American Black Film Festival founder Jeff Friday talks Hollywood vs. black films

theGRIO REPORT - Jeff Friday can name nearly every film and director making movies with predominantly black casts during the late 1980s and early 1990s...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Jeff Friday can name nearly every film and director making movies with predominantly black casts during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period he calls the “glory days of black independent film.”

“That [period] followed Spike Lee and [his film] She’s Got To Have It in 1986. So from that point on, it was New Jack City, it was Hollywood Shuffle, it was Keenan Wayans films and, you know, Soul Food and The Preacher’s Wife and How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Love Jones…and Set It Off… And that was all between ’94 and ’99,” says Friday, clearly animated by nostalgia. “And we didn’t realize how great that was and how rich — how rich the Hollywood landscape was about black culture.”

The 48-year-old former advertising executive, with a degree from Howard University and an MBA from New York University, was tapped in 1997 by Uniworld Group to helm the Acapulco Black Film Festival, which Uniworld was sponsoring. He says the wide variety of films during that heyday nurtured a generation of black directors who followed Lee’s example, from F. Gary Gray to John Singleton to Antoine Fuqua and others. But he says things changed drastically when the 90s were over.

“Then [the year] 2000 hit, and the culture of studios changed,” Friday says. “You know, the culture became blockbuster [movies], international sales, sequels and, you know… So now in 2012, the trajectory, there is none. There are essentially two or three films a year, in the past three or four years – if you count them … that are either directed by or made for an African-American audience.”

Friday says as slim as the pickings are for black audiences wishing to see varied representations of themselves, African-American moviegoers are not alone. “Latino [audiences] are no different; probably worse. Studios have really gone away from niche filmmaking. They’re going for the home runs now.”

And yet, with the ABFF, renamed the American Black Film Festival when it moved to Miami, Florida in 2002, continues to provide a platform for the full variety of black cinema. Now in its 16th year, the film festival, which opened Wednesday, showcases feature length films, shorts, documentaries, and in 2012 for the first time, “webisodes” — short, often 5 minute or less mini-series intended solely for viewing online.

Friday, whose company, Film Life, will begin producing programming of its own this year, including for Magic Johnson’s Aspire network and for the Internet, says the idea for the film festival started at another, much larger event.

“I’d just come back from the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1997,” Friday says, “and I’d gone to [a film festival in] Japan in May of ’96. And one of the things that I took away from those two experiences, and they were both great events, but they really did lack diversity as it related to the audience and as it related to the art — to the films.”

At the time, Friday was heading UniWorld‘s film division. “My boss, Byron Lewis, and I were talking about my experience at both events. And the question came up over this lunch: do you think there should be an African-American version or an African version [of Sundance]? And I said, you know, interesting that you say that, because while I was there I was thinking about that. Why don’t these big festivals really showcase films by people of African descent? Are we not making movies, or are we just not being invited to these events? Do we not know about them? So we decided to just try one.”

Friday calls it a “fortunate accident.”

“That conversation happened in January of ’97, and we decided to try our first one in June of that same year,” he says. “So in less than five months or so we set course on the [then] Acapulco Black Film Festival.”

Friday says the first festival, in June of 1997, attracted about 190 people. “It was magic,” he says, beaming through the telephone. “I mean, Halle Berry was our rising star, and people like Morgan Freeman and Bill Duke and John Singleton and Robert Townsend came. And so, it just was a really magical experience. That’s the only way I can describe it. And we realized from that point on, we answered our own question – we realized that there really was a need for something like this that welcomes filmmakers of African descent. And that’s the story. And sixteen years later, we’re still talking about it. So it’s been, like I say, it’s been a very fortunate accident.”

And while these days, the festival attracts more than 5,000 people (moviegoers and and filmmakers and everything in between) and a slew of corporate sponsors — big names like HBO, Nickelodeon, NBC Universal and BET, among others, Friday is less enthusiastic when he talks about the direction he sees Hollywood heading, when it comes to black films and audiences.

“Not only has the trajectory not changed, we’re actually pointing downward,” he says.

But Friday stills sees hopeful signs.

The festival’s opening and closing films have attracted critical acclaim and studio interest. Beasts of the Southern Wild, which opens the festival, was a triple honoree at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize for first-time director Benh Zeitlin, a cinematography award for its photographer, Ben Richardson, and the Caméra d’Or award for best first film. Beasts, which tells the story of a young girl whose life is beset by tragedy when a storm hits her small, Bayou town, has a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight.

The festival’s closing night feature: Raising Izzie, won the 2011 GMC Faith and Family screenplay competition, and features Soul Food stars Vanessa Williams and Rockmond Dunbar. The film’s producer, Roger M. Bobb, whose past projects include TV’s Meet the Browns, and the theatrical production of For Colored Girls, has twice won ABFF awards for best film. Raising Izzie was financed by the GMC Television Network.

But that’s not typical of the other films competing in the ABFF festival.

With the exception of the opening and closing night films, Friday says, “everything in between, the films in the competition, are all independent films – truly independent, in terms of financing, without distribution. And those are the filmmakers that are hoping that someone at the festival will come down and acquire the rights to the films.”