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Entries in Urbanworld Film Festival (14)

Sunday
Sep082019

If Not Now, When? Actress Meagan Good Takes a Seat in the Director's Chair

HBO's documentary on The Apollo Theater, a New York City landmark that helped launch the careers of many musical and comedic stars, are among the highly anticipated films that I have no doubt will enjoy sold-out shows when audiences pack AMC Empire 25 in Times Square for the 23rd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival this year. That's why out of the 78 films to choose from, I'm hoping that moviegoers also make it a point to show up in support of the latest work from actress Meagan Good whose directorial debut If Not Now, When? is screening in Urbanworld's U.S. Narrative Features category.

If Not Now, When? directed by Meagan Good and Tamara Bass is showing Saturday Sep 21 at the 23rd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival

Written and Co-Directed by Tamara Bass, If Not Now, When? is an indie drama about four women who were friends since high school and saw their bonds deteriorate over the years following disagreements, love and fights. After nearly 15 years of not speaking, two of these women are forced back together with the others when one of them suffers a crisis. The four women soon discover that they also need each other, and that sisterhood, to make it through what is currently happening in their individual lives.

Speaking of sisterhood, a lot of women are leading the pack in Urbanworld's main lineup. Whether Harriet, Kasi Lemmons' biopic about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, will buck the trend of this mainstream fixation with slavery (and the heavily skewed retelling of that era that brings a certain level of detachment from and denial of systemic issues impacting African Americans and race relations in America today) by offering audiences a whole new take on the story, remains to be seen.

My guess is Black and Blue (to be released in October), an action thriller starring Naomi Harris (MoonlightSpectre) about a rookie cop who is on the run after inadvertently capturing a murder by corrupt cops on her body cam, will be one of the best on Urbanworld's schedule. However, I'm rooting for If Not Now, When? because as an indie film, it is at risk of getting lost in the shuffle of audience attention as people rush to grab a seat for the tentpole titles. I've done it myself before.

But If Not Now, When? is not just any indie film. It's directed by an actress who is taking control of not only her career options but also the kind of stories that she wants to be a part of today's cinematic landscape. I can get behind that because it seems like a positive story and I think we can all relate to the habit of losing touch with people in our lives and only catching up with them at a funeral or some kind of tragic event. Plus, while I've always liked a lot of the movies Meagan Good played in, it often seemed as if she either didn't pursue or wasn't given opportunities to pursue material that stretched a bit further out of her chill zone. 

 

In addition to playing a lot of cool, cute, "homegirl" characters, Meagan has been acting for a long time (her career spans 30 years) and aside from large box office hits like Minority Report and Think Like a Man, the bulk of work I've seen her do consists of supporting roles in urban dramas and comedies. Many unremarkable. The kind of movies that you watch to enjoy a weeknight at home while reheating yesterdays take-out dinner of cheesesteaks and wings.

With If Not Now, When? I'm not suggesting that her filmography has to be all peaches and rainbows either. I had high hopes for Meagan when the prime time drama Deception debuted on NBC a few years ago. I watched that show -- in which Meagan Good played a detective who goes undercover with the FBI to investigate the murder of an heiress -- every week, discussing each episode with family members who did the same, before NBC canceled it after one season. It was refreshing to see her in a leading role and spreading her wings with material that brought audiences (what seemed to be) a bit more substance.

It is exciting to see Meagan stepping into the driver's seat and creating pathways to be in a lead role where she can best utilize her talents, regardless of which side of the camera she's on.

What is your favorite film starring Meagan Good, to date?

How well do you think the film industry is doing in terms of its on-screen portrayal of bonds between women?


Wednesday
Sep192018

'Little Woods' Outlaw Heroine Tessa Thompson puts Spotlight on Sisterhood at Urbanworld Film Festival

During a recent girl's night I attended, someone sparked a discussion about actors who are so compelling that they are the main reason you will go see a movie in theaters. Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You,Thor: Ragnarok, Westworld, Creed) is among those actresses for me.

Sitting in the film still for Little Woods, her image stopped me dead in my tracks as I scrolled through the 22nd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival schedule this week. I'm glad it did because I would have surely overlooked this western movie about a woman on parole for smuggling medicine to residents in a rural North Dakota town.

When I think of westerns, I picture an old movie from the 70s with cowboys, barndoors and pistols. That is where my mind goes despite knowing good and well there's more to the genre. Adding a modern take on the typical western movie, Little Woods is the directorial debut of Nia DaCosta, a New York native who developed the film for 2 years; starting at the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab.

DaCosta set out to humanize the conversations surrounding healthcare and women's reproductive rights -- topics she says have been overly politicized -- in hopes that her film will serve as a vehicle for understanding among audiences. In Little Woods, two estranged sisters living in poverty work outside of the law to improve their circumstances. Tessa Thompson plays Ollie, a woman who has abandoned her former ways of drug trafficking and helping struggling residents of the oil fracking boomtown in North Dakota sneak across the Canadian border for life or death medical procedures.

English actress Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella, Downtown Abbey) plays Deb, Ollie's sister who shows up in crises with a young child and an unexpected pregnancy. Facing foreclosure on the home inheritied from her adopted mother, Ollie must make extreme decisions about whether she will return to her old way of life, risking prison to help keep a roof over her family's head.  

One of the most fascinating things about making movies is how much you learn about the world, or some aspect thereof, as a byproduct of the film. DaCosta deliberately set her film in a fictional town based on Willinston, North Dakota -- where men out number women 2 to 1. Through research, interviews and visits to Willinston, she found out that the town is one of the hardest places to get an abortion, among other needs. The Little Woods director became inspired to tell a story about women in rural America and the hardships they experience regarding access to healthcare.

Upon further reading about this movie, I am reminded about DaCosta's point of there being differences between women's experiences right here in the U.S. and these hardships are rarely part of the public discourse. I would add that its partly because few people outside of rural areas know about the difficulties women endure in rural America, or that the towns even exist.

Before clicking on Tessa Thompson's Little Woods photo, I don't think I've ever heard of Willinston, North Dakota. Reading about Thompson's visit to the town -- where locals told her about the violence, women carrying guns just to be able to shop at Walmart safely, and the bleak state of affairs because the jobs are just not there anymore -- gave me a better appreciation for films like Little Woods; and the bonds created between women on and off-camera to shed light on an aspect of the human experience that audiences typically don't see on the big screen.

Friday
Sep292017

AMC Stubs, Four Women and Mosquitoes, oh my! The Films (and Folks) that Rocked Urbanworld 2017

'Mosquito: The Bite of Passage' starring Alisa Reyes, Eileen Galindo and Philip Anthony Traylor.2017 is a good year for short films, evident by the crowds that packed each shorts program screening at AMC Theater in Times Square during the Urbanworld Film Festival, which just wrapped up its 21st installment.

The year is also shaping up nicely for Shaz Bennett, whose directorial debut Alaska is a Drag received an Honorable Mention for Urbanworld’s “Best Narrative Feature (U.S. Cinema)” Award over the weekend. Still, I’ve found that learning about interesting details filmmakers in attendance share about their movies, as well as witnessing spontaneous audience responses at the screenings, are some of the biggest and most valuable takeaways in terms of overall experience.

I missed out on the Shorts Program 3 showing but later ran into Tesia J. Walker, director of the short film Search Party, about a mother who goes to great lengths to plan her son’s high school graduation party, only to have things fall apart when uninvited guests show up. Walker informed me that the screening was sold out. This appeared to be a recurring theme, as most seats were filled at other short film screenings I attended and Naiyah Scaife, the lead actress in Damon L. Smith’s short film Atone, also mentioned their Shorts Program 2 screening selling out as well.

Although the domestic shorts were what I most wanted to watch, taking a second look at films I initially passed over in the program guide was key to finding hidden treasures in storytelling at Urbanworld. Silence Radio wasn’t exactly on my must-see list, yet, ended up being one of the best short films I’ve seen this year. The movie contains minimal dialogue, emphasizing visual cues and sound design instead, to convey what’s happening in the story.

(l-r) Mahipal Singh and Shahana Goswami in "Silence Radio," a short film made in France.Directed by Kartik Singh, Silence Radio is a suspenseful film about a girl named Nayla who hosts a jazz radio program at her university. One day, a man asks to come on her show to talk politics. If she refuses him, there will be consequences.

I consider myself to be quite lucky to have caught this film because Shorts Program 4 was already underway by the time I made it to the screening, but the lineup was playing out of order from its original listing in the Urbanworld program guide. Otherwise, I would have missed Silence Radio. The theater, though crowded, was very quiet up until a certain point in this 15-minute film.

No one in the audience made a peep and all of a sudden, during a scene where Nayla comes to the radio station and sees a door creaking open, a child in the audience said “ohhhh noooo!” out loud and everyone else burst into laughter. I was surprised to find out children were in the audience, given the content in films such as Shalini Adnani’s dark comedy Something More Banal, about employees that find a dead co-worker hanging in their office, and the explicit language in Nelson George’s comedy Dayton Jones, about a former private investigator drawn back into the world he left behind when people from his past come back into his life.

Then I remembered Brian Vincent Rhodes’ animated short Mosquito: The Bite of Passage was also in the lineup; obviously children were present for this cute 7-minute film that is suitable for all ages. Mosquito: The Bite of Passage is about a mosquito on her first hunting trip with her mother. In the film, she desperately tries to confess that she doesn’t like blood. I liked how the animated characters were placed in a live-action environment, creating a nice hybrid effect that made Mosquito: The Bite of Passage appear more realistic and similar to that of a narrative film.

A woman sitting in a nearby seat soon asked me if The Tale of Four played yet. She arrived later than I did and that was the film she came to see. Since Shorts Program 4 was playing out of order, I didn’t know but she arrived just in time because Urbanworld staff saved that film for last. Based on cheers from the crowd, I sensed that a lot of people came out to see Gabourey Sidibe’s 24-minute directorial debut.

Inspired by Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” Sidibe’s The Tale of Four is a multi-layered story that spans one day in the lives of four different women connected by their quest for love, agency and redemption.

Although I did like The Tale of Four and understand why it is a highly anticipated short film, I find its recent winning of Urbanworld’s Audience Award for Best Short to be a bit misleading when compared to others films from this year’s lineup. Aside from good editing and standout performances by actresses such as Aisha Hinds, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Ledisi Young, there isn’t much I remember about this movie. In fact, there are only three stories that stuck with me after the screening and it took some time and effort to recall the fourth while writing this recap. That said, some of the stories in The Tale of Four could stand on their own and possibly even be developed into a feature length film.

I tip my hat to Sidibe for essentially making four films in one; that is no easy feat – especially in situations like the day when a man in the building where she was shooting her last scenes called the police on her film crew, claiming that 40 people are breaking into the building. During the post-screening Q&A session, learning about how she used that run-in with the cops during production as material for her movie was among the most interesting things that came from watching The Tale of Four; it helped me look at the film from a different perspective in terms of what it means to her wanting to honor Nina Simone’s legacy “the right way” and those who support it.

Actress/Director Victoria Mahoney at Urbanworld to support 'The Tale of Four,' a short film directed by Gabourey Sidibe.“Black women are seen and strong and we’re always being put upon. You're supposed to care for everyone else but yourself. You come last,” says Gabourey Sidibe while telling the audience that she wanted to show that hey….we're human too.

After working on this project as a director, Sidibe also says she now takes rejection less personally when she goes on auditions for an acting role.

I like the inspiration behind The Tale of Four and the valuable impact that making this project had on the way Sidibe approaches her acting career, more than I like the film.

Speaking of actresses who also direct their own films, Victoria Mahoney was in the audience, sporting fierce metallic nail polish as she pointed toward the front row of seats, shouting “GET THE KID! GET THE KID!” during the Q&A panel discussion. Mahoney directed the Urbanworld moderator’s attention to an adorable young boy named Amir Mausi whose hand was raised high to ask filmmaker Brian Vincent Rhodes “Did you research the behavior of mosquitoes?” followed by much applause from the audience.

Amir "THE KID!" Mausi and his mother attend the screening of 'Mosquito: The Bite of Passage' during the Urbanworld Film Festival at AMC Theater in Times Square.Rhodes, a USC grad who made Mosquito: The Bite of Passage as his thesis film, gladly spoke about the preparation that went into the storyline and character development stages. The director also credits his mother as being part of the inspiration behind Mosquito: The Bite of Passage, while being clear that he “wanted to make a movie where a woman's appeal to a man isn't her strength; in this movie, the women are the hunters.”

The 2 years that Rhodes spent making this film continues to pay off; he is currently developing a feature length version, at Twentieth Century Fox Animation. While waiting in line to see Alaska is a Drag, I met Derrick, an avid movie goer who has faithfully attended the Urbanworld Film Festival over the last several years. “Now I’m glad that it’s more worldwide; with films from China, Taiwan, and so on. Some you can’t even understand them but you understand the concept and I really like it,” he says. Derrick goes to the movies a few times per week and first learned about the festival during one of those trips to the AMC Theater on 34th Street. Since then, he has joined the festival’s mailing list and used to flip through the program guide upon arriving at the theater, to figure out what movie he’s going to see.

Derrick attends the screening for 'Alaska is a Drag' during the Urbanworld Film Festival at AMC Theater in Times Square.Now, Derrick is strategic about his Urbanworld experience, usually spending 2-3 days to decide on which screening to attend.

Knowing the festival takes place around the same time every year, he pulls up the online program a week before the event and then starts planning his visit.

By the time of our conversation, Derrick had already come by the theater to attend the screening for Atone in Shorts Program 2 and looked forward to seeing a few more films including The Jump Off, a short film about one gay man’s struggles to legitimize his DL relationship, and Behind the Curtain: Eclipsed, a documentary profiling the historic Broadway run of a play written, directed and performed by women of African descent. “I saw the play and I want to know how they put it together because it was a deep and really good, and I don’t like plays. I like musicals but I don’t like plays and this one kept me riveted the whole time,” he says.

As an AMC Stubs member, Derrick also explained to me how the rewards program works and showed me a $5 reward he received from accumulating points during his frequent trips to the movies. He wanted to see Marshall but it was sold out and when I told him Urbanworld added a second screening to this soon-to-be-released biopic chronicling one of Thurgood Marshall’s career-defining cases, he left as the Alaska is a Drag Q&A session wrapped up, to go grab a ticket.

Director Shaz Bennett and Actor Kevin Daniels at the screening for their film 'Alaska is a Drag' at Urbanworld.Kudos to Alaska is a Drag director Shaz Bennett for showing up to champion her film and discuss with the Urbanworld audience how she shot the movie for 15-17 days in a cute little Detroit town. Alaska is a Drag was such a fun movie to watch and contains such colorful characters – a boxing champion who also moonlights as a drag queen, c’mon! – that I’m glad Bennett persevered with her cast and crew to finish this film despite losing funding while they were shooting.

Even though Bennett could no longer pay people, she had a small team of dedicated men and women who stayed because they believed in the story. “It was like ‘look, we’re here, let’s just make the movie,’” says actor Kevin Daniels who plays the main character’s father. Half of the crew members were dressed in drag for the competition scene where Margaret Cho also performed as a drag king.

After I jokingly asked Bennett how many fish were killed during the making of Alaska is a Drag, she informed the audience that the man seen slicing the fish in the movie is actually the Mayor of that small Detroit town where they filmed. There was also a big fishing competition that took place in that town right before production began and the Mayor is “like this massive fisherman, so he just saved all of them; most of those were dead fish,” says Bennett.

'Selma' director Ava DuVernay is ecstatic to see the festival's Executive Producer, Gabrielle Glore on her way to the 'Queen Sugar' screening.By the end of the weekend, I attended screenings for one dozen short films and three feature films.

Many of these films including Emergency directed by Carey Williams and the Venezuelan kidnapping movie Child for Child directed by Juan Aveila, exceeded my expectations.

The Q&A panels and meeting filmmakers were what I enjoyed most.

While appearances by well-known figures such as Girls Trip actor Kofi Siriboe, Academy Award nominated director Ava DuVernay and Marshall star Kate Hudson were exciting to witness, audience engagement provided a chance to experience the kind of unpredictable activities and insightful discussions that make for an unforgettable night (and day) out at the movies.

 

 

What movie theater rewards programs do YOU participate in?

How well do YOU think Marshall will do at the box office?

What did YOU like most about this year's Urbanworld Film Festival?