‘King Richard’ Opens 25th Anniversary Celebration of American Black Film Festival

In 1997, Jeff Friday, founder and CEO of Jeff Friday Media, was working as the film division president of UniWorld Group, a prominent multicultural advertising agency headquartered in New York and founded by legendary ad world maven Byron E. Lewis. In January of that year, in search of new clientele within the entertainment industry, Friday headed to the Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film festival he had ever attended. It was also the year writer-director Theodore Witcher’s award-winning “Love Jones” screened at the fest, ushering in an era of what Friday calls “the glory days of Black cinema.” That film, and the experience of seeing it at Sundance, altered the trajectory of Friday’s career.

“This was right around the time of such films as ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back,’ ‘Love and Basketball,’ and Spike Lee,” Friday recalls. “‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ had just happened and there was a ton of buzz around it. ‘Love Jones’ became a classic, and it was proof that good stories are universal, that it doesn’t matter what color the actors, director or writers are. At Sundance, I saw an incredible event — and I don’t mean this at all in any sort of disparaging way — but it was also an event that was primarily white and male, like the rest of the business at that time. I saw very few people of color. I saw very few women. I thought, this is great, but where are all the Black people? Where is all the diversity?”

From that moment onward, Friday, “not one to complain but rather create change and make an impact,” he says, was determined to foster an environment in which Black filmmakers and artists could showcase their talents and rise professionally in the biz. And so he co-founded, along with Lewis and Warrington Hudlin, the Acapulco Black Film Festival. Six months after that watershed Sundance experience, the Acapulco Black Film Festival launched its inaugural event in June. And while Acapulco might seem like a random spot in which to kickstart a Black film fest, it was a convergence of timing, access and kismet that brought it all together.

“One of our largest advertising clients was the Mexico ministry of tourism — we were developing ad campaigns to bring upscale Black travelers back to Mexico, and also to revive the image of Acapulco as a Hollywood playground — and the Ministry of Tourism just went crazy over this idea to bring a film fest there,” says Friday. “They said, bring on Acapulco. And so we did.”

That first year, 90 people attended the fest. “Halle Berry was the first person we called,” notes Friday. “Right away, she said yes.”

The Mexican government chartered planes and, along with Berry, artists such as Bill Duke, Melvin Van Peebles, John Singleton, Nia Long, Morgan Freeman and Regina King flew down.

“The bar was so low — we had 14 films screening that year,” says Friday. “We honored Halle as a rising star and, immediately, a camaraderie was formed, and that’s what really made it work. There was a spirit in the air, it felt like a homecoming of close friends. This was also a time before social media, before cell phones took off. That’s the miracle of it all.”

In 2002, after acquiring full rights to the name, Friday re-branded the fest as the American Black Film Festival and relocated its base to Miami.

“It just happened to work out that Acapulco and American form the same acronym,” says Friday.

Now in its 25th year, ABFF, a subsidiary of Jeff Friday Media, is a flourishing powerhouse event. The fest welcomes some 7,000-10,000 attendees each year, functioning not only as a showcase for cinematic talent, but also as a launchpad for Black artists working both before and behind the camera. This year, with pandemic-era safety concerns still afloat and the coronavirus impacting people of color at disproportionate rates, ABFF celebrates its landmark quarter-century anniversary Nov. 3-28 via its global online platform ABFF Play.

“It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make around the festival planning ever,” says Friday of the decision to keep things virtual. “And it was strictly a business-slash-social decision. We saw the numbers ticking up and the Delta variant on the rise, and we just didn’t think it was in the best interest of our community to bring people together. Health and safety always comes first.”

That said, the selection of films screening at ABFF will not be compromised. To wit, “King Richard,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic charting the rise of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams under the tutelage of their indefatigably optimistic father, Richard (Will Smith), opens the fest. A slate of independent film screenings, panels and discussions and networking events will follow. That “King Richard,” an awards-season contender, is kicking off the fest marks a “full circle moment” for Green, whose “Stone Cars” was a  2013 finalist in ABFF’s short film competition, created and sponsored by HBO.

“It is with pride and excitement that we mark our 25th year opening with Warner Bros.’ ‘King Richard,’ a film that is a touchstone of ABFF’s legacy of showcasing extraordinary Black talent and inspiring storytelling reflecting the brilliance of diversity in Hollywood,” says his wife, Nicole, president and general manager, ABFF Ventures. “We’re especially gratified to have the film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, return to ABFF as feature film director — demonstrating the importance of the HBO pipeline in advancing the careers of Black artists. This event is simply a grand slam on every level.”

Additionally, indie features screening include DeShon Hardy’s “A Message From Brianna,” “Bitter Sugar” from writer-director Malik Isasis and Alanna Brown’s “Trees for Peace,” which centers on four women hiding during the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Oscar-winning actor Halle Berry will also appear at the fest as its official ambassador for its 25th anniversary.

But it’s the HBO Short Film Competition that Friday credits as the core of the festival. Prior winners of the contest include Ryan Coogler, who went on to direct “Black Panther” and Steven Caple Jr., who helmed “Creed II.” This year’s finalists are: Lin Que Ayoung (“Cracked”); Omar S. Kamara (“Mass Ave”); Natalie Jasmine Harris (“Pure”); Michelle Beck (“The Snakes”); and Phumi Morare (“When the Sun Sets”).

“I’ve got to give HBO credit,” says Friday. “Together, way back in 1997 right after that first year we started, we came up with something that has helped,
and will continue to help, spearhead diversity. The short film content is an institution at ABFF, and has a huge impact on giving people the chance to work
in Hollywood.”

“HBO is committed to finding the best storytellers in the business – diverse storytellers who can share their vibrant imaginations and awe-inspiring vision,” says Dennis Williams, senior vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility, WarnerMedia. “Short film is a great vehicle to convey ideas and tell stories. The HBO Short Film Competition at ABFF provides a valuable pipeline for emerging filmmakers. It has produced some of the most talented artists in the business –  Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple, Jr. and Reinaldo Marcus Green whose film is opening this year’s festival. We are proud to share ABFF’s mission for the past 24 years to elevate the world of Black film and introduce and connect talented newcomers to the industry.”

On average, says Friday, the fest fields 600 short film submissions each year from across the United States. In the beginning, these entries were dominated by men, but over the “last five years, it’s become more female filmmakers.”

“This year, three of our five finalists are from female filmmakers, which is just amazing,” says Friday. “We’ve created a legacy. Not only does HBO fly in the finalists, but they put them through a boot camp of sorts, they get a chance to meet mentors and fellow filmmakers. It’s become an institution in diversifying Black storytelling. For these young filmmakers, this is not only the beginning of their careers — it’s also a boost of confidence. The most noteworthy part: it’s gone on now for 24 years in a row. That’s the thing about which I
am the most proud — the short film competition.”

Will Packer, producer (“Girls Trip,” “Ride Along”), ABFF alumnus and 2021 ABFF jury president, credits the ABFF with encouraging its participants to forge ahead in the biz.

“So often as a young filmmaker, especially a young Black filmmaker, what you really need is validation. ‘Am I doing this right? Am I on the right path? Is success even possible for someone like me?’, ” Packer says. “Without a doubt, I received much needed confirmation that I had a future in this business from ABFF. Having actual industry insiders, Hollywood talent and movie fans applaud and award what we were doing was monumental.”

Next year, Friday is looking forward to bringing filmmakers and guests together in person in Miami, but the spirit of this year’s virtual fest remains vibrantly intact.
“The big celebration will happen next June,” says Friday. “The tone, as it is always with ABFF, is empowerment and inspiration.”