Articles: A Look Inside the "REEL" Urban World

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Deon Gillespie

Whatever your passion, there is probably a film festival going on somewhere to support it. Film festivals are everywhere, college campuses, small town community centers, glamorous seaside resorts. A film fanatic in search of a festival could spend days just perusing the thousands of web pages dedicated to film festivals around the world.

For African American filmmakers, film festivals are vital. If they want their films to be seen, Black filmmakers know they must look beyond Cannes, Toronto and Sundance to festivals geared toward afrocentric culture.

Stacy Spikes never set out to create a festival. Urbanworld, held in August each New York City, was developed out of sheer frustration. Friends and associates trying to break into the industry could not find audiences for their films and so they turned to Spikes for help. At the time, he was working as a marketing executive for Miramax. He decided to dip into his own pocket and pay a small fee to the NY Film Academy for the use of their screening facility. The idea was to create a small outlet where independent Black filmmakers could find an audience. Later, a VIBE Music Seminar organizer suggested a combining a small Black film festival in conjunction with the seminar. The combined event was set up so that, "If you registered for the music seminar, you could attend both. At that moment, It was like the horse ran out of the stable," Spikes says.

Today, Urbanworld is about business – the business of making films, screening films and distributing films. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Urbanworld has become the premier event showcasing the works of Black actors and filmmakers. Urbanworld is a juried festival including feature films, documentaries, an international shorts program, and a works-in-progress program. Panel discussions, an annual screenplay competition, an Asian Sidebar and a Latin Sidebar have also become part of the festival.

This year, audiences had the choice of screening films at either the Loews State Theater in Times Square or the Magic Johnson Harlem Theater. The festival was forced to find a new venue this year when its former home suddenly closed. Inside the Loews State Theater, one of the biggest problems was the temperature. The theater was so cold for some screenings that audience members complained that they could not enjoy the films. During the festival’s five days, the problem was never resolved.

The festival opened with John Luessenhop’s, Lockdown. The film stars Richard T. Jones (The Wood, Event Horizon, Judging Amy) as Avery, a competitive swimmer who, while celebrating a swim meet with his friends (Gabriel Casseus and De’Aundre Bonds), is pulled over by police. The friends don’t realize that a gun used in a drive-by shooting has been planted in their car. When they are wrongfully convicted and sent to the state pen, each of their lives begins to fall apart. The film also stars Master P., Melissa DeSousa and Bill Nunn.

Over 60 films, including four World Premieres, six U.S. Premieres, five East Coast Premieres, seven New York Premieres and 28 shorts were shown during this year’s festival. Of the one hundred sixty screenplays submitted for the competition, five finalists were chosen for consideration of top honors.

Michael Swanson, President and CEO of "faith filmworks, inc.," produced his talented wife Christine’s latest film, All About You. Before Black film festivals emerged, there were no viable outlets for the couple's films. Two of Christine’s films have now been screened at Urbanworld, both of which were big hits with audiences.

"The bigger festivals (Sundance, Toronto) only accept a token number of ‘ethnic’ films and once they exceed that number, ‘ethnic’ or niche market films have nowhere to go. Black film festivals encourage us to continue to do what we do because there's a receptive outlet for our work," Michael Swanson says.

From an industry perspective, however, Swanson believes that if distributors and studio executives do not attend smaller festivals, the festival efforts are not enough. "Needless to say, this is a business. Our work must to be commercially viable so that we can continue to do other projects. So on the one hand, it's awesome to showcase our work but unless these festivals become ‘marketplaces’ like Sundance and Toronto, we're somewhat spinning our wheels."

Several filmmakers, including Malcolm Lee, (The Best Man) credit Urbanworld for making a difference in their film’s success. While still a work-in-progress, The Best Man was screened before an ecstatic full house at Urbanworld two years ago. Later that year, the film debuted at number one at the box office.

George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food, became a tremendous success due, in part, to its premier screening at UrbanWorld in 1997. In 1998, Maya Angelou's directorial debut, Down in the Delta, made its world premiere to a packed house at the second annual Urbanworld festival.

According to Angelou, "There’s nothing like and idea whose time has come, and Urbanworld’s time has come."

The following are this year’s Urbanworld award winners:

HBO Documentary - Director Alison Duke for RAISIN’ KANE: A RAPUMENTARY. The film offers a fresh look at the young Black male as an enterprising entrepreneur in hip-hop culture.

Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film- Directors DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter for LIFT, a drama portraying the affects of professional shoplifting on a dysfunctional family.

Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film - Director Alison McDonald for THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LITTLE JIMMY B., a drama depicting the early life of writer James Baldwin in Depression-era Harlem.

Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay - Beresford Bennett for MOOD INDIGO.

Grand Jury Prize for Best Director - Craig Ross, Jr. for BLUEHILL AVE., a gritty drama of four neighborhood friends and their rise to power in Boston’s South End.

The Audience Award for best film - Director William Jennings for HARLEM ARIA, a drama about a young opera prodigy who is mentally challenged.

Distinguished Achievement for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking - Director Estela Bravo for FIDEL, recognized for its distinct portrayal of one of the most influential, enigmatic, and controversial personalities of our time, Fidel Castro.

The Special Jury Prize for Artistic Merit - Director Clement Virgo for LOVE COME DOWN. Based on Virgo’s original screenplay, the tale of two brothers, one White and one Black, unravels as they come to understand love in all its forms. Larenz Tate stars in and is executive producer of the film.

For a complete schedule, check out



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