During opening night of the 26th Annual American Black Film Festival (ABFF), Issa Rae, this year’s festival ambassador, thanked ABFF for “Creating a space for creatives like me to meet my potential collaborators and my inspirations and for a supportive space for me to showcase my work.”
After operating virtually for the last two years, the festival resumed in-person, and from June 15-19, actors, producers, filmmakers, and aspiring creatives descended on Miami Beach in what many festivalgoers see as a kind of family reunion among Black creators.
ABFF festival founder Jeff Friday and his wife Nicole Friday, who serves as ABFF President, have helped catapult the careers of many Black artists, including Rae who screened the first episode of Season 2 of Insecure during the 2017 festival. It was a full-circle moment as Rae’s new series Rap Sh!t, which she shared was inspired by her first trip to ABFF, closed out this year’s festival.
From stirring documentary screenings to hilarious cast panels, keep reading to find out what else went down at this year’s star-studded festival event.
Featuring civil rights attorney Ben Crump, CIVIL is a documentary that chronicles Crump’s efforts to win settlements for victims of financial, environmental, and civil rights violations. It was the first time that a documentary opened the festival, and the film was introduced by Crump, Nadia Hallgren, the movie’s Emmy-nominated director, and Kenya Barris, who served as one of the producers on the project.
“The documentary highlights the value of Black life – not just in America, but in the world. We have to continue to fight to make it financially unsustainable for them to kill Black people unjustly,” Crump told reporters on the red carpet
The film chronicles Crump’s high-profile cases like Breona Taylor and ends with the verdict of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd. The documentary is now available to stream on Netflix.
Several of the cast members of Peacock’s most-streamed original series, Bel-Air, came together to talk about what being on the show meant to them personally and professionally. Adrian Holmes, who plays Philip Banks, said that his work is a tribute to the late James Avery, and he “learns more about himself with each episode.”
Cassandra Freeman, who plays Vivian Banks, said her manager called her screaming when she got the role, and she prepared by watching footage of former “Aunt Viv” actresses Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxwell along with Hollywood pioneer Diahann Carrol.
One of the show’s biggest departures from the original series was the character of Hillary Banks, and Coco Jones expressed that she was initially intimidated by the role because she looks so different from the original character. She said her first thoughts on playing Hillary were, “I don’t look like that, and my hair doesn’t look like that.” Jones said she pushed past her doubts and now sees the role as a beautiful opportunity to represent dark skin beauty.
While many were left hungry for more episodes, Rasheed Newson, the series’ showrunner said that season two will explore more of Phillip’s relationship with his house manager Geoffrey, and fans will also get a deeper storyline with DJ Jazzy Jeff and Hillary. The second season of Bel-Air is currently in production.
Another important documentary that screened at the festival was Aftershock from directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of Spike Lee. The film explores the world of gynecology and how Black women are often both exploited and neglected.
“We’re in a time where we need to come together and have these conversations about what’s happening in maternal health and what’s happening in civil rights and understand that it’s all connected and [figure out] how we can all work together,” Lee told ESSENCE.
Aftershock follows the families of two women who suffer preventable deaths from childbirth and also highlights the families and activists fighting for change. The film will be available this summer on Hulu.
Grand Crew and Bust Down are two recent additions to the Peacock streaming service and both shows follow the adventures of young, Black millennials. Members of the cast from both shows discussed that although their shows address issues like mental health and seeking out therapy, both shows portray Black people showing regular, everyday things like navigating situations around work, friendships, and relationships.
During the festival panel Nicole Byer, who plays Nicki on Grand Crew said, “It’s great to reflect real-life on television. [Black people] are not a monolith, and we’re not always sad. It’s time for us to get to be goofy and have fun.”
American Airlines, the largest airline in the world, unveiled a free ABFF inflight entertainment channel dedicated to Black filmmakers in an effort to connect its customers to diverse storytelling throughout their travel journey.
In a statement, festival founder Jeff Friday said, “The ABFF has been partners with American Airlines for the past 22 years. It’s truly a well-thought-out partnership that aligns with our vision of getting more diverse storytelling to the mainstream. We now offer young, Black independent filmmakers a chance to get their movies seen on airplanes. It’s one of the biggest things from a branding standpoint that’s ever happened to us.”
Black filmmakers often face barriers to getting their content seen by audiences, and this partnership creates an avenue for Black film and television content to potentially be seen by millions. The ABFF channel is available year-round on all American Airlines flights through the inflight entertainment portal.