Authentic representation of Black people gets close-up treatment at Urbanworld Film Festival

NEW YORK — The authentic representation of Black people was a key theme at the 2023 Urbanworld Film Festival, one of the largest international film festivals in the world.

The gathering highlights movies and TV shows about people of color, especially Black people, and seeks to insure that the public’s perception of “urban” is an accurate one.

At the annual event, which is in its 27th year, many creators expressed that authentic representation must also include respect and the ability to thrive, which are ongoing struggles for Black people who experience discrimination in the entertainment industry. The festival took place Nov. 1 to Nov. 5 in New York City.

Producer Raphael Jackson, director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood, filmmaker and actor Reggie Rock Bythewood and TV writer Damione Macedon took part in the Urbanworld Film Festival earlier this month in New York. Photo credit: Urbanworld Film Festival.
Producer Raphael Jackson, director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood, filmmaker and actor Reggie Rock Bythewood and TV writer Damione Macedon (left to right) took part in the Urbanworld Film Festival earlier this month in New York. Photo credit: Urbanworld Film Festival.

Filmmakers such The RZA (this year’s festival ambassador), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”), and Nia DaCosta (“The Marvels”) were among those who did Q&As at the festival. In addition to having showcases and premieres of more than 100 movies and some TV shows, this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival offered an Innovation Summit (a series of career panels on Nov. 3) and culminated with the festival’s annual awards ceremony on Nov. 5. 

“Brief Tender Light,” which chronicles the lives of four African-born students at MIT, won the awards for Best Documentary Feature and the Urbanworld Audience Award for Best Feature. The film directed by Arthur Musah will have a limited theatrical release in December before premiering on PBS sometime in 2024. “Sira” received the prizes for Best Narrative Feature (World) and New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) Award for Best Female Director, U.S. Narrative Feature. The film directed by Apolline Traoré is about a young Fulani nomad from West Africa named Sira, who survives a brutal attack from terrorists. The release date is to be announced.

Other award winners included director Billy Luther’s “Frybread Face and Me,” named Best Narrative Feature (U.S.); “Long Live AJ” (Best Screenplay), written by Marvin Van Buren; and “Reunion” co-director Zainab Jah (NYWIFT Award for Best Female Director, U.S. Narrative Short), who won in a tie with “Lunchbox” director Anne Hu. A complete list of winners can be found at the Urbanworld Film Festival site.

“American Fiction,” a satirical comedy/drama about race, opened the festival with the movie’s New York premiere. It is the feature-film debut of writer/director/producer Cord Jefferson, who received the Urbanworld Visionary Award. The film based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” is about a Black professor/author named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright), who invents a persona as a fugitive criminal who’s written a novel that’s demeaning to Black people. When a publisher buys the book and it becomes a bestseller, Monk must decide how long he can keep up the lie. “American Fiction” won the People’s Choice Award at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and is expected to be a major contender at the 2024 Academy Awards. Orion Pictures will release “American Fiction” in theaters on Dec. 15.

During his acceptance speech, Jefferson reminisced about his days as a struggling writer in New York City when he had only enough money to buy “beans for dinner.” He added, “That was 18 years ago. And to be sitting with you guys 18 years later, premiering a film at this illustrious festival, it is literally a dream come true.”

At the post-screening Q&A, Jefferson got candid about how his difficulties in getting distribution for “American Fiction” were similar to protagonist Monk Ellison’s roadblocks in getting a book published that presented a Black storyteller as an intellectual. Most studios and streaming services rejected the movie, he said.

“The constant refrain was ‘I wish I worked at a place that could make this movie.’ These are people who regularly make movies for $150 million,” Jefferson said. “They didn’t want to make it because they didn’t have the will to make it.” 

Jefferson mentioned that Orion was one of only two companies that made offers to finance and distribute “American Fiction.” The other offer was from a company (which Jefferson declined to name) that wanted to pay less than half of what the movie would cost to make.

Jefferson is a former editor at the now-defunct gossip website Gawker. During the Q&A, Jefferson said that he left journalism because he got tired of being stereotyped into doing stories about Black trauma. He went on to become a TV screenwriter, and he won a screenwriting Emmy for HBO’s 2019 superhero limited series “Watchmen.” 

However, Jefferson found that even when moving into fiction writing, he faced the same racial stereotypes, with people asking him, “Do you want to write about this slave? Do you want to write about this single mother who’s addicted to crack? Do you want to write about this drug dealer?” Jefferson added, “People have such a poverty of imagination about what Black life is.” 

Jefferson said that although there are serious issues about Black communities that can be addressed in movies and TV, “American Fiction” is “my pushback a little bit [on thinking] that we need to be super-self-serious when talking about all of this stuff.” He mentioned that he’s been pleasantly surprised by the diverse audiences who’ve responded so well to the movie so far: “I made this movie to be seen by as many people as possible,” Jefferson added.

Three clips from Marvel Studios’ superhero movie “The Marvels” (starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani) were shown on Nov. 2, ahead of the movie’s Nov. 10 release.

DaCosta, director of “The Marvels,” is the first Black woman and the youngest person to direct a Marvel movie. “The Marvels” is her third feature film. In a Q&A after this sneak preview, DaCosta credited her rapid rise in the movie industry so far to “work ethic plus great agents plus love plus happening to be in the right place when projects I’m interested in come up.” 

DaCosta, who describes herself as a Marvel superfan, also addressed the divisive reactions to “The Marvels,” which is the first Marvel movie to be led by women in front of and behind the camera. The movie has gotten criticism for pandering to “woke” political agendas because of its diverse team.

“I try to focus on the work, not on the response, just because it’s mentally healthier that way.” DaCosta said, but also admitting: “This is a medium where audience matters. It was really important to me that [‘The Marvels’] was funny and entertaining and heartfelt. … Once you finish a film, you give it to the world, and it’s what they make of it.”

“A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” had its world premiere at the festival, followed by a Q&A with co-directors The RZA (a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan) and Gerald Barclay. The documentary chronicles a 2021 concert that Wu-Tang Clan performed with the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. With hip-hop celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023, RZA reflected on how far hip-hop has come since its origins.

“It was definitely shunned. You couldn’t even play it in clubs at one point,” he said, adding that he’s grateful that Wu-Tang Clan was able to have the group’s “creativity be unfiltered. … Go back and check some of the lyrics and the choices that we made. It was to continue to expand consciousness, to expand hip-hop.” 

The RZA also shared how Wu-Tang Clan’s internal conflicts led him to branch out into movies and TV. 

“I became disappointed that we were like crabs in a barrel—everybody fighting for the same thing,” he said. “I left hip-hop and went to Hollywood.” 

He added he will always be proud of the group. “Beyond the success of it, our goal was really to give it to people for the enlightenment of the people. And hopefully, we got some people that got enlightened from it,” he said.

On Nov. 4, NBC’s procedural drama series “Found” had a sneak preview of its seventh episode (“Missing While Indigenous,” which premiered Tuesday), followed by a Q&A with co-showrunner/creator Nkechi Okoro Carroll, co-showrunner Sonay Huffman, and director DeMane Davis. “Found” is centered on recovery specialist Gabi Mosely (played by Shanola Hampton), who was kidnapped as a child and now helps find often-overlooked people of color who go missing. Carroll said that she was inspired to create the show after researching the 2014-2015 disappearances of Black girls in the Washington, D.C., area and being frustrated that the mainstream media had little to no coverage of these disappearances.  

“Found” is also unusual for a broadcast network series because it has several Black women as executive producers and directors. “It happened organically,” Carroll said during the Q&A of all the Black women working behind the scenes of “Found.” She added, “The truth of the matter is they were the best people for the job.”

Many of the “Found” episodes are partially based on true stories of people who went missing. When asked how the show’s creatives choose which stories to tell and what type of representation to have in the episodes, Huffman replied that it takes “a lot of research.” She added that it’s difficult to choose because “we want to tell all the stories,” and she hopes “the show will run for a very, very long time.”

Davis shared a personal story from her childhood about seeing a “milk-chocolate van” that was suspected of being a kidnapping vehicle for Black kids in her neighborhood, but those kidnappings weren’t reported by the mainstream media. She described a man crouched in the back of the van and “wearing a dirty T-shirt and jeans” with “a clown suit tied in the back” of the van. “I was 8 years old. I have trauma from that, but not like these [‘Found’] characters,” Davis said. “And the fact that they [law enforcement and the media] choose to help other people, that’s incredible. I wanted to be a part of [‘Found’] because there aren’t a lot of shows that have heart and raise awareness the way that this show does.”

The festival also included the first public sneak preview of clips from National Geographic’s limited drama series “Genius: MLK/X,” a dual biography of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm X (played by Aaron Pierre) and their impact on history. The eight-episode series (premiering on Feb. 1, 2024) includes facts that aren’t widely known about the two activists and their parallel lives. The clips shown at the festival were of the early years of King and Malcolm X, from their childhoods to their 20s. 

King and Malcolm X, who met only once, represented different perspectives of the civil rights movement, but, co-showrunner Raphael Jackson said during a Q&A: “We found that both geniuses experienced similar things.” 

Co-showrunner Damione Macedon added, “It was a deliberate approach not to look at these two men separately but similarly.”

Said executive producer Reggie Rock Bythewood: “They are opposite sides of the same coin.”

Prince-Bythewood added: “It was our intention to take these two geniuses, these two icons off of the T-shirts and make them real.” She also said that the wives of King and Malcolm X would get the credit they deserved in how they are portrayed in this series: “Also really importantly were Betty [Shabazz] and Coretta [Scott King] and their impact on the movement as well.”

Because of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike that began on July 14 and ended on Nov. 9, SAG-AFTRA members could not promote “struck work” projects during the strike. SAG-AFTRA members who attended the festival did so to promote their behind-the-scenes work. For example, former “Insecure” co-star Yvonne Orji was at the event to promote her directorial debut: a short film drama called “Jamaal,” which had its world premiere at the festival. “Jamaal” is about a day in the life of a young Black man who’s about to get life-changing news.

Other celebrities at the festival included dancer Misty Copeland (a producer and star of the experimental drama short film “Flower”) and astronaut Leland Melvin, who participated in a Q&A at an invitation-only screening of the National Geographic documentary feature film “The Space Race,” which is about the history and challenges of Black astronauts. 

Among the other documentaries showcased at the festival were Prime Video’s “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story,” Netflix’s “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” and HBO’s “Stand Up and Shout: Songs From a Philly High School.” Dramas in the programming lineup included the Paramount+ limited series “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” and the feature films “To Live and Die and Live” and “Young. Wild. Free.”

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