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  • Writer's picture Llerraj Esuod

From Love Jones to Legacy: 28 Years of the American Black Film Festival

Photo by Jason Koener/ Getty Images for Netflix

By Llerraj Esuod


In 1997, Jeff Friday attended the Sundance Film Festival, a predominantly white event where the independent film Love Jones unexpectedly won the audience award.


Starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long, the movie wasn't just a love story but a cultural phenomenon that became an instant classic in the Black community. Its triumph demonstrated a reach beyond racial divides. 


For Jeff, this was a revelation. "It proved to me that good stories are universal regardless of who the filmmakers are and the actors," he recalled. "It reinforced what we genuinely believe about humanity—good movies cross over races." 


Inspired by this experience and the film's success, he and his wife Nicole decided to create a similar format with Black filmmaking as the focus. Enter the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).


Motivated by their network of friends in the acting and directing community, Jeff, an advertising professional, and Nicole, a model agent, saw a platinum opportunity to provide Black filmmakers an exclusive space to be celebrated and inspired. Their belief in the joy and comfort of Black people being in the company of other Black people was the foundation of their vision. "It is our happy place, our comfort zone," they shared.


From its modest beginnings with 90 attendees, ABFF has grown exponentially, now attracting over 7,000 participants from the U.S., London, and several African countries. The festival's success is a factor in Hollywood's growing demand for diverse stories. And despite persistent challenges in securing funding, ABFF continues to thrive.


The need for varied perspectives and stories is accurate, and the audiences exist; however, the absence of representation in decision-making roles within the film industry and at film festivals exacerbates the problems Black filmmakers face.


On top of these obstacles, they also encounter distribution and marketing biases that limit the visibility and success of eclectic works. Nicole notes that people of color develop thousands of movies essential to Black culture daily. Jeff added, "However, convincing corporations that diversity is big business and needs to live in our creative universe is crucial."


ABFF's impact on filmmakers is undeniable. It has helped launch the careers of renowned moviemakers like Ryan Coogler, Will Packer, and Issa Rae and provides a platform for emerging talents. Comedian Kevin Hart got his start in ABFF's comedy showcase. ABFF is a festival and a resource that provides life-changing opportunities for aspiring filmmakers to display their content.


A rigorous selection process drives ABFF's accomplishments. Industry professionals and ABFF alums meticulously review thousands of submissions, looking for projects that tell compelling stories and push the boundaries of representation and diversity.


For example, the premiere of They Cloned Tyrone, a satirical sci-fi thriller, at the 2023 ABFF illustrates the festival's commitment to top-tier and sundry storytelling.


Jeff and Nicole believe ABFF's strength lies in the unity and support of the Black community. The Howard University alum power couple was instrumental in the successful partnership between Florida A&M University graduates Will Packer and Rob Hardy.


Despite the rivalry between their alma maters, their collaboration has been fruitful. Packer and Hardy's first film, Trois, premiered at the ABFF in 1998, providing vital exposure that opened doors for further opportunities. Jeff remarked, "Was it a great film? Not particularly, but we saw ambition and artistic taste." 


This opportunity allowed Packer and Hardy to evince their art and vision, a chance not often afforded to Black filmmakers striving to enter the industry. Today, Packer and Hardy are prominent figures in entertainment, with dozens of films to their credit. Their success "is the perfect example of the power of community support in propelling promising Black talent," Jeff shared.


ABFF introduced ABFF Play, a streaming platform, to globalize the brand and established ABFF London to expand its influence. Jeff explained the United Kingdom’s (UK) significant participation induced the decision to partner with their Soul Fest, which is second only to their main event.


Reflecting on their path from past to present, Jeff and Nicole emphasize their commitment to people of African descent. They envision a legacy of "empowerment, honesty, and community," Jeff said. "We want Black people to know that ABFF lives not so much for our love of cinema as it is for our culture and the burning desire for Black people to feel good about being Black."


--Rebel Writes

Disclaimer: M.I.A. magazine originally posted this article on Jun. 7, 2024. We have reproduced it here for informational purposes only.

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