It’s time to celebrate once again with the justly renowned Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF), now in its 21st year of showing essential works of independent and established African American filmmakers of color. And quite a celebration it will be, with screenings daily from 11 am into the evening, August 4 through 12, at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center.
Eager viewers come from far and wide to this much-anticipated Oscar-qualifying festival in the Short Film Category. Last year, former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama opened the event with a salute to the MVAAFF and a presentation of their poignant documentary, “Descendant.” And it ended with clips and a conversation with incomparable powerhouse Viola Davis, regarding her film “The Woman King.”
Over two decades ago, seasonal residents and MVAAFF founders Stephanie Rance, with expertise in public relations, and cinematographer and director Floyd Rance merged their synergies and pro-created the festival, nurturing it from its infancy to its current nine-day event that celebrates Black excellence in film. It’s grown tremendously, as Stephanie says: “This year, we had about 850 submissions and narrowed it down to about 60 independent films, and then the sponsored content with studios and streaming partners.”
Just a few of the highlights include Netflix’s “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop,” screening on opening day, August 4, at 8 pm. The stirring documentary recontextualizes the history of the music that changed the world within the broader social, racial, and political landscape of the times and, crucially, through a female lens. The four-part series focuses on women’s role in the genre’s 50 years by reinserting them into the canon where they belong. M.C. Lyte, considered a pioneer of female rap, will be on hand to, as Stephanie explains, “get the crowd warmed up, and in a panel discussion afterward.”
On August 6 at 3:30 pm is one of the many independent films, “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” which, through intimate access to a charismatic Mattel insider, Beulah Mae Mitchell, delves into the cross-section of merchandise and representation as Black women strive to elevate their voices and stories, refusing to be invisible. Stephanie says, “We’re really proud to be able to support the work of independent filmmakers, to give them a voice and make connections.”
On August 7 at 5:30 pm, Netflix presents “Rustin,” produced by Higher Ground Productions, founded by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. There will be clips and conversation with George C. Wolfe, who also directed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Bayard Rustin was a strategist and activist promoting nonviolent strategies for social change for over half a century. He’s best known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the platform for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin’s work was sometimes hampered by his membership in the Young Communist League; a three-year prison term for refusal to cooperate with the military on conscientious grounds; and his open homosexuality, including an arrest for lewd vagrancy. Rustin challenged authority, and never apologized for who he was, and yet was forgotten, despite making history.
ABC News Studios’ “Sound of the Police,” on August 5 at 8 pm, examines the fraught relationship between African Americans and the police, often rife with fear, suspicion, and hostility on all sides. August 8 at 8 pm, Lionsgate brings “1992,” a tense crime thriller about a determined father trying to save his son from criminals who attempt a risky heist during the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. On August 10 at 3 pm is Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl,” in which Nella, an editorial assistant, is tired of being the only Black girl at her company, so she’s excited when Hazel is hired. But as Hazel’s star begins to rise, Nella spirals out, and discovers something sinister is going on at the company.
Another touchstone in the festival’s celebration of the half-century anniversary of hip-hop is
ESPN Films and E 30 for 30’s August 11 presentation of “The Crossover: 50 Years of Hip Hop and Sports,” at 5:30 pm. This film looks at two pillars of Black culture that empowered a community to be heard and celebrated against the backdrop of cultural oppression and political persecution, using nostalgic archives, historic moments, and original interviews.
On Saturday, August 12, at 5:30, MAX Original presents “Young Love,” an animated series created by Matthew Cherry that is an honest look into the world of the Young family of millennial parents, their daughter, and her pet cat as they juggle careers, marriage, parenthood, social issues, and multigenerational dynamics, all while striving to make a better life for themselves. For the festival’s finale at 9 pm, Warner Bros. Discovery presents clips and a conversation with director Blitz Bazawule of “The Color Purple,” produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. It is a bold new musical take on the beloved classic adapted from Alice Walker’s novel about the lifelong struggles of an African American woman living in the South during the early 1900s.
While the festival pulls in big names and many visitors, the Rances share how grateful they are for the ongoing support of the community. And given its track record, Floyd says of MVAAFF this year, “It’s sure to be high-vibrational energy, and the summer’s finest film festival.”
The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival will run from August 4 through 12 at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, 100 Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs. Registration opens daily at 10 am. For the complete list of films, events, and tickets, see mvaaff.com/2023-festival-itinerary.