Urbanworld Film Festival 2019 Review: More Than A Platform for Filmmakers – A Community of Content Powerhouses and Artists Breaking Barriers

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

Urbanworld’s 23rd Film Festival has come to an end but the lasting impression their 78 official film selections made still lives on. Opening this year’s festival was Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine). Harriet tells the story of Araminta Ross, born into slavery in Dorchester, Maryland as 1 out of 11 siblings in her family. She became famous for freeing over 300 slaves in the south as a conductor in the Underground Railroad and integral leader of the Civil War. Lemmons does a fantastic job of portraying Tubman, played by Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (Color Purple on Broadway, Widows), as a crusader. This isn’t just another film about slavery depicting atrocities and pulling at your heartstrings. It’s the impossible tale of a true female warrior with incredible perseverance. When we first meet Araminta, she seems scared; she’s illiterate and a bit crass, having suffered a childhood assault, and possessing divine vision and clarity, she executes numerous and courageous efforts to lead her family and others to freedom. This is the 19th century Oscar-worthy biopic we’ve been all been waiting for – the heroine of our dreams makes her way to the big screen. Harriet comes out November 1st. Click here to learn more.

Other narrative features worth spotlighting are DC Noir, and the female-led cast, If Not Now, When?

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Photo: Urbanworld Film Festival, Actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe in DC Noir 

DC Noir is an anthology of 4 films based on writer/producer/director George Pelecanos’ (The Wire, Treme, The Deuce) critically acclaimed short stories. Each story is based in Washington D.C. and follows working class characters that in some way or other want to escape their circumstances, yet find themselves riddled with obstacles and propensity for crime. Pelecanos does a remarkable job of capturing the essence and culture of the urban communities he writes about and DC Noir is no exception. Long-time collaborating actor-turned-director, Gbenga Akinnage (The Wire, The Deuce, To Kill A Mocking Bird – currently on Broadway) directs and stars in one of the shorts. Pelecanos hires many of the same actors in his television series and now film series, to portray his three-demensional characters. During the panel discussion after the screening, I saw many familiar faces supporting Pelecanos and the cast and audience members emphasized his stellar efforts to characterize people from the places he writes about with authenticity. To learn more about DC Noir, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R, Meagan Good and Tamara Bass on set of If Not Now, When?

Next up: If Not Now, When? The predominantly black cast led by stars-turned directors, Meagan Good (Think Like A Man, Minority Report) and Tamara Bass (Krazy Actress Productions) bring a poignant film about high school friends and the ups-and-downs they’ve encountered 15 years later. The film is reminiscent of 90s film, Waiting to Exhale with Whitney Houston and Angela Basset, as it explores the complexities of female friendships and love interests. If Not Now, When? tackles addiction, love-loss, infidelity with grit and honesty. The characters aren’t always likeable and that’s okay, you still root for them. Good and Bass directed the movie by chance, after their original director dropped out. According to Good, “I feel like I’m cheating on acting by saying this, but I definitely love directing as much as acting, maybe a little bit more sometimes.” Good and Bass have been friends for over 21 years and took turns behind the camera. To learn more about, If Not Now, When? click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba Film Still

I’m always in search of documentaries that strike a nerve in me – good or bad- and leave me thinking about the subject matter for a while. This year’s Urbanworld Film Festival presented: Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba and Skin – two films that have taken up residency in my mind.

I’ve been to 7 of Cuba’s provinces. I was born there and left for the United States at the age of 4. It took my 28 years to finally return to my motherland. And I’ve always wanted to go to Oriente where my mom was from and where the movie Bakosó is based, but I’ve never quite made it there on my 4 trips to Cuba. Habaneros, or those from Havana have always thought people from Santiago were guarijos (hicks from the countryside) and spoke a weird dialect the rest of Cuba couldn’t understand. Wow, are these Habaneros wrong! After watching Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, directed by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and seeing the energy and vibrancy Santiagueros have, I completely understood what the people from the region of my native Cuba had to say and I want to visit Santiago more than ever. The film starts off with Isnay DJ Jigüe Rodriguez’s grandmother smoking a cigar and moving to African chants. African rhythms are a central theme in this documentary. DJ Jigüe takes us through the various parts of Santiago and introduces us to artists making due with homemade speakers and equipment. It’s Cuba after all – electronics and anything for that matter, are in short supply. He also shows us neighborhoods bursting with new dances and young people celebrating their local Bakosó superstars like: Ozkaro Delga2, Maykel El Padrino and El Inka making their music and receiving recognition for their upbeat and innovative contribution to Hip Hop. To learn more about Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Skin Film Still

The second documentary that made an impact on me was Skin, directed by Daniel Etim Effiong, starring and produced by Beverly Naya. Naya poses the question: Why do women and men bleach their skins and succumb to “supposed beauty standards” they feel they need to conform to? Naya is on a quest and travels to different regions in Africa and interviews public figures, cosmeticians, actresses, beauty entrepreneurs, local women and school children who feel compelled to feed into the beauty myth – that lighter is beautiful. Naya addresses her own insecurities growing up with her skin color and learning to accept her beauty and confidence as a grown up. Naya does a wonderful job of exploring this sensitive topic that is universal and warrants discussion amongst people of color within their communities. Skin color does not merit the worth of a person and Beverly Naya is an excellent advocate for championing this message. Please go see this movie and embrace how God made you – beautiful to the last cell of your body! To learn more about Skin, click here.

Launched in 1997 by founder Stacy Spikes, co-founder of MoviePass and former executive of October Films, for over two decades Urbanworld Film Festival is the premiere platform for emerging filmmakers and musical talent to showcase their work and partner with distributors such as HBO, BET and Warner Media for global exposure. Spikes believed people of color were underrepresented in film and there was a void to fill, and embarked on establishing, what is now known as the: Urbanworld Foundation Inc. Under the umbrella of the foundation is also Urbanworld Digital, which includes esteemed panelists in television and film holding invaluable conversations on how to get great content out there and what the process entails. Gabrielle Glore serves as Festival Director &Head of Programming. To learn more about the Urbanworld Film Festival, click here.

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