The American Black Film Festival Gives Diverse Artists a Career Boost

Photo Source: ABFF

If the fact that the American Black Film Festival is in its 22nd year isn’t enough proof of its influence and success, the fact that so many festival alums return to support the next generation of artists should be. With the mission of supporting and elevating the voices of black artists, the festival offers a plethora of educational workshops. Need some tips on auditioning actors for your film? Kimberly Hardin will be on hand this year to offer advice on the casting process in one workshop while returning alum Ryan Coogler sits down for a conversation about his craft later in the festival. And, of course, film screenings and competitions are offered daily (and nightly) throughout the festival’s June 13-17 run in Miami Beach.

Lamonia Deanne Brown, director of programming, outreach and brand partnerships for the ABFF, talked with Backstage about the history of the festival and why it’s an invaluable resource for black artists to further their careers.

Tell us about the American Black Film Festival.
The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) is an annual event dedicated to showcasing quality film and television content by and about people of African descent. Founded by Jeff Friday, it supports emerging artists to foster a wider range of images, stories, and storytellers represented in the entertainment industry. The ABFF is committed to the belief that black artists deserve the same opportunities as their mainstream counterparts and is recognized as a vital pipeline for black talent in front of and behind the camera. Annually held during the month of June, the festival is comprised of five action-packed days of films, engaging panels, networking events and more, from the star-studded opening night screening to the inspirational closing filmmaker ceremony.

Why was ABFF started/founded?
ABFF founder Jeff Friday created the festival in 1997 as a means to channel diverse talent directly into Hollywood, inspired by the belief that black artists and content creators deserve the same opportunities as their mainstream counterparts. HBO is the founding sponsor of the festival.

Why do you feel it’s important to promote the type of work you showcase during the festival?
The ABFF encourages and rewards artistic excellence, providing a platform for more than 1,000 narrative feature films, documentaries, shorts, and web originals. Alumni success stories range from veteran producer Will Packer (“Ride Along,” “Think Like A Man”) to young auteur Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”), testimony to the [success of the] festival’s mission to introduce and connect talented newcomers to the industry at large. This is one of very few festivals focused on black filmmakers and stories about the black experience. We pride ourselves on being the premier pipeline to black talent in front of and behind the camera.

What’s one thing you wish people knew/that most people don’t know about film festivals?
I wish people knew the importance of bringing their films to festivals to build buzz and to promote themselves as filmmakers. They would also do well to find out how to effectively network and navigate the landscape of the festivals they attend. As it relates to ABFF, I wish people knew how much Hollywood depends on us to identify new and emerging diverse storytellers.

Why Miami?
Miami gives the ABFF audience the opportunity to be fully focused on the films, as there is little to distract them during the day. We want to get as many people as possible to come to the festival and Miami is a place people like to visit. The city of Miami is also very supportive of us bring the festival to their city each year.

What do you look for in festival submissions?
We look for writers, directors, and producers from the African diaspora, including African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American. The stories are focused on the black community, experience, and social issues.

What advice would you give someone who is just starting out in the industry?
My advice would be to continue working, learn your chosen craft, take classes where you can, and attend the film festivals that support the type of work you create.

Any major success stories to come out of the ABFF?
Not only have filmmakers found success after participating in the ABFF, actors have as well. Halle Berry won her first award (Rising Star Award) at ABFF in 1996 and went on to win an Oscar. After winning the ABFF Short Film Competition in 2011, Ryan Coogler went on to direct “Fruitvale Station,” “Creed,” and the blockbuster “Black Panther.” Will Packer won the audience award at the 1998 ABFF and went on to produce “Think Like a Man” (and the sequel) and the summer hit “Girls Trip.” Ava DuVernay promoted films at the ABFF in her early career as a publicist. Kevin Hart performed at the ABFF Comedy Wings Competition early in his career. There are many more stories where the biggest diverse stars have gotten their start at the ABFF.

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!