The Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival is Black Hollywood’s must-attend event

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MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. – It was like a movie. In one scene, Oscar winner Viola Davis brings the sun during a VIP cocktail reception overlooking the marina at Vineyard Haven. In another, actress Regina Hall walks through the crowd at the annual White Party in Oak Bluffs. Don Cheadle having dinner in a quiet corner in a local favorite near Circuit Avenue. Spike Lee playing at Farm Neck Golf Club two days after former President Barack Obama was there with NBA legend Ray Allen.

Or maybe it was just the middle of August on Martha’s Vineyard, the tiny island in the Atlantic that for the past two decades has played host to ‘the best film festival of the summer. celebrating black stories.

Never heard of it? Well, here’s who has: Tyler Perry, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Jordan Peele, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jennifer Hudson, Kasi Lemmons, Larry Wilmore, Al Sharpton, Eric Holder — you get the picture. Growing in size and prestige since its incubation 20 years ago in the Brooklyn apartment of co-founders Stephanie and Floyd Rance, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival sits at the confluence of black culture , drastic industry change and everyone’s dream vacation. Ask the Obamas.

“Surprise!” said Michelle Obama at the festival’s opening night screening of “Descendant,” the Netflix documentary produced by the Obamas’ company, Higher Ground, about the legacy of the last known slave ship to arrive in America. As the Oh my God and we love you of the shocked audience went off but the cell phones remained on, the moment came into focus. Against the backdrop of summer on the vineyard – a traditional escape for affluent black people from Washington to New York for more than a century – Barack and Michelle Obama, the former first couple turned filmmakers, were to show off their tan and still relaxed and powerful.

“One of the powers of this festival, and the work done by the Rances, is to bring back stories that have too often been lost in time,” said Barack Obama, who taught the crowd how stories weave the past. , present and future together, specifically for African Americans. The former president went on to point out another reason he was there – just a day after his 61st birthday no less: “I look at this audience and we have a bunch of movers and shakers and influencers.”

Ask regulars, first-timers and people in-between what makes Martha’s Vineyard in August a “special place,” as the former first lady called it, and the answer is somewhere in her husband’s words. It’s about history, about being seen – and the stars who come to the film festival don’t hurt.

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Held during the first and second weeks of August, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival celebrates short films illuminating black lives. Hollywood took note. In addition to the busy program of independent films, the major studios now present themselves to promote their projects to an audience of “influencers” dressed in their finest light fabrics.

It all started with two 20-year-olds from Brooklyn heading to the Vineyard to ride their bikes, jump in the water, and eat fried food. In 2001, the couple – filmmaker Floyd Rance and Stephanie Rance, who worked in marketing – planned a one-off film festival in Barbados while Floyd was making a film. Then 9/11 happened and international travel didn’t happen. With a stack of VHS tapes ready to be screened but nowhere to see them, they thought why not do the Vineyard? The inaugural MVAAFF had “no promotion, no marketing, nothing at all,” Floyd said. “Just heart and courage” and about half a dozen people in a conference room.

“It wasn’t on any of our vision boards,” Stephanie said. HBO became an early partner, paving the way for other heavyweights such as Netflix, ESPN, META and JBL. In 2018, the festival received accreditation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a qualifying festival for the Oscar short film category, further cementing its status.

The duo used to spend months before summer’s cold-calling sponsors; now their phones are ringing. But don’t call it the Black Sundance. “Sponsor fest” it’s not, Floyd said, alluding to past criticism that independent film festivals have become too corporate in recent years. The Rances want to stay true to their event’s roots as a film festival for filmmakers — a venue that can support another Ava DuVernay, who was there before she became Oprah Winfrey’s best friend.

“People can come and rub elbows and make an impression on people,” Floyd said.

The Rances described the vineyard as the unassuming Hamptons. A small island without paparazzi where the stars can let their hair down, where you might spot an A-lister in a ripped T-shirt grabbing an ice cream from Mad Martha’s. “It’s a magical place,” said Stephanie.

“Once you get there, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I get it.’ It’s an expiration.

This is also where “seeing and being seen” means something more. People are there to be seen — there is no doubt — but the view is different. It is a late recognition, the privilege of validation.

Take the boarding line for the hour-long flight from LGA to MVY: half the plane goes to the festival, and that half immediately recognizes Russell Simmons. But the woman who claims the guy who founded Def Jam was sitting in his the front-row seat doesn’t, even after Simmons poses for a photo with a fan.

Now consider the line outside Donovan’s Reef at Nancy’s restaurant on a Friday evening just before sunset. Veteran actress Vanessa Bell Calloway (seen most recently on ‘This is Us’) tells a husband to offer his wife a waiting drink while waiting for a specialty cocktail from Donovan, the summer’s favorite bartender. “Happy wife, happy life,” she says. It is then that another young man shouts “One day at Christmas”. “Oh, that was a good one,” she told him from the TV movie she directed Last year. “I wrote it,” he says, and now the two are having a moment. It is the vineyard. No networking in the strictest sense. Just exist. Meet.

And when “August People” come for the film festival celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, there’s plenty to see.

“This thing is getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know what they will do. They’re going to outgrow this space,” an Uber driver proudly laments as he meanders down one of the two-way traffic-free streets that criss-cross the island, departing from the performing arts center in 800 seats next to the high school for a private dinner for former Attorney General Eric Holder and Radio One founder Cathy Hughes.

But with all elbows rubbing, rubbing each other the wrong way was also inevitable. The festival is about uplifting black stories, and Stephanie Rance came under fire when it was announced that the beleaguered The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the Golden Globes, would be there for a panel on its diversity efforts. “I told them it would be a tough crowd,” Rance said as the conversation between Hollywood publicist Cassandra Butcher and new HFPA president Helen Hoehne fell short.

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“We need you guys, but you also need us,” said Butcher, who called out the association, blaming its lack of black members and inappropriate behavior at their infamous press conferences before the Awards.

“I can’t change the past. I can only change the present and the future,” said Hoehne, who added that she did not want to “sweaten” the issue, pointing to the association’s strict new code of conduct, sensitivity training and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion directorate. “What happened in the past was wrong. I want to acknowledge it because it’s painful. I hear your pain. We’re cleaning up.

KJ Matthews, a black entertainment reporter who joined the organization after the controversy in October, was clear: “As long as I’m a member, I promise you this type of behavior won’t happen.”

The exchange underscored another valuable thing about the film festival beyond the glitz and glamour: the opportunity to see people on stage who looked exactly like people in the audience. Powerful Hollywood actors from Netflix, Paramount, Amazon and academy executives travel some 3,000 miles from the industry’s central nervous system to make their presence felt – to let others know they have eyes and ears in the rooms where things happen.

“We need you everywhere,” said Shawn Finnie, executive vice president of member relations and rewards at the academy. Finnie, joined by his colleague Jeanell English, executive vice president of impact and inclusion, spoke at the closing brunch in a restaurant filled with both power actors and up-and-coming filmmakers.

The couple, two black executives from the 95-year-old organization that administers the Oscars, knew a little about the difference between perfection and progress. “It’s hard work,” Finnie told a room of storytellers sipping mimosas on an island. Another movie. Another scene. But before the closing credits, Finnie wanted every filmmaker in the restaurant to stand up and be recognized.

“Before the rewards, you are enough. Without the rewards, you are enough,” Finnie said. “Your story matters if only you see it.”

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