August 10, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 52
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Vineyard film festival expects a crowd

Bridgit Brown

While working in the entertainment industry back in the mid-1990s, Floyd and Stephanie Rance began planting the seeds of what would become the annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF).

They would periodically invite their colleagues to take part in their weekend getaways that went from New York City, up the northeast coastline to the mountains of Vermont. These charming, scenic bus rides were punctuated with viewings of the latest independent films, which the industry folk described as the best part of the journey.

The Rances continued to host their trips, but did not take it seriously until 2000 when they held a festive three day event on Oak’s Bluffs at Martha’s Vineyard to promote a wine and spirit product.

They invited Dwayne Wiggins of the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! to perform and screened a few independent films, inviting the filmmakers to take part in a question and answer session with the audience. To their surprise, people came in droves to see the films, prompted the genesis of the MVAAFF in 2001.

Presented by Run & Shoot Filmworks in collaboration with Studio M Public Relations & Events, the event, being called the “filmmaker’s film festival,” has a mission of shedding more light on the immense and often underexposed talents existing in our abundant film community. Now in its fourth year, it is estimated that at least 1500 guests will trek to the Vineyard to take part in the four-day event, which begins today and continues through Sunday, August 13.

Last year’s festival showcased over fifty films and premiered John Singleton’s latest film, “Four Brothers.” Past festival guests have included director Stanley Nelson, actress/singer Vanessa Williams, actor/director Vondie Curtis Hall, acclaimed actor Jeffrey Wright and a number of entertainment executives.

The MVAAFF provides a series of positive activities for visitors to the Vineyard during the month of August, which is its busiest season. Back in the early ’90s, Floyd said, the Vineyard welcomed a wave of younger black American college students who would go there to walk the beaches.

“There was nothing else to really do there at the time so these young people would just hang out,” he said. “But then there was a conflict with the police and all it takes is that one conflict to blow things out of proportion.”

While many of the young people who visited the Vineyard during that time charged the island with racism, Floyd insists that it was really about young people not having anything to do and the residents of the Vineyard complaining about having the young people aimlessly walking around.

“There was a lull, things just subsided, and then as it got closer to the year 2000, people started coming back out again, and we feel the festival is one of the reasons why,” Floyd said.

This year’s festival will feature a best short-short film competition, over sixty other films and celebrity appearances by actor Ben Vereen, actress Karyn Parsons and celebrity acting coach Tracey Moore-Marable. In addition to the many short-shorts, documentaries and feature films that will be screened, HBO will also premiere the debut episode of the fourth season of its critically acclaimed series “The Wire.” For those old enough to remember, the festival will also show a documentary called “The Last Colored Caddy,” which speaks to the fact that there are no black caddies today, a far cry from the recent past.

The festival promises to build a platform around the emerging filmmakers to allow them to connect and share with each other.

“Most film festivals,” Floyd said, “are built around the celebrities that make appearances, but we want to honor the men and women that created the films that make it possible for us to put on this event. Every year we have a filmmakers’ panel which highlights the emerging filmmakers that are attending the festival. It gives them an opportunity to speak and say what’s on their mind.”

Karyn Parsons, best known for her role as Hilary Banks on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” wrote “The Journey of Henry ‘Box’ Brown” while she was pregnant with her daughter and beginning to think seriously about her responsibility to teach the child about her identity.

Narrated by Alfre Woodard, this animated retelling of one of the most powerful, yet widely unknown stories about escaping from slavery is the first in a series of forthcoming DVDs that Parsons will deliver through Sweet Blackberry, her New York-based production company.

“My mother, who’s a retired librarian, told me when I was a kid about the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown,” said Parsons. “I was so amazed by his story, by his courage [and] by the fact that I had never heard the story. Then everyone I would tell about it would say they hadn’t heard of it.

“I thought back then, 12 years ago, that it would be a great story for kids, but I would put the project down, pick it up [and] put it down,” she continued. “Then when I was pregnant with my daughter, I started thinking again about how important it was, and of the responsibility that I faced with helping to form her identity. Then my husband said, ‘Stop talking about this, it’s a great idea. You gotta just do it.’ And so, I put Sweet Blackberry together.”

Parsons says that festivals like the MVAAFF make it possible for independent film producers to screen their films while also giving audiences an opportunity to see quality filmmaking.

“I like to go and see a movie and become immersed in the script, the scenes and the beauty of the whole film. These things do not seem to matter these days,” Parsons said. “Now what makes a film good is the amount of money that it brings into the box office. This is why we need film festivals, and especially festivals that support films produced by people of color.”

This year’s festival will open with a screening of director Bryan Barber’s highly anticipated “Idlewild.” Cinema legend Ben Vereen, who co-stars in the film, will introduce the musical, which stars Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Antwan Andre Patton (Big Boi) of multi-platinum Grammy-winning recording artists Outkast. Also starring are Cicely Tyson, Terrance Howard and Ving Rhames.

Set in the 1930s, “Idlewild” explores the lives of two young men: a club pianist named Percival (Benjamin) and Rooster, the club’s lead performer and manager (Patton). Told through musical numbers and choreographed dance sequences, Vereen says that “Idlewild” creates a new aesthetic.

“This film is going to change the way that people perceive musicals these days,” Vereen said. “One of the interesting things about it is that Hinton Battle, its choreographer, created something called ‘swing-hop’ and believe me, it works.”

Vereen, who plays Percival’s father in the film, got the job through his daughter Karon, an emerging filmmaker who read the script and thought it would be perfect for her dad.

“I got a call from Bryan and I went down to Wilmington, North Carolina and began working with Andre Benjamin as his acting coach,” Vereen said. “But I ended up playing his father in the film, and it was great. I got to work with Terrance Howard and I also got to work with Big Boi. At that point, he hadn’t really acted and so I was getting him to understand that it was not a hip-hop film, but a film that would take viewers back to the 1930s and get them to understand that culture and their heritage. By the time it was done they got to see themselves capturing the style and elegance of that period. It was absolutely amazing.”

Kicking off the festival with a highly stylized musical makes sense for the Rances, who would like to grow the MVAAFF by introducing a musical component into the proceedings.

“We’re trying to figure out whether we want to bring in an older singer or someone familiar to everyone,” Floyd said. “We actually spoke to (neo-soul artists) Floetry about possibly making an appearance this year, but with a major sponsor on board we hope to be able to make that happen next year.”

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