Film Festivals: Urbanworld Film Festival

The word on the street is that the New York-based Urbanworld Film Festival is a black film festival, but inside the theaters it becomes clear that Urbanworld is a showcase for a diverse group of minority filmmakers. From the pulsating hip hop beat of the Clipse’s Lord Willin’ in the opening trailer to the broad range of the sixty films screened, Urbanworld’s niche as a premiere minority festival is undeniable. But their attempt at a balancing between Hollywood and the independent world is a little shaky. According to executive director Joy Huang, the six-year-old festival exists to “enrich, encourage, and inspire minority filmmakers; to create a community, a home where people know they can come and share their works in a supportive environment.”

Each year, Urbanworld boasts of a number of well-known filmmakers and entertainers who grace the festival with appearances, Q&A’s, and even film screenings. This year, ER’s Eric LaSalle presented his feature directorial debut, Crazy as Hell. And for closing night, rappers Eve and Ice Cube made appearances for the premiere of Barbershop, in which the two co-starred.

Ice Cube was selected for another festival highlight, the Actor’s Spotlight, an Inside the Actor’s Studio-style interview. Many in the audience questioned Ice Cube’s qualifications to lead a discourse on the craft of acting, particularly since past honorees include Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, and Rosie Perez. But Ice Cube was surprisingly insightful and honest.

When moderator George Alexander of Black Enterprise asked why rappers seem to be taking all the jobs away from trained black actors, Ice Cube responded, “This is a business. Rappers have a lot of fan base that will come see the movie. I’ve created more jobs than I’ve taken away. We’re not just coming in and taking, we’re coming in creating.” In addition, Ice Cube shared what he has learned about the craft of screenwriting after writing box-office hits like Friday—mainly the importance of the basic three-act structure. He also encouraged audience members to do work that they’re going to be proud of.

Urbanworld’s focus on supporting and acknowledging minority filmmakers has long won favorable marks from the community the festival is designed to serve. This year the festival forwarded this goal with the introduction of the Mecca Awards, which honor minority entertainers for their accomplishments within the media field. Festival chairman emeritus Stacey Spikes comments that the Mecca Awards are a chance to “honor ourselves in a higher fashion.” This year, Monster’s Ball producer Lee Daniels received the Visionary Award, and Kerry Washington, best known for her role in Save the Last Dance, was given the Future of Film Award. It is gestures like this that endear Urbanworld to minority filmmakers. “We make an effort to have a support system,” says Huang.

Several films combined hip hop with large, complex issues. Civil Brand, by veteran filmmaker Neema Barnette, scored one of the biggest hits. The film exposes the abuse and corruption that permeates the women’s prison system. Thanks to a compelling story, good production, a hip hop flair, and stars such as Da Brat, Tachina Arnold, Lark Voorhees, MC Lyte, and N’Bushe Wright, every screening sold out. Barnette and her film were inspiring for filmmaker Clairesa Clay, film curator and founder of the Reel Sisters Film Festival. For Clay, Barnette’s work was one of the highlights of the festival. “[It was encouraging] to see people of that stature making feature films.” In addition, Urbanworld held its traditional Grand Jury Award Ceremony, where Barnette picked up the prized Audience Award. She thanked Urbanworld for supporting independent cinema, hailing it as “the way of the future.”

Bertha Bay Sa Pan won Best Director for her film Face, which blended traditional Chinese culture with contemporary hip hop as two generations of women try to maintain their identity in a fast and changing world. As the result of one woman’s struggle to break free from her mother’s traditional Chinese culture, she becomes the mother of a child who ends up in the same state of rebellion. Eric Eason’s DV feature Manito represented the Dominican community with a gritty adolescent tale of a young man with a promising future. On his way to college, he is forced to make a decision that will alter his life forever. Eason garnered the award for Best Feature Film.

The Documentary Short prize was taken home by Sandra Krasa and Bianca White for Ocoee: Legacy of the Election Day Massacre, a film about the elimination of the prosperous African American community in a Florida town when two black men defended their right to vote. Rick Derby won the Documentary Feature prize for Rocks With Wings, which profiles Jerry Richardson, a black man from Texas who takes a job coaching a girls’ basketball team in a New Mexico Navajo community after a severe losing streak.

And if there was an award for Most Shocking Film, Quiet would easily have taken home the gold. This film by Sylvain White gave a warped, twisted view of pristine suburban life through the eyes of the quiet recluse Herbert, who constantly reflects on the meaning of life. Between the memories of his murdered son, Jacob, and the dry, callousness of his nagging wife, Eleanor, Herbert is forced to take out his frustrations on a canvas by painting—that is, until he gets his hands on The Club, the baton-like lock for car steering wheels.

Urbanworld is a dose of industry narcissism mixed with a smaller measure of true independent spirit. Particularly when it came to panels, the festival leaned a little too much to the former. The panel listed as “The Eternal Question—What Does a Producer Do,” boasted names such as Lee Daniels, Leah Keith of Dreamworks, and George Tillman and Bob Teitel, the writer and coproducer of Soul Food. Although some indie-related topics were addressed, such as the difference between a manager and an agent, tips on how to get funding, and the value of a producer’s rep, a good portion of the discussion was geared toward identifying how each person started in the business.

During the discussion “Before You Shoot,” panelists, directors Charles Stone, H.M. Coakley, Tim Story, and casting director Alexa Fogel, urged filmmakers to stand up for their vision. Yet, even in this panel, conversations tended to veer towards advice on how to become an industry player, which left some festival-goers wondering what’s in it for independent filmmakers? How do we make a living at our craft? And still asking questions like, “I’m an independent with little money and a script, what do I do now?” Probably the best person on the “Before You Shoot” panel to answer that question was Eric Eason, who shot Manito for $24,000. But even he remained silent amidst the studio representatives beside him.

There was talk about the role that African Americans play in Hollywood. “There is a difference between being a producer in Hollywood and a black producer in Hollywood,” Daniels stated. The goal as a black producer is “to show Hollywood that we have the same insight as whites in Hollywood and we can do things with class and taste,” according to Daniels.

But even with all the awards and industry hype, Urbanworld continues to prove itself to be a home for minority filmmakers who often walk away from other festivals feeling as though their voice was not represented, and their issues as minorities were not addressed. Many of the filmmakers in Urbanworld value the festival because it’s a forum for people of color, regardless of whether they make studio-driven or independent movies.

Maurice Dwyer, whose film Whoa won honorable mention in the shorts category at Urbanworld, says that of all the film festivals he’s been to, he has never come across one that is as nourishing and embracing as Urbanworld. When Dwyer volunteered for Urbanworld in 1999, seeing so many black films helped inspire him to write his own material. “[The festival] put the fire underneath my butt to do my own stuff,” he explains. The following year he shot Whoa, which made it into Urbanworld. Roderick Giles, director of the short Gully, starring Tyson Beckford, commented, “[Urbanworld] is a really great platform and forum for filmmakers of color to show their wares. There are three festivals that are really powerful—the Pan-African Film Festival, obviously the American Black Film Festival, and Urbanworld. Without these, we wouldn’t have a voice.”

The festival is launching year round programming, including a high school screenwriting program and a college tour. Urbanworld also plans to hold satellite festivals in Tokyo, London, Frankfurt, and Marseilles, as well as filmmaker and screenwriting labs.

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