiration for the festival after watching Love Jones win the audience award at Sundance. "It was a small black indie film about the spoken-word scene in Chicago, and there was not a lot of diversity in Sundance back in '97," he recalls. "It was actually very one-dimensional in terms of the audience."
Friday saw firsthand the need for a festival specializing in black films that can also break through barriers of race and gender. Just four months later, he started ABFF as a destination festival in Acapulco. It moved to Miami in 2002 when the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau got word of the festival, which by then had been steadily hosting premieres in Acapulco for five years. It bounced between Miami Beach, Los Angeles, and New York until 2016, when it settled in Miami Beach.
"We're committed to being in Miami for the near future," Friday assures. "I have no desire to go any other place... It's growing well. Last year, we had our 20th anniversary, and I thought that was a big deal, but this year we've got more interest in the festival. I thought there would be some tail-off after last year, but absolutely not. We've got better content, and we have more people coming than we had last year."
Stars attending include regulars such as Spike Lee, Will Packer, and Singleton. But Friday seems proudest of the festival's opportunities to nurture new talent. One success story played out in 2006, when ABFF gave a little-known comic named Kevin Hart a chance in the spotlight. During its young-comics showcase, Hart was among four comedians competing in a contest. Now Hart is one of the best-known comics in the nation, not only starring in Hollywood films but also producing them.
This year's ABFF Comedy Wings Competition is presented by HBO and features Yvonne Orji, a young talent from Nigeria who costars in Insecure. Orji admits she's still pinching herself about shooting the second season of the show. "I'm happy to wake up to go to a 5 a.m. call time," she says.
She's also hoping to create her own TV series, FirstGen, which is "loosely based" on her life. It follows members of a Nigerian family who move to the U.S. with high expectations for their daughter, an aspiring comedian, to become a doctor. The show's sizzle trailer has garnered interest from actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in DuVernay's 2014 film Selma. Oyelowo has signed on as executive producer. So has Oprah Winfrey.
"[Oprah] loved it," Orji recalls. "She was like, 'I want to be a part of the show.' She has her Leadership Academy, so I think for her the appeal was, 'Oh my gosh, this could be a show that my girls could see and identify themselves in.'?"
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Though FirstGen is not directly affiliated with ABFF, it's the sort of thing that speaks directly to Friday's goal of fostering new talent. The 2017 program includes seminars in comedy, writing, TV hosting, and other fields. New this year is the Greenlighters Academy, which will prepare students for executive positions in film and television. Friday says these programs are key to diversifying Hollywood.
"What we have, 21 years later, is a legacy of helping people of color," he says, "and that's what it was all about. When you look back at 1997, it's just mind-blowing. It's proof of the power of community... It's just about nurturing and celebrating black culture, and once you get people together and you have a purposefulness about what you're doing, people believe it. They buy into it.
"When we come together for a positive goal, maybe things can happen."
American Black Film Festival
Wednesday, June 14, through Sunday, June 18, at venues spanning Miami Beach and Miami. Tickets start at $15. Visit abff.com.