Urbanworld fest's time has come Film: African- American showcase grows in size and influence.

August 12, 1998|By Kitty Bowe Hearty | Kitty Bowe Hearty,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- While introducing the film "Down in the Delta" last week at the Urbanworld International Film Festival, the prize-winning poet Maya Angelou said, more than once, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

The "idea" encompassed the power of film itself and, more specifically, the importance of the festival. Though it's young, in its second year, Urbanworld brings African-American-themed films and filmmakers to New York City, one of the centers of the independent film world.

Angelou, who directed "Down in the Delta," was joined by cast members Mary Alice and Wesley Snipes (who also co-produced the film and is a member of the festival's advisory board) and Harvey Weinstein (president of Miramax Films, which will be releasing the film theatrically Dec. 25).

An old-fashioned story about a woman who returns to her ancestral home in Mississippi in order to save her family and herself from a life of alcohol and drugs, the film played to a standing ovation and set a celebratory tone that continued throughout the festival.

Over five days -- last Wednesday through Sunday -- 70 films were screened for an audience whose members ranged from representatives from major motion-picture studios, on the prowl for new product, to eager young filmmakers to regular filmgoers looking for something different from the summer action movies flooding the theaters.

Among the filmmakers was Baltimore's Darryl LeMont Wharton, who was in tears after winning the directing prize for his first feature, "Detention." He dedicated the award to his grandmother, who has breast cancer.

"I'm glad people came to see my film, and I'm glad to be able to see other films that I know I'll never see again -- like [the Ethiopian movie] 'Tumult.' I'm not going to see an Ethiopian film here in the States."

Though the independent film-festival circuit seems to have a home for everyone, Urbanworld founder Stacy Spikes felt that there was a specific audience -- African-Americans -- whose needs weren't being met by the filmmaking establishment.

"The level of exposure that you'll get in the main festivals, in our opinion, is not as high as it should be or could be," says Spikes, a former executive at Miramax and October Films. "I think they target for the audience that they have, but we're targeting for an audience that works for us."

This idea became the driving force behind the festival, which is committed to "expanding and redefining the role of black film in contemporary world culture."

Last year, 150 films were submitted; this year, the festival received 300 submissions.

Already, it is faced with the need to expand its focus. This year, the festival featured a Latin American component, and next year, Spikes plans to focus on female directors.

The idea of film festivals devoted to black films and filmmakers is certainly not new. There is Chicago's Black Light Festival; the Pan American Film Festival; and the Acapulco Film Festival, which gave us "Eve's Bayou," the profitable and well-received drama starring Samuel Jackson.

But success at a festival doesn't immediately translate into mainstream audience appeal. "Hav Plenty," Chris Cherot's quirky romantic drama that was a favorite at both Acapulco and Toronto, was bought and released by Miramax, the most powerful independent film distributor. But it was a disappointment at the box office.

"If there are pre-existing audiences for 'Booty Call,' why don't they come out in droves for 'Hav Plenty'?" asks John Pierson, creator and host of "Split Screen," a TV series devoted to independent film that airs on the Independent Film Channel and Bravo.

The box-office success of such recent Hollywood movies as "Waiting to Exhale" and "Soul Food" (which was shown at Urbanworld last year) has served as a kind of wake-up call to Hollywood about black audiences' desire for stories about themselves.

"I think that Hollywood has the belief that the stories that some of the black independent filmmakers want to tell aren't appealing," says Spikes, who is out to prove that the powers are wrong.

Discovering hot movies is not the only item on Urbanworld's agenda. In addition to its 70 films, it presented eight panels designed to inform and educate participants. Topics at these discussions, which in some cases were more heavily attended than screenings, included everything from how to pitch an idea to the studios to an actors' workshop featuring Vondie Curtis Hall.

"There's a sense that information can be exchanged," says Liz Manne, a former Fine Line Films executive and now senior vice president of programming and creative marketing for Sundance Channel, an Urbanworld sponsor.

Urbanworld was not without its problems. There were technical difficulties involving the projection of 16 millimeter films that had certain filmmakers apoplectic, although the problem wasn't specific to Urbanworld.

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