Before this year, black films seemed to be a dying breed. Countless filmmakers of color were hemorrhaging from cuts to wrists, unable to wiggle around industry blocks that barred access to seeing written or produced projects distributed and transferred onto screen. But 2013 has been different. The release of dramas, with predominantly African American casts like “The Butler,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “The Best Man Holiday,” have given hope. Working to add to inspiration, this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival aims to be a supportive aid to those in need.
In its 17th year, Urbanworld continues as an outlet for fledgling movie makers. Acquiring over 300 submissions, 60 films are chosen for showcase during this week’s 3-day NYC festival sponsored by BET and HBO. “There’s no exception to the rule. If you submit the work, we watch it,” says Aidah Muhammad, Urbanworld’s Programmer and Senior Producer. “If we don’t watch these films, then we’re doing a disservice and injustice to the filmmakers.”
The festival’s selective standards are based on production quality, acting, delivery, and the script. “We’re also looking for refreshing content,” Muhammad explains. “And we love to program international films. People think that the Urbanworld niche is [only] African American. But it’s not. We consider ourselves a multicultural festival, with filmmakers from all over the world. We just want our films to speak to the urban communities that could be anywhere. Brooklyn’s might be very different from one in London, Zimbabwe, or South America. However, they all have a common thread ─ something relatable in all of those communities that if someone touched on a particular topic of family life or struggle, [it] could resonate in every single place, even though their geographical location is different.”
With an assorted list of shorts, documentaries, and narrative features covering everything from black cowboys to homelessness, the festival opened, last night, on a light note with the romantic comedy, “Baggage Claim.” Several stars of the movie, such as Paula Patton, Jill Scott, Jenifer Williams, and Derek Luke were in attendance. Saturday’s closing night features a screening of the Alicia Keys produced, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete.” Directed by George Tillman, Jr. the drama stars Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson along with Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright. Other spotlight screenings include Nelson George’s ode to good music, “Finding the Funk,” narrated by Questlove; the Amar’e Stoudemire produced sports documentary, “Little Ballers;” and “Gun Hill,” a thriller starring Urbanworld’s ambassador Larenz Tate, directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood.
“We strive to make sure that it’s a rounded slate,” says Muhammad. “So for the traditional festival-goer, people who really love independent films, we have amazing projects that are creating a buzz online and highlighting talent that people may not necessarily recognize by name.”
Adding a twist to this year’s fest is the debut of Urbanworld Music, which highlights film soundtracks. “It’s our after-dark night life meets performance concerts. What’s a great film without an awesome score or soundtrack? So we are using our films as a platform, with artists performing and doing snippets of a soundtrack,” says Muhammad. “Every year, Urbanworld creates this nostalgic feeling, when I think about it, unique, special moments. But this year, I think we are in a place of growth and evolution.”