This year’s 19th annual Urbanworld Film Festival had a unique feel in the air. Unlike festivals of years past, full of glossy names and mainstream features, the hallways of Times Square’s AMC Empire vibed with a proud emphasis on documenting a mixture of history and social ills.
Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ, the festival’s carefully curated opening film, was rife with rarely seen footage featuring Ali’s fights against the system and naysayers, and his acceptance of Parkinson’s disease. Directed by the Chicago-bred hip-hop team Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, scenes of the brief 40-minute project were uniquely strewn together around the poetry of Grammy-winning poet J Ivy. Using Ali-inspired hip-hop cadence and words, Ivy’s poetry interstitials connected with passionate commentary from Ali’s family, celebrities and everyday people.
Thursday’s official full festival day began at 5:00p with the first presentation of short films. A total of eight blocks were spread across the five days of Urbanworld. On the feature side, most screenings—like director Lanre Olabisi’s Somewhere in the Middle—were sold out. Winner of this year’s Urbanworld Audience Award for Best Feature, the movie focuses on the intimate link and struggles of four lovers.
The star-studded winner of Thursday night was the documentary Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives. Bringing to screen the reminiscent feel-good vibe of 1990s hip-hop, Radio that Changed Lives spotlights the worlds of DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, whose underground hip-hop show on Columbia University’s WKCR jumpstarted the careers of everyone from Nas and Jay Z to Big L, Big Pun and the Notorious BIG. With an audience filled with hip-hop pioneers like Fab 5 Freddie and DJ Clark Kent, the post-screening Q&A hosted by Angie Martinez found Garcia quick to remain humble. “We are students of radio,” he said to the packed audience. “We are not pioneers.”
Friday’s screenings echoed the dark realities of the world. During Urbanworld’s second shorts program, intense films about sex trafficking like The Trade (directed by Michael “Boogie” Pinckney), Amish (by director Malinda Kaur, focusing on surrogate pregnancies), and the police brutality film The Cycle (produced by Sway Calloway and directed by Michael Marantz) all brought the consequences of fear and desperate situations to the forefront.
Afterwards, the spotlight screening 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets documented the “loud music trial” and the 2012 Florida murder of 17-year-old Jordan Davis at the hands of Michael Dunn. Ron Davis, father of Jordan, proudly walked the red carpet representing his tireless fight to stop gun violence and the murders of unarmed Blacks in America.
3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
Friday evening wrapped with Urbanworld’s honorable mention winner, A Girl Like Grace, directed by Ty Hodges. Starring newcomer Ryan Destiny, Garcelle Beauvais, Raven-Symoné and Meagan Good, the film spins around a lonely teenager from a dysfunctional home dealing with suicide and bullying while questioning her sexuality. Down the hall, actor Lamman Rucker and costar Nafessa Williams walked the carpet to shine in a thriller based on a bestselling novel by Carl Weber, The Man in 3B—a murder mystery that takes place after a handsome brother moves into a new building.
A Girl Like Grace
The Man in 3B
Saturday’s final day of screenings kicked off with a list of short films featuring known names like Tasha Smith and her directorial debut, Boxed In, about a man and his family dealing with bipolar disorder. Shorts directed by up and comers also featured—like Alfonso Johnson’s Tough, about the difficulties of a father-son relationship, and director Marquette Jones’s Forgiving Chris Brown, a dark comedy where women seek revenge on Chris Brown. Festival favorite Stanhope, directed by Solvan “Slick” Naim, received an honorable mention for its focus on the life of a middle-school-aged stickup kid in the ’hood.
Forgiving Chris Brown
Later Saturday evening, stars converged for the closing night of Urbanworld, where actors Omari Hardwick and Loretta Devine watched their Jamal Joseph-directed film Chapter & Verse, about a man adjusting to life after prison. Next door, dressed in a tuxedo and bow tie, R&B star/actor Tyrese premiered the short film he penned, Shame, starring Jennifer Hudson, produced by Denzel Washington and directed by Paul Hunter.
Around the corner from there, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson screened his documentary, Quest for Cuba: Questlove Brings the Funk to Havana, before presenting the Okayplayer film We Like It Like That—The Story of Latin Boogaloo, which went on to win this year’s Urbanworld award for Best Feature Documentary.
The night ended with a screening of the critically acclaimed Ben Bowman-directed Knucklehead (starring Alfre Woodard and Gbenga Akinnagbe), about an emotionally challenged man trying to cure himself. And in theater 13, all seats were filled for the highly anticipated Nelson George-directed documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale. The must-see film spotlights the professional life and personal struggles of triumphant Black ballerina, Misty Copeland.
Chapter & Verse
Quest for Cuba: Questlove Brings the Funk to Havana
We Like It Like That—The Story of Latin Boogaloo
A Ballerina’s Tale
Check the full list of Urbanworld Film Festival winners:
Best Screenplay – Y Los Hipsters Que?, Written by: Yohanna Baez
Winner – We Like It Like That—The Story of Latin Boogaloo, Directed by Mathew Ramirez Warren
Honorable Mention – Looking at the Stars by director Alexandre Peralta
Best Narrative Short – Winner – Standing8 by director Michael Molina Minard
Honorable Mention – Stanhope by director Solvan “Slick” Naim
Best Narrative Feature (U.S. Cinema) – Pocha by Michael Dwyer
Honorable Mention – A Girl Like Grace by director Ty Hodges
Best Narrative Feature (World Cinema) – Carmin Tropical by director Rigoberto Perezcano
Audience Award Winner Best Feature – Somewhere in the Middle by Lanre Olabisi
Audience Award Winner Best Short – Taking Chance by Jerry Lamothe