Jeff Friday: The Driving Force Behind American Black Film Festival
By Mary L. Datcher-Arts and Entertainment Editor
Over the last 20 years, the American Black Film Festival has brought together an array of filmmakers, media creators and talent for four days of non-stop workshops, panels, showcases, screenings and networking.
The festival began as the Acapulco Black Film Festival in Mexico in the early years and transitioned into the ABFF hosting their event between Miami and New York City.
This year’s festival will be held from June 15-19 in Miami Beach and include the first technology expo. With the concern of this year’s Academy Awards having zero amount of nominees of color — the backlash of Hollywood’s continued lack of diversity shined light on ABFF’s advocacy for Black talent.
The Founder of ABFF and Film Life Inc., Jeff Friday has been a solid proponent for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood for over two decades.
“Most of the things that I’ve done, it’s been driven by my intense desire to connect Black people in a very positive way and promote our audience in a very sophisticated way. My discomfort of the margination of Black culture in America.”
He isn’t surprised at the public out- cry and key industry professionals such as Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee’s passing on attending the Oscars award ceremony.
Friday says the film industry centers around reputable talent agencies such as William Morris and CAA, which represents him. “You need people who are speaking on your behalf. As a writer, I know hundreds of writers who have great script ideas and they ask me ‘how do I get my script to networks like HBO, ABC or NBC?’ You can’t — you have to have your script represented by either a well-connected agent or a literary agent,” he said.
When it comes to getting more projects by African-American filmmakers greenlit by major studios, he says it is not about the talent. “The biggest barrier is that we’re not in the room. We’re not a part of the club of decision-makers.
“I’m very happy that our country has made diversity and inclusion in Hollywood something that we knew was important 20 years ago. I don’t think you need the mainstream validation to look important. However, this mainstream validation causes resources to do things.”
Over the years, the festival has built a solid network of Black actors, producers, distributors, talent agents, entertainment attorneys and those seeking a career in film production. The support of notable and seasoned actors has contributed a great deal to maintaining the event and providing resources to many in the business.
“Bill Duke and Robert Townsend are the anchors and living building blocks for what we’ve done. They’ve been with us every single year for 19 years going on 20 years. John Singleton started coming in the second or third year,” he said. “Morgan Freeman was there the first year; he’s been back several years. There are numerous people who have supported.”
What started out as a way to bring people of color together and exchange information on new and working projects — grew from 90 people to over 3,000 attendees. Friday had no idea it would grow to this level and still maintain its longevity throughout the years.
“One of my mentors in this film space is Melvin Van Peebles. He’s from New York and I remember sitting in his apartment one day. He said to me, ‘Always think big.’ When we approached the festival, we had 90 people the first year, the second year — we had 250 people. I wanted an intimate gathering to be first class.”
He has kept the festival at a high standard and brought out the best names in Hollywood sharing knowledge and expertise at the workshops. Some familiar names such as Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, Salim and Mara Brock-Akil (creators of Girlfriends, The Game, Jumping The Broom, Sparkle), Regina King, Spike Lee and this year’s festival will open with Chicago native Common during their ABFF Talk Series.
“In addition, we’re building a technology center at the festival this year. We’re doing a 4-day expo within the festival itself focused on demonstrations and discussions where technology and entertainment merge,” he said.
“We’ve launched a new division; ABFFX Studios. We’re developing digital content for the web. Our first film series order is called For the Love. It’s an interview series where celebrities talk about their love for their work. It got picked up by Comcast.” The series premiered on Comcast Xfinity in January.
The group has plans to purchase and own a building to house a creative working incubator for filmmakers and talent in the Los Angeles market, but will open it to groups from other markets.
Friday says, “Without lack of access and the lack of information, there is no access. It’s clearly not a lack of talent. It all links back to the mission of the festival.”