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Unique stories, world premieres as American Black Film Festival opens in Miami Beach

Parrish Lewis
'They Cloned Tyrone' starring (L-R) Teyonah Parris, Jamie Foxx and John Boyega, is playing at the ABFF ahead of its release on Netflix.

America's largest festival showcasing films by people of African descent returns this week for its 27th year — and it's being held right here in South Florida once again.

The American Black Film Festival, taking place over five days at various venues on Miami Beach, is the preeminent space for storytellers to bring visibility to untold Black stories, from feature and television premieres to panel discussions and talent discovery programs.

And for audiences, it’s a chance to be the among the first to see groundbreaking work from some of the hottest talent in the country — Black Panther director Ryan Coogler debuted his first film here. This year, ABFF will feature a number of movies before they become potential juggernauts on streaming channels, including the world premiere of Jamie Foxx’s new Netflix film.

Independent filmmakers say the festival is a chance to debut mixed-genre projects, Black narratives and stories that challenge conventional filmmaking.

For director and producer Kelley Kali, films at ABFF are “relatable by all people, not just Black people because we are human."

“Jagged Mind,” by director Kelley Kali, is a psychological horror about a woman who is stuck in a time loop in Little Haiti, Miami. It's written by Allyson Morgan, and it stars Maisie Richardson-Sellers (lead), alongside Shannon Woodward, Rosaline Elbay, Shein Mompremier, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Kate Szekely, , and Brandi Huzzi.
Courtesy of Kelley Kali
“Jagged Mind,” by director Kelley Kali, is a psychological horror about a woman who is stuck in a time loop in Little Haiti.

“And we all have very similar struggles, maybe not exactly, obviously especially given the history of our country, but you can find what’s relatable," she added.

Her new film Jagged Mind is a psychological horror about a woman who is stuck in a time loop in Little Haiti. The film’s protagonist is trapped in a troubled romantic relationship with her new girlfriend.

“You [the character] don’t see that it’s toxic. What you see is that you’re just trying to make it work,” Kali said. “You’re doing everything you can. Going beyond who you are and the choices you would normally make just to seek love and validation.”

It premieres June 15th on Hulu and stars Shannon Woodward, Maisie-Richardson-Sellers, and Miami native Shein Mompremier.

ABFF’s opening film, They Cloned Tyrone, is directed by Juel Taylor, a University of Florida alumnus. The hyped Netflix project, set to be released next month, stars Jamie Foxx alongside Star Wars saga actor John Boyega and Teyonah Paris, of the Candyman reboot and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Stephen 'Dr.' Love, one of the film producers, said it tells a satirical tale about conspiracies and mind-control experiments.

“It’s sci-fi. It’s mystery. It's comedy,” Love said. “If you like Tarantino movies. If you like Coen Brothers movies. And you like Spike Lee movies — all of that in one is what this is, basically.”

Love said ABFF gives his team a chance to not only illustrate human commonalities through cinema but show how a story produced by the multi-ethnic Black community can thrive when it has the same funding and resources as any other film that targets a larger, broad audience.

“Multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion has become buzzwords that really don’t hold any real value anymore to me because it starts to sound like charity work,” Love said. “We’re not looking for charity work. We just want fairness. We want the same opportunities for our projects.”

Diverse films still stymied by industry inequality

Films with diverse casts make “higher relative returns than other properties.” Yet despite increased demand for authentic Black stories and production companies, Black film projects receive about 40% less funding than other films.

Black-led projects, across the film and TV ecosystem, face racial equity issues in financing, marketing, content development and distribution, according to a comprehensive industry study from management firm McKinsey & Company.

The film industry is leaving billions of dollars on the table — $10 billion in annual revenues, according to the study, if it doesn’t address racial inequities.

"There’s been a lot of advances for people of color in Hollywood, but it’s still very much an industry that marginalizes our work."
Jeff Friday, CEO and founder of ABFF

Jeff Friday, CEO and founder of ABFF, told WLRN the festival levels the playing field in an industry that lacks support for Black talent and stories.

Will Packer, for example, premiered his very first projects at his festival. His films, including Think Like A Man and Girls Trip, have since grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. He produced the Academy Awards Oscars ceremony last year.

“There’s been a lot of advances for people of color in Hollywood, but it’s still very much an industry that marginalizes our work,” Friday said. “There’s still this big disparity of how much money and what type of money gets invested in content that speaks to our culture.”

As part of the festival, ABFF announced five filmmakers will compete in its annual HBO Short Film Award Showcase for a grand prize of $10,000S. Friday says the creative freedom behind short films often produces bold work — without the pressure to be commercially successful.

“It enables short form cinema to be authentic. And there’s no Will Smith in it. You know, no big stars. Just authentic,” Friday said. “It’s storytelling at its finest. And it’s Black people speaking aloud about what’s on their mind.”

Emmy Winner and Hillman Grad founder Lena Waithe, the actor, producer and writer known for Showtime's The Chi and Netflix's Master of None, Queen & Slim and Them, serves as 2023 ABFF ambassador. Fans will see her on June 15th for the “The Lena Waithe Effect,” a one-on-one conversation about her journey in the industry.

The festival will close out with the free Community Day on June 18. Executive producer and Hoorae founder Issa Rae, who was last year's ambassador, and showrunner Syreeta Singleton, will present a special screening of Rap Sh!t. Their session is followed by Young Love by Oscar-winning director Matthew A. Cherry.

IF YOU GO: ABFF runs June 14 through the 18th on Miami Beach, followed by a virtual session June 19-25. Learn more here.

What to expect at the American Black Film Festival

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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