American Black Film Festival showcases the latest black cinema renaissance: ‘Fruitvale Station,’ and more

Director Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman

Director Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman on the set of 'The Butler.' (Image: Instagram)

“Just saw the BUTLER rough cut for the first time with @LennyKravitz and director leedaniels,” media maven Oprah Winfrey tweeted on June 1.

The CEO of OWN — who stars in the film based on the life of a man who served as butler to eight U.S. presidents — added a special note to audiences on the Instagram image accompanying the tweet: “Can’t wait for you all the see it. #theBUTLER.”

While she may be biased towards her own star vehicle, Winfrey is hardly the only person excited for Precious director Lee Daniel’s latest opus. The Butler, which features Forest Whitaker in the title role, is part of a coming crop of African-American films that movie critics are hailing as a stellar season for black filmmakers.

Black films make a big comeback

With nearly a dozen African-American-related pictures slated for release in the coming months, the diverse offerings look refreshing compared to previous years filled with family-oriented romantic comedies, Tyler Perry-produced features, or worse few black films at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyler Perry. What is being celebrated by industry watchers is the scope, breadth, and variety of films in the black genre on tap, and the number that will likely be serious Oscar contenders.

The large number of African-American films being released this year comes, as The New York Times points out in a recent feature, after “years of complaint about the lack of prominent movies by and about black Americans.”

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American Black Film Festival: A first look at new films

“Black filmmakers say the wave of 2013 releases was built in large part on the creativity that has flourished on the independent-film circuit,” the Times continues.

Events such as the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) have long been part of this network that nourishes black filmmakers. Many of the coming films will be first viewed by the public at ABFF.

In addition to the Sundance Film Festival favorite Fruitvale Station, the lineup of films screening at ABFF starting on June 19 in Miami sheds light on the wide scope of issues being tackled by modern black filmmakers.

Beyond the festival, upcoming historical dramas The Butler and Mandela, and the holiday film Black Nativity also highlight the range of black films in the works.

Those behind the scenes attest to the renewed opportunities that have fueled these projects, and the hope that this trend will continue.

Praising the uptick in quality African-American films

“The only way we can break down these barriers is to continue making movies, to keep pushing, to keep trying,” George Tillman, Jr., director of ABFF’s opening night movie, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, told theGrio.

Tillman’s film portrays the challenges of youths surviving in an area of Brooklyn untouched by gentrification. By contrast, the ABFF will close with Kevin Hart’s new comedy documentary, Let Me Explain, shot during his tour stop at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Fruitvale Station address institutional racism and police violence. Playin’ for Love, Robert Townsend’s basketball-themed romantic comedy; Full Circle, about a drug deal gone bad; and Home, focusing on mental illness, all demonstrate how distinct this boon of films is.

Focusing on the African-American filmmaker

ABFF Founder and CEO Jeff Friday told theGrio that the emphasis this year is less on marketing and selling movies for the festival, and more on spotlighting the ingenuity of these filmmakers.

“We really are now doing things that we can control, and focusing more on developing individuals, and finding opportunities for those individuals’ talent to be showcased,” he explained.

Given the breadth of films at ABFF, as well as those in theatrical release, Friday says it’s definitely a comeback year for black cinema, and a throwback to the “glory days” of the ’90s.

“I know how we got away from it, I’m not sure why we came back,” Friday said.

Friday’s office recently did a study of African-American movies over the years, discovering that black films and artists thrived in the mid-90s when directors like Townsend, Spike Lee, and John Singleton were in their heyday.

At around the year 2000, they declined.

Reviving the fervor of the ’90s

“I say this in a jest, but the black community kind of took [the '90s] for granted,” he admitted. “What happened in 2000, studios shifted their focus away from niche movies… Now, you don’t move [you're] stock price until you’ve had an Iron Man or a Star Trek. People think it’s attributed to race, but that’s not true. Hollywood, I don’t think they sit around and plot against us, like, ‘Let’s put out two black films a year.’ I don’t think they do it. It’s driven by money.”

As Friday’s study further found, even the most iconic black films of all time often tapped out at $35 million in box office earnings, a mere pittance by Hollywood standards, even if that might be a handsome return for an independent film.

He found the exception to the rule, of course, was Tyler Perry.

“If Tyler Perry was happening in the mid-90s when Love Jones came out,” Friday observed, “we wouldn’t be focusing [on him] so much. He would just be one of 15.”

Today, part of Perry’s power is that he can bring in the big numbers, something with which other filmmakers, especially unproven ones, have had to contend.

The struggle for black filmmakers persists

Tillman’s movie stars a top-tier cast including Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson and Jordin Sparks. It was produced by singer Alicia Keys among other influencers.

Despite Tillman’s reputable players, the 44-year-old director said it took three years to get this independent project off the ground. It was only possible through outside funding, bucking the Hollywood system.

“I went around to all the studios,” Tillman recalled. “They showed interest in the material, interest in the script, but it came down to [the question]: Who wants to see a film about a 13-year-old black kid surviving with an 8-year-old Asian kid?”

After spinning his wheels and exhausting sources, Tillman looked outside Hollywood to find people who believed in his story, and wanted to see something different on screen. He was then able to produce the movie, and later sold it to studio distributors at the Sundance festival.