Because Hollywouldn’t: How Film Festivals Have Failed Black Talent
The mainstream film festivals frequented by Hollywood—Sundance, Cannes, Toronto—have turned a blind eye to Black artists for years. So we had to take matters into our own hands.
I attended my very first Sundance Film Festival in January of 1997. I loved the energy and the community that came together around a shared passion for independent film and the discovery of new filmmakers. But when the lights came on, I saw very few people in the audience who looked like me. It was mostly white men. Were there Black filmmakers who didn’t know about or weren’t invited to Sundance? I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity to create an alternative platform for them—for us—primarily focused on content by African Americans for Black audiences. And if such a platform existed, would anybody come?
Not knowing the answers, I took a blind leap of faith and left my job as the film division president of a prominent multicultural advertising agency to devote my professional life to building the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), recognized today as the leading film festival of its kind in the world.
Over the past 24 years we’ve built a brand around creating opportunities for emerging Black filmmakers, many of whom were below Hollywood’s radar and got their start at the ABFF. We’ve also celebrated and championed established Black filmmakers who are trailblazers in the entertainment industry and inspire future generations. What began as an effort to uplift African-American filmmakers has grown into a global celebration of Black artists. We are proud to be recognized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which has acquired ABFF archival material that is now included in their permanent collection.
We’ve come a long way and seen great success with the support of our brand allies who recognized early on ABFF’s pivotal role in increasing diversity in Hollywood, but our journey has not been easy. While we’ve been somewhat marginalized by the entertainment industry and its gatekeepers, our success has been fueled by audience demand, not by industry recognition: Because Hollywouldn’t.
For decades, studio executives rejected the idea that a storyline centered on an all-Black cast could have a marketable appeal, let alone become a global blockbuster: Hollywouldn’t and couldn’t. It wasn’t until Black Panther broke multiple box-office records that the Hollywood establishment began to question its playbook. Also, no one thought it was possible that a Black indie coming-of-age film could win an Academy Award for Best Picture until La La Land, I mean Moonlight, came along.
Despite the global success and critical acclaim of Black films, Hollywood has been slow and hypocritical in diversifying the industry—touting inclusion efforts that do little to close the gap in Black creative and, crucially, executive representation. Time to diversify studio and agency leadership now! Beyond doing what is right, it makes no business sense to have so many communities underrepresented in green-light-positions at a time when the studios desperately need to attract new audiences. For years, we’ve been hearing, “We recognize we can do better.” But what’s the timeline for “doing better?” What are the measures of success?
The truth is that the Hollywood establishment continues to pay lip service to diversity, supporting only the high-profile Black and brown talent that enables it to maintain and protect its entrenched self-interest and white privilege.
Real, meaningful change must come from the core. Beyond verbal and even financial commitment, Hollywood must make a moral commitment to fairness, diversity and inclusion; venturing outside of its comfort zone to nurture diverse creative and executive talent.
It’s time that Hollywood hold festivals celebrating diverse communities and people of color with the same regard as mainstream festivals—recognizing them as a significant source for great content worthy of acquisition and invaluable opportunities to discover up-and-coming talent.
The American Black Film Festival featured the early work of countless emerging Black artists who are some of today’s most successful content creators, including Will Packer (Girls Trip) and Issa Rae (Insecure), as well as Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Stephen Caple Jr. (Creed II), Saladin K. Patterson (The Big Bang Theory) and Ben Watkins (Hand of God)—all of whom won the festival’s HBO Short Film award the year they competed. Perhaps these artists’ careers could have been accelerated if they had had access to the same exposure and opportunities as their counterparts. Perhaps the buyers who regularly attend the film marketplaces that are Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals would have discovered and acquired ABFF’s 2018 and 2019 top films—Sprinter, Jinn, and Jezebel—two years earlier… had they been there.
I’ve always known Hollywood was a broken and biased system—like an exclusive Los Angeles nightclub where people of color are standing outside behind the velvet ropes hoping to get in while systemic racism serves as the muscle-bound bouncer preventing their entry. But what I’ve seen and what the ABFF has fostered over the past 24 years is disruption to the establishment. Now, more than ever, I am optimistic because a tide is turning, not just industry-wide, but nationwide. It cannot be ignored. It’s what the conversation is all about and everyone, including people in power, are taking notice. Black and brown artists are letting themselves into the room. They are taking their own seats at the table. They are creating their own space and rejecting the gatekeepers. Great content is being created. Important narratives and stories are being told—regardless of what Hollywouldn’t do.