While most film festivals are mission-driven, few are as focused and impactful as the Miami Beach-based American Black Film Festival (ABFF). It has become commonplace for film festivals to speak about equity, inclusion, and accessibility matched with various initiatives, but these concepts are foundational to the ABFF and have been a part of the organization since its inception.
Motivated by the five principles — education, artistic expression, collaboration, access, and recognition — the festival is celebrating its 26th anniversary with 12 spotlight screenings, various expert panels, and industry events June 15–19.
After more than a quarter-century, the American Black Film Festival rightly touts itself as “the pre-eminent showcase for quality Black content” with a “legacy of showcasing Black talent and discovering new voices.”
Among many creatives and executives participating this year, Issa Rae, the multi-hyphenate and multi-Emmy nominee of Insecure, will be this year’s ambassador. “I’m honored to be this year’s festival ambassador,” says Rae, adding that “ABFF was the first major festival to showcase my work, and they continue to elevate Black creatives from the ground level. It’s also fun as hell.”
Rae’s career is a testament to what a strong creative with the support of an organization like ABFF can accomplish. Rising to prominence through her web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girlwhich she adapted into a New York Times bestseller, Rae is best known for creating and starring in the HBO series Insecure as well as films like The Photograph, Littleand The Lovebirds, Rae is the ideal ambassador, showcasing the perfect fusion of creativity and business acumen. In addition to her creative pursuits, Rae has launched her own multimedia company, Hoorae, to develop content across various platforms.
Not merely an ambassador, Rae will also present her latest project, Rap Sh*t, A perfect premiere for Miami, the series follows two estranged high-school friends from the Magic City, Shawna and Mia, who reconnect to start a rap group. In contrast to Rap Sh*tthe feature film Down with the King Focuses on a burnt-out rap star, Money Merc (Freddie Gibbs), who wants to escape the industry. After fleeing to the Berkshires to work on his next album in peace, he finds himself enamored of the simpler rural existence and announces his retirement on Twitter — only to find himself having to contend with his manager’s efforts to lure him back to the music industry.
In addition to episodic series and feature films, the ABFF has an exciting collection of documentary films and series. Civil, the opening-night film, focuses on celebrated civil-rights attorney Ben Crump and his “mission to raise the value of Black life” through the legal system. A lawyer for the families of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd who has also represented victims of institutional racism ranging from farming to financial practices, Crump’s mission to compel America to come to terms with racial injustice is given its due thanks to the efforts of director Nadia Hallgren .
Equally timely given the renewed debate about reproductive rights coupled with a national baby-formula shortage, Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s Aftershock examines the underdiscussed and persistent epidemic of maternal health failures that plague Black women in the US Following the tragic and preventable deaths of Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac from childbirth complications, the filmmakers follow their surviving partners as they turn to activism and seek justice along with other surviving Black fathers.
In contrast to those films but also connected to them, Mario Diaz and Jessica Sherif’s two-part documentary Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution surveys the history and progression of Black comedy to use humor as a way to speak truth to power and challenge injustices. Likewise, After Jackie excavates the stories of the second wave of gifted Black baseball players that followed the barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson, and their fight for inclusion and fair representation.
Rounding out a robust nonfiction program, Black Love, in its sixth and final season, follows a new diverse group of couples from meeting to marrying in under a year. Using four couples as a cross-section of society, the series gives a glimpse into the obstacles and triumphs of Black love.
Outside of documentaries, there is a trio of actresses-turned-directors to enjoy. Victoria Rowell, a veteran in both fields, presents her latest project, Stranger Next Door, which follows a recently divorced retired police officer as she cares for her ailing father. Her life is further disrupted by the arrival of an alluring new neighbor who may be hiding a mystery. Making her directorial debut is singer and actress Naturi Naughton with the short film Behind the Smile! Naughton’s movie is paired with another short film, The Pink Fight, by LisaRaye McCoy. Both projects, produced by BET Her, focus on a woman charting competing demands on her time and energy, the former with a dream job of anchoring the news and depression, and the latter a female boxer diagnosed with breast cancer who must fight battles in and out of the ring.
Two projects with instant name recognition round out the 12 spotlight screenings: The Proud Family and A League of Their Own, Both are revivals of sorts that bring back celebrated works for a new time and audience. The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder continues the story of 14-year-old Penny Proud, but this reimagining of the beloved series is set in the 2020s, following new adventures and misadventures with the same hilarity and heart. Actress Chanté Adams will be on hand to present the reimagination of Penny Marshall’s beloved film A League of Their Own with a new deeper look at race and sexual orientation. The series centers on a new ensemble of characters fighting adversity and sexism to follow their dreams of playing professional baseball.
The spotlight screenings make it clear that this will be a vintage year for the American Black Film Festival. But it would be a mistake to ignore the exciting and informative panels the organizers have assembled. The star-studded talent includes Robin Thede of A Black Lady Sketch Showa panel about Black leading men featuring Trevante Rhodes, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Michael Ealy, and a Black female filmmaker panel where Kasie Lemmons and Gina Prince-Bythewood will speak about their careers and their hotly anticipated upcoming films: the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody and the Viola Davis-led The Woman King, respectively. Other panels range from film financing and workplace politics to the Oscars and NFTs.
American Black Film Festival. Wednesday, June 15, through Sunday, June 19, at various locations; abff.com. Tickets cost $125 to $1,445.