20 years on, Vineyard’s African American film fest draws star power

Who’ll be on Martha’s Vineyard over the next week talking about movies and representation of people of color? For starters, look for actor/director Tyler Perry, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, actresses Tracee Ellis Ross and Regina Hall, directors Spike Lee and Kasi Lemmons, musician Bobby Brown, and TV’s Tamron Hall.

Over the past 20 years, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival has grown from a start-up screening of 10 movies to an Academy Award-sanctioned, star-studded, nine-day event with several hundred films vying to be included.

The annual festival, back Aug. 5-13 to “celebrate 20 years of Black excellence in film,” has in recent years grabbed the attention of top production companies and cable and streaming channels — as well as the elite of Hollywood and history behind and in front of the camera.

Writer/director/producer Tyler Perry will bring his new movie, "A Jazzman's Blues," to the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival in Oak Bluffs and do a post-screening Q&A.

At the start, “we knew that there was a need for representation on the big and small screen for people of color,” says Stephanie Tavares Rance in a joint phone interview with husband Floyd Rance, the co-founders of Run&Shoot Filmworks that produces the MVAAFF. “You flash-forward to 20 years later, now we’ve got over 700 submissions from all over the world, and narrow that down to 70. You can see the progress that has been made, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

So, clearly, are many other filmmakers and producers. This year’s opening-night film, for example, will be the award-winning documentary “Descendant,” presented by Netflix, Participant and Higher Ground — former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama’s production company — with co-producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (fresh off an Oscar for “Summer of Soul”) among those on hand for a Q&A.

Besides him and the other celebrities mentioned for events at the festival hub at Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs, the Rances say more big names couldll be announced close to the festival opening.

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The event has grown “in every category,” Rance says, citing “attendance, content, bandwidth.” With the changes in technology since 2002, he says, “the opportunities for African Americans, for females, for minorities, for different people to be content creators” for moviemaking has exploded.

Help from streaming services

Many opportunities related to the Vineyard festival have come from partnerships with cable and streaming services. Showtime was an early sponsor, then HBO’s backing made a huge difference, Tavares Rance says, by recognizing “the vision of what we wanted to do. They supported us and would give us content every year to screen.”

Multiple other outlets now participate, she says, and “we’re just so honored that all of these studios and streaming platforms know that the audience that they want to reach lives on Martha’s Vineyard and comes to Martha’s Vineyard in August.”

Netflix, which she describes as a “huge partner,” is behind “Descendant,” documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown’s story about the Alabama discovery, and its repercussions, of the remains of the last known ship to arrive in the United States that illegally carried enslaved Africans. The movie will screen at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, then Brown, Questlove and producers Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Essie Chambers will be part of the Q&A.

The opening-night film on Aug. 5 for the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival will be the award-winning documentary “Descendant,” presented by Netflix, Participant and Higher Ground — former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama’s production company — with co-producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (fresh off an Oscar for "Summer of Soul") among those on hand for a Q&A.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, Netflix will bring “A Jazzman’s Blues,” with writer/director/producer Perry on hand to discuss the story of 40 years of secrets and lies told against a soundtrack of “juke joint blues.” Netflix’s third entry is a preview of the limited series “From Scratch,” a cross-cultural love story starring Zoe Saldana created by Attica and Tembe Locke, who will be at the festival for one of “The Color of Conversation” talks with TV host Tamron Hall.

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Other channels and studios bringing movies and series include Lionsgate, with the Legacy Spotlight 25th anniversary screening at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 of the classic “Eve’s Bayou” and a talk with director Lemmons; and BRON Studios, with a 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 screening of “Loudmouth,” Josh Alexander’s documentary about activist Sharpton, with him in attendance.

The Oprah Winfrey Network and ONYX Collective will screen “HairTales”, s docuseries focused on the parallel journeys Black women have with their hair and with loving themselves, at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12 with guest Ellis Ross, who hosts and is executive producer. JBL SoundSessions will hold “a fireside chat and Q&A” with Regina Hall after an 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11 screening of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” Adamma Ebo’s satirical comedy that Hall stars in as a first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch that has to rebuild after a scandal.

In the satirical comedy “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” Regina Hall stars as a first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch that has to rebuild after a scandal.

Among the previews screening are, at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 8, Peacock upcoming show entries “Bel-Air” and “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” which are connected to a “Black Excellence Through Legacy” Panel. The panels will include actors Morris Chestnut and Adrian Holmes; and writers and/or producers Malcolm D. Lee, Dayna Lynne North and Rasheed Newsom.

At 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 8, the Boston Globe will show clips of an A&E Biography of musician Bobby Brown, who will talk about his controversial life and career, along with director J Kevin Swain and executive producer and wife, Alicia Ethridge-Brown.

In a non-film event, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will discuss his new book “Our Unfinished March,” which involves voting rights, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11. Other authors are also due to be in town in connection to the film festival.

For a full schedule of all events: https://www.mvaaff.com/.

The differences through technology

The festival roster offers a wide variety of features, documentaries, shorts and talks, and one of the main reasons that Rance gives for so many more films and TV shows available to tell these stories than 20 years ago is the changing technology.

“Even children, I think, have more of an opportunity to be inspired by seeing themselves” now on TV, in movies and on the internet, he says, and can now create content themselves by filming and even editing on cell phones.

Activist the Rev. Al Sharpton will be on Martha's Vineyard for the film festival featuring a documentary about his life and work.

Rance mentions one of the documentaries screening this year: Directors Catherine Bernstein and Martine Delumeau’s “Sweet Black Film: Birth of the Black Hero,” a tribute to Melvin Van Peebles about the making of his 1971 feature film “Sweet Sweetback’s Badaass Song” that ushered in the blaxploitation cinema era.

“When you think of what (Van Peebles) had at his fingertips versus what the normal 8-year-old child has at their fingertips (now), it’s amazing, right?” Rance says. “They can literally do ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badaass Song’ with their (phone) camera.”

And young people can easily and quickly show what they create to others, he points out.

“It’s not just wealthy people, well-connected people — anybody now has that literally at their fingertips, where they can create content, edit, write, produce it and have a free distribution outlet like YouTube or Facebook,” Rance says, “and it could go viral and people could love it and they can get opportunities from that.”

Success on social media

The MVAAFF has experience with online content going viral. During the pandemic, Tavares Rance says, it was staff at Facebook who convinced them to put festival content and conversations on that platform after they resisted the idea of a virtual film festival. The festival founders say they were amazed at the huge response to social media.

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“In the first year, we had over 2 million views and that’s bigger than any film festival anywhere in the world, and we thought ‘This is great!” Tavares Rance says. Recorded conversations with directors got a big response, as did a talk with the women from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” TV show, which she says got an “absolutely amazing” 250,000-plus views.

Run&Shoot plans another virtual film festival via Facebook in October, offering a chance to see some films that didn’t make it to Martha’s Vineyard because of a crowded schedule. After that kind of Facebook response during the first year of the pandemic, Tavares Rance says, “we knew we will always have a virtual component of the festival.”

Contact Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll at kdriscoll@capecodonline.com. Follow on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT.

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