The 2020 ESSENCE Festival of Culture may have gone virtual this year, but it was still bigger, bolder and Blacker than ever. From wellness sessions to all-access interviews with our favorite celebrities, our Blackness was on display—and it was beautiful. 

One partner, Netflix, has also proven that they continue to prioritize Black stories, making ‘Strong Black Leads’ not just an Instagram page, but a movement. During the festival, we were introduced to a few new films that were acquired by the streaming platform, all helmed by—you guessed it — Black women.

Filmmaker Radha Blank’s debut film The 40-Year-Old Version, which made history earlier this year by winning the Directing Award-U.S. Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival, is being produced by Lena Waithe and was acquired by Netflix.

“Filmmaking and storytelling is my activism,” the award-winning director told The Real Quick‘s Danielle Young during a panel at the ESSENCE Festival of Culture‘s Entertainment All Access program.

Blank’s movie follows Radha, a newly single poet who’s reconciling with turning 40 and rejection until she ignites her first love—rapping. The 40-Year-Old Version will arrive on Netflix in the fall.

Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond The Lights) and Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son) are also bringing The Old Guard to Netflix on July 10th, and discussed the project during a panel session with entertainment multi-hyphenate Gia Peppers. Netflix’s support of Blythewood—the first Black woman to direct a big-budget comic book slash action film—makes it one of the most anticipated films of the year.

THE OLD GUARD (2020) – (L to R) Marwan Kenzari as Joe, Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker, Charlize Theron as Andy, Luca Marinelli as Nicky, Kiki Layne as Nile. Photo Credit: AIMEE SPINKS/NETFLIX ©2020

She explained, “This world, this genre is something I’ve been dying to do. I love action films. There’s a narrative in Hollywood that women don’t dig action films, and don’t want to make them. That’s just not true. When this script came to me, written by Greg Rucka and based off of his comic book The Old Guard, I knew within five pages that I was in. The fact that there was this dope story that kept surprising me, and there were these two women at the center. And one being a young Black hero female—which we never get to see.

On her connection to the character, KiKi Layne explained, “I had no experience doing a film of this size or this genre, but listening to Gina speak, what she was committed to… was the hearts of these characters and in their depth and really getting to the core of them. And I’m like, ‘that’s something I can latch on to, that’s something I know that I could bring’ . . . [and with] her belief I would be able to tackle the physicality and all of that as well, I felt even more encouraged.”

Netflix also helped us ‘Get Lifted’ as some of the biggest names in Gospel music gathered for a much-needed praise break each week to culminate the virtual 2020 ESSENCE Festival of Culture.

In between the inspirational words and performances, superproducer Pharrell Williams brought some news that he and his uncle, Bishop Ezekiel Williams, have partnered for a Netflix docuseries rooted in gospel music. Faith-based author and producer Devon Franklin spoke with them about what sparked the joint project, which will seek out undiscovered talent to help build a gospel choir in Virginia.

On the inspiration for their upcoming series, Bishop Williams says, “In this difficult time, every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the father of lights. And at the end of the day, it’s during the difficult times that those who are creative are able to produce some of the most ingenious things that we will ever witness.”

Pharrell Williams added: “Your creativity is a gift. And because it’s a gift, it’s meant to be shared.”

For more information on Netflix’s ‘Strong Black Lead’ programming follow them here.

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