When Jeff Friday founded the American Black Film Festival in 1997, he was inspired by an audience he saw during a Sundance screening of “Love Jones.” Though the film, starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate, was what many would consider a “black film,” Friday said it resonated with the Sundance audience -- one that is often primarily white. (The film won the coveted audience award that year.)
“I didn’t see a lot of diversity, but what I did see was an audience of people embrace a black film,” he said. “I realized then that good stories resonate with everybody.”
Fast-forward nearly 20 years, what began as a group of 90 people -- Long, Tate, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, among them -- celebrating black film is now an annual festival (which will be in Miami in June) that attracts almost 20,000 people. And the festival’s annual awards show will be a television special airing on BET and Centric on Tuesday.
The awards took place Sunday at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills and were taped by the network. This will be the first year the ABFF awards are televised, and BET’s first venture into award shows for film. The network’s president of programming, Stephen Hill, said that though the network is known for recognizing black legends and the best of music with its BET Awards, BET Honors and Black Girls Rock shows, there are plans to recognize the works of those in film more often. First up is “2016 ABFF Awards: A Celebration of Hollywood.”
“We want people to feel good about the culture, their performance, their body of work in some cases, just good about themselves,” he said. “That’s what award shows are about and we’re always about celebrating great achievement -- It’s not just great black achievement, it’s great achievement.”
The evening honored Hollywood icon Diahann Carroll, actors Don Cheadle and Regina King, producer Will Packer and director Ryan Coogler.
Ahead of the event on the red carpet, the season’s hot-button topic, #OscarsSoWhite, was on the brain. Stars shared their thoughts on what should be learned from the current diversity conversation once the Oscars are over a week from now. Some of their words are below:
Margaret Avery, Oscar-nominated actress for “The Color Purple”
“We need action to follow. We can only talk about it for so long, and we’ve been talking about it since I began. It’s time to move action. As for the academy, I know that the heart is there. They want to be fair. It’ll get cleaned up, but in the meantime, diversity must begin [to be seen] because this is America.”
Joe Morton, “Scandal”
“Well, if you talk about something, you’re hoping people will do something about it. Talking alone doesn’t do anything. But the only way something [with the Oscars] is going to change is if two things happen: The membership has to change because that's where the nominees come from and, maybe, we have to have our own studio that aggressively goes after foreign markets, aggressively makes universal stories and can greenlight their own films. Otherwise, we’re going to be wagging the same tail over and over again.”
Andre Royo, “Empire”
“Well, I don’t know how you boycott a party you weren’t invited to. If you really want to make a statement, walk away from the game and say we’re going to do our own thing. We’ve been throwing rent parties forever. Let’s throw our own.”
Amanda Seales, “Get Your Life”
“I want to see action, and not just action from the academy, but action on all our parts. For black people, if you want diversity, create some ... We need to be out here, we need to support each other.
Robert Townsend, “The Five Heartbeats”
“As much as people say we’re going to shine light on the Oscars and what they haven’t done, we have been doing stuff here at ABFF [for 20 years]. And it’s always been about diversity and inclusion. We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
Michelle Mitchenor, “Chi-Raq”
“The facts don’t lie. What are the top TV shows on for the last few years and what do these people look like? They look like me. Let’s continue to honor that. Obviously it works. But [#OscarsSoWhite] is opening doors. Thank you, Oscars, because now look what we have. It’s made a lot of people in Hollywood step up. That’s an amazing thing. It’s about to be poppin, OK!”
The 2016 ABFF Awards will air Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. on BET and Centric.
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.