Overtown-Lyric Theater
From a flyer for the show, "Overtown at the Historic Lyric Theater", POPtv Magazine / nonradioMusic Studio-Lab Projects, appeared in Miami Times, November 27, 2007. (Photo by R.M.Crews, licensed for common use)

The 16th Annual American Black Film Festival, which wrapped up Sunday, boasted thousands of attendees who convened under the lustrous backdrop of palm trees, a summer-soft breeze, and the popularly known glitz and glamour of South Beach.  However, there are those who wonder why a festival with such prestige, created to empower the sustenance of black art and culture, finds its home so far away from the black communities of the city.

Perhaps the appeal of the well–hyped ambiance of Miami Beach being one of the most visited tourist towns around would inevitably draw more of a crowd.  Yet, how can one justify the omission of cities such as the former art, music and culture mecca Overtown, whose history has always emitted pure artistic bliss and effusive rhapsody?

At one time, Overtown was an essential lifeline to the music world, where artists and music legends such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, B.B. King and even Aretha Franklin blessed the area with their presence, talent and spirit. They all performed at the historic Lyric Theater, which was born in the heart of Overtown in 1913. Celebrities such as Lena Horne and James Brown had once even called Overtown home. With its abundance of artistic joie de vivre, how can an event such as the American Black Film Festival not see its value and worth?

ABFF founder Jeff Friday said that while in its early years, the festival was confined mostly to the beach, he came to understand the dynamic of Overtown and the correlation its history has with the vision and mission of the festival, and added events that draw visitors to the small neighborhood near downtown. Friday said his goal is not omission — but rather overall inclusion — especially when it comes to access for all people during the festival.

“After I understood the politics and really the social reality of [the dynamics of Miami/Miami Beach], we developed a program in partnership with the City of Miami CRA – the Community Redevelopment Agency,” Friday told theGrio. “Throughout the week, there are a number of activities that happen at the ABFF, centered around two things: the first goal is to get the people off the beach and into the communities, into Overtown, from an economic development standpoint. The second piece is, they’re also going to be shuttling people from Overtown and the communities into the festival, providing them with ticket packages and tickets to the master classes, so anyone who wants to learn, can. So through the support of the CRA, I think we’ve got a great program. And in fact, we’ve extended the festival one day, and on Sunday we did a big community showcase of one of our closing films, “Raising Izzie” at the Adrienne Arts Center. Through the support of the CRA and the vision of Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, I think we’ve [included everyone] successfully the last couple of years.”

Members of the CRA and District 5 Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones could not be reached for comment.

Residents of Overtown, film buffs and local businesses can continue to look forward to the efforts of the CRA to expand inclusion in the American Black Film Festival as it returns next year, and in future years, in hopes that one day, the value of the historic black neighborhood will attract future events.

Wanjira Banfield writes about travel and entertainment for theGrio. You can find her at  www.wanjirasworld.com and follow her on Twitter @wanjirasworld.