August 23, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 2
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Vineyard black film festival scores big

Bijan C. Bayne

For four days, filmgoers joined members of the motion picture industry on Martha’s Vineyard to watch, discuss, and judge screen projects covering a wide range of topics, including science fiction, abortion, abusive parenting, genocide in Darfur and dating white women.

The Fifth Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) showcased first-time filmmakers and industry veterans alike, and featured special events like a conversation with famed actor Delroy Lindo and a screening with Tony Award-winning actress and “The Cosby Show” star Phylicia Rashad.

Co-founder Floyd Rance, who organized the festival with his wife Stephanie, described the atmosphere at the festival as “laid back and relaxed, with no pretense.”

“Floyd and I are always approachable, and we received so many positive e-mails after last year’s festival,” said Stephanie Rance.

The couple received 250 submissions for the 2007 festival and chose 54 films to be screened. Over 1,000 registrants attended, making this year’s turnout the largest so far.

While the many screenings provided the focal point of the festival, sponsored by HBO and Bombay Sapphire, wine tastings, workshops and brunches were the order of the days and nights. In an MVAAFF first, movies were screened daily at two venues — the host Mansion House Hotel, and the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

In addition to the staple films and parties, this year’s MVAAFF also featured a panel discussion moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. entitled “‘The N-Word’: By Any Means Unnecessary,” a spirited discussion that spilled over into the following day’s directors’ panel at the Mansion House. The general consensus that emerged among festivalgoers is that black people need to be the gatekeepers of the language and imagery surrounding them.

At the directors’ panel, filmmaker Angela Gibbs — daughter of Marla Gibbs of “The Jeffersons” and “227” fame — said of the controversial slur, “The word ‘gratuitous’ comes to mind. I think about the shoulders upon which I stand. We have to be the gatekeepers of our culture … and redefine what is success.”

Other topics up for debate at the directors’ panel included black film distribution and the phenomena of video bootlegging in many urban areas. One director noted that bootlegging “makes our movies disposable.” Another stopped short of supporting the practice, but pointed out the logic of the bootleg buyer’s rationale: “Why should I give the theater $10 when I can buy the movie for $15?”

Films such as “Who’s Your Caddy?” and “Soul Plane” were derided, but some filmmakers pointed to family-oriented and message-centered films produced by mainstream Hollywood, including this summer’s “Talk to Me,” starring Don Cheadle as Washington, D.C., radio legend Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene.
Floyd Rance said the festival’s activities are getting “better and better.”

“Filmmakers need support and acknowledgement. This atmosphere provides that,” he said. “Everyone has access to everyone else, even at lunch or at the bar during a break. It’s become like a homecoming or a family reunion — with the ramifications of awards attached.”

One highlight of the weekend’s proceedings was the HBO Short Film Competition and Awards Ceremony at the high school, which featured a group of powerful movies that shared the common theme of choices.

Director Steven Minor’s “Hit Me” follows a man who hires a hit man to kill him, then begins to have second thoughts about the decision. Writer/director Ryan Jackson’s “Baba King” centers on a former teenage basketball star who sees a shortcut to success in the form of three kilos of cocaine. Angela Gibbs’ entry, “Ties That Bind,” starred former TV actress Karen Malina White as a victim of her abusive mother (played by Marla Gibbs). Chicago director J. David Shanks’ “Vile” sees a cruel and self-righteous child murderer entangled with a workaholic homicide cop. The fifth entry, James Richards’ “Bird Losing Feathers,” depicts a black man sharing a cigarette and a pivotal hitchhiking ride with some white laborers his age.

Among the MVAAFF’s Audience Awards:

Best Screenwriter: Reginald D. Jones for “Time On My Hands,” a melodrama coupling murder with love.

Best Short: Director Layla Mashavu Sewell’s “The Lockdown Club,” a tale about high school students stuck inside their classroom as shooting takes place outside their school.|

Best Feature: Jennifer Sharp’s “I’m Through With White Girls (The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks),” a treatise on interracial dating that also won acclaim at the recent Roxbury Film Festival.

Best Documentary: The surprised Cherry Hills, N.J., couple J. Justin and Gwen Ragsdale, for “Lest We Forget — The Black Holocaust.” The Ragsdales own a museum collection of thousands of artifacts from the American slave trade, documented in their film, which also discusses the origin of the n-word.

“I feel ecstatic,” Mr. Ragsdale said upon winning. “This is a prelude to other great things.”

Mrs. Ragsdale said the significance of both the film and their museum is to pay homage to the millions of African Americans’ ancestors who died and suffered, and to explain to youth that too many have already died for things like black-on-black violence and racial slurs to be considered acceptable.

“Ties That Bind” was named the winner of the HBO Short Film Competition. Veteran actress Marla Gibbs said that in addition to other awards the film has won, “Ties” is also sometimes shown in schools and at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

Her honored daughter Angela said events like the MVAAFF are hugely important to African American filmmakers.

“There is not an open door for many black people in Hollywood. This film festival gives us the opportunity to network and find support,” she said. “This award encourages me to keep on keeping on, and considering the quality of the entries, it means so much to be honored among one’s peers.”

Bijan C. Bayne is a Boston-born film critic.

Filmmaker Angela Gibbs, flanked by “The Jeffersons” stars Paul Benedict and Marla Gibbs, attended the directors’ discussion panel. (Photo courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival)

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