FESTIVALS: UrbanWorld on the Rise, 4th Edition Celebrates with "One Week," Spike Lee and High Aspirations
by Ron Mwangaguhunga
(indieWIRE/ 8.16.2000) -- Held over 5 days at the Cineplex Odeon WorldWide Plaza in New York from August 2-6, the 4th UrbanWorld Film Festival featured 61 films, including 13 features, 20 shorts, 10 documentaries, eight Latin and eight Asian films, ranging in length from five minutes to full length features.
"What's Cooking," which inaugurated Sundance 2000, opened the Festival here on Wednesday night. The film is about a collision between four families over the course of separate Thanksgiving dinners in Los Angeles. The director, Gurinder Chadra, a former Kenyan-born BBC reporter, has the keen sociological eye that one expects from her background, and the film reflects it.
Also screening on opening night was "Backstage: A Hard Knock Life." "Backstage" is hip hop star Jay-Z's documentary on his Hard Knock Tour. Last October, Magic Johnson's theater chain scrapped plans to distribute the film. At the time Damon Dash, co-founder of Rock-A-Fella Records, told the New York's Daily News that Johnson had "flaked," and "could not handle" distribution; that notwithstanding, the film was well received at UrbanWorld.
The vibe at UrbanWorld is strong with the aura of deal-making. Many actors and actresses pay $400 for the all-access pass so that they can make contacts. "Is that Spike Lee's sister?" a youngish actress-type asked me on Thursday. And indeed it was. The young actress bolted towards Joie Lee, who was already surrounded. The whole Urbanworld scene is charged: directors dreaming of distribution and actors dreaming of landing a choice role from one of the directors.
There were several worthy films in competition, including Charles Robert Cramer's "Who Killed Atlanta's Children." Compiled from court records and affidavits, Cramer put together this fine film from the perspective of SPIN Magazine reporter Pat Lawson (Jim Belushi) and his editor, Ron Larsen (Gregory Hines) as they delve into the underworld of Atlanta. The Atlanta child murders are of great concern to the urban community and this well-constructed film drew a warm response from the audience. Other notable films included "The Visit" with Marla Gibbs, Obba Babbatunde and urban icon Billy Dee Williams which won the Audience Awar,. Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop" which won an Honorable Mention, and Caran Hartsfield's "Kiss It Up To God," which tied for Best Short.
Stacey Spikes, Executive Director of UrbanWorld, came out and addressed the audience before "One Week," another festival favorite, was shown. Beaming, Spikes was on top of the world, and with good reason. A former marketing executive at October Films and Miramax, Spikes is in deals with Sony to turn UrbanWorld into an independent studio. As he told everyone within earshot: "A Mini-Miramax!" He drew the loudest applause of the evening and was especially grateful to the participating filmmakers. "I feel there is a lot more black content that should be shown at festivals," said Spikes. "But they are doing us a favor. If they were doing such a great job, Urbanworld wouldn't exist."
"One Week" is a wonderfully executed film by Carl Seaton, who won the festival's Grand Jury Prize; also, as luck would have it, Seaton, wearing a Knicks jersey to his screening, sat next to me. "One Week" was packed because it had just come off a win at the Acapulco Black Film Festival, which is considered prestigious in the urban community. It was this same kind of buzz that catapulted "The Best Man," last year's Jury Award winner, to number 1 at the box office.
"One Week" is about a man (Eric Lane) who may or may not have contracted the AIDS virus. Lane's character has a good job, a good woman (Saadiqa Muhammed), a good buddy (Kenny Young, who also helped write the story) -- he leads, for all intensive purposes, a charmed life. Lane plays his role with quiet intensity and strength, not unlike a noble Othello besieged. Lane's character learns the bad news one week before his wedding. The results of the test are to be known in . . . one week.
The mounting tension is occasionally broken up by some genuinely funny moments --moments so funny that, even tough he's probably seen them a hundred times before, the director laughed out loud. And so did I. After it was over I leaned over, shook Seaton's hand and told him he made a great film. "Thanks, man," the shy filmmaker said, shuffling off into his entourage.
More than a dozen films have been picked up for distribution in the four years since UrbanWorld's inception. But the festival was not completely about watching urban independent film. There were all sorts of panels, screenings, workshops and a lingerie fashion show by Kimora Lee Simmons, wife of 360HIPHOP.com founder Russell Simmons. Modeling outfits were everyone from Li'l Kim and Aaliya to Ms. Universe and Puff Daddy's mom.
The Festival closed with a sneak preview of the wildly anticipated Spike Lee documentary, "Original Kings of Comedy." Every type was there: Old school playas, Jheri curl wearing mac daddy's, soap opera actors, urban portal CEO types, clothing line designers, str8 up homeboys, hustlers, hip hop magazine editors: the audience looked like the dance floor on Soul Train. And therein lies the immense charm of the Urbanworld Film Festival: such a large segment of the urban experience is represented on screen and in the audience.
The playful Cedrick the Entertainer and the darkly hilarious Bernie Mac addressed the audience with some impromptu banter before the film started. And once it started, there was not a quiet moment in the house. Another thing about UrbanWorld: Don't go if you expect silence in the movie theater! In the urban experience, the audience will talk back to the screen. Embrace the noise. Be at one with the chatter. If you cannot do that, then perhaps you had better try Telluride or Nantucket.
[Ron Mwangaguhunga is Senior Editor at MacDirectory who has written for The Silicon Alley Reporter, Paper and The NY Press.]