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Why a small film fest in Martha’s Vineyard became Black Hollywood’s hot spot

The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival sits enviably at the confluence of Black culture, industry sea change and everyone’s dream vacation. Just ask the Obamas.

From left, actress Yara Shahidi moderates a panel with directors Mariama Diallo and Nikyatu Jusu at the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 7. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for MVAAFF)

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. — It felt like a movie. In one scene, there’s Oscar winner Viola Davis bringing the sun at a VIP cocktail hour overlooking the Vineyard Haven Marina. In another, there’s actress Regina Hall breezing through the crowd at the annual white party in Oak Bluffs. Or Don Cheadle having dinner in a quiet corner at a local fave off Circuit Avenue. Or Spike Lee playing through Farm Neck Golf Club two days after former president Barack Obama was there with NBA legend Ray Allen.

Or maybe it was just the middle of August on Martha’s Vineyard, the tiny island in the Atlantic that for the past two decades has played host to “the summer’s finest film festival” celebrating Black stories.

Never heard of it? Well, here’s who has: Tyler Perry, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Jordan Peele, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jennifer Hudson, Kasi Lemmons, Larry Wilmore, Al Sharpton, Eric Holder — you get the picture. Steadily growing in size and prestige since incubating 20 years ago in the Brooklyn apartment of co-founders Stephanie and Floyd Rance, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival sits enviably at the confluence of Black culture, industry sea change and everyone’s dream vacation. Just ask the Obamas.

“Surprise!” said Michelle Obama at the festival’s opening night screening of “Descendant,” the Netflix documentary produced by the Obamas’ company, Higher Ground, about the legacy of the last known slave ship to arrive in America. As the oh my gods and we love yous from the shocked audience died down but the cellphones stayed up, the moment came into sharp focus. With the backdrop of summer on the Vineyard — a traditional escape for well-to-do Black folks from Washington to New York for more than a century — Barack and Michelle Obama, the former first couple turned filmmakers, were bound to show up looking tan and relaxed and powerful still.

“One of the powers of this festival, and the work that the Rances have done, is to lift up stories that too often have been lost in the flow of time,” said Barack Obama, who schooled the crowd on how stories weave the past, present and future together, specifically for African Americans. The former president then underscored another reason he was there — just one day after his 61st birthday, no less: “I’m looking out at this audience, and we got a bunch of movers and shakers and influentials.”

Ask regulars, newbies and the folks in between what makes Martha’s Vineyard in August such a “special place,” as the former first lady called it, and the answer can be found somewhere in her husband’s words. It’s about history, being seen — and the stars who come out to the film fest don’t hurt.

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Held during the first and second weeks of August, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival celebrates short films illuminating Black lives. Hollywood has taken notice. In addition to the packed schedule of independent films, big studios now show up to promote their projects to an audience of “influentials” dressed in their best lightweight fabrics.

It started with two 20-year-olds from Brooklyn who would head to the Vineyard to ride bikes, jump in the water and eat fried food. In 2001, the couple — filmmaker Floyd Rance, and Stephanie Rance, who was in marketing — were planning a one-off film festival in Barbados while Floyd was there shooting a movie. Then 9/11 happened, and international travel was a non-starter. With a stack of VHS tapes ready to be screened but nowhere to see them, they thought, “Why not do the Vineyard?” The inaugural MVAAFF had “no promotion, no marketing, no nothing,” Floyd said. “Just some heart and some grit” and about half a dozen people in a conference room.

“This wasn’t on either of our vision boards,” Stephanie said. HBO came on as an early partner, paving the way for other heavy hitters such as Netflix, ESPN, Meta and JBL. In 2018, the festival received accreditation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a qualifying festival for the short film category at the Oscars, further solidifying its status.

The duo used to spend months leading up to the summer cold-calling sponsors; now, their phones are the ones ringing. But don’t call it the Black Sundance. “Sponsor fest” it is not, Floyd said, alluding to past criticism that independent film festivals have gone too corporate in recent years. The Rances want to stay true to their event’s roots as a film festival for filmmakers — a place that can support another Ava DuVernay, who was there before she became BFFs with Oprah Winfrey.

“People can come and rub elbows and make an impression on folks,” Floyd said.

The Rances described the Vineyard as the Hamptons without the pretense. A little island with no paparazzi, where stars can let their hair down, where you might spot an A-lister in a ripped T-shirt grabbing an ice cream from Mad Martha’s. “It’s a magical place,” Stephanie said.

“Once you get there, it’s like, ‘Oh, my god. I get it.’ It’s an exhale.”

It’s also where “see and be seen” means something more. People are here to be seen — there’s no doubt about that — but the seeing is different. It’s an overdue acknowledgment, the privilege of validation.

Take the boarding line for the hour-long flight from LGA to MVY: Half the plane is going to the festival, and that half recognizes Russell Simmons immediately. But the woman who claims that the guy who co-founded Def Jam was sitting in her front-row seat does not, even after Simmons poses for a photo with a fan.

Now consider the line outside of Donovan’s Reef at Nancy’s Restaurant on a Friday evening just before sunset. Veteran actress Vanessa Bell Calloway (most recently seen on “This Is Us”) tells a husband to get his wife a holdover drink as she waits for a specialty cocktail from Donovan, the summer’s preferred bartender. “Happy wife, happy life,” she says. That’s when another young man shouts “Someday at Christmas.” “Oh, that was a good one,” she tells him of the TV movie she directed last year. “I wrote it,” he says, and now the two are having a moment. That’s the Vineyard. Not networking in the strictest sense. Just existing. Seeing each other.

And when “the August people” come for the film fest celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, there is plenty to see.

“This thing is just getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re going to outgrow this space,” laments an Uber driver with pride as he meanders down one of the two-way streets sans traffic lights that crisscross the island, heading from the 800-seat performing arts center next to the high school to a private dinner for former attorney general Eric Holder and Radio One founder Cathy Hughes.

But with all the elbows being rubbed, rubbing one another the wrong way was also inevitable. The festival is about uplifting Black stories, and Stephanie Rance got some flack when it was announced that the embattled Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the Golden Globes, would be there for a panel on its diversity efforts. “I told them this would be a tough crowd,” Rance said as the conversation between Hollywood power publicist Cassandra Butcher and new HFPA President Helen Hoehne pulled no punches.

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“We need you guys, but you guys need us, too,” said Butcher, who called the association to task for its lack of Black members and inappropriate behavior during its infamous pre-awards show news conferences.

“I cannot change the past. I can only change the present and future,” said Hoehne, who added that she didn’t want to “sugarcoat” the issue, pointing to the association’s new strict code of conduct, sensitivity training, and diversity, equity and inclusion executive. “What happened in the past was wrong. I want to acknowledge that, because it’s painful. I hear your pain. We are cleaning up.”

K.J. Matthews, a Black entertainment journalist who joined the organization post-controversy in October, was clear: “As long as I’m a member there, I promise you that type of behavior won’t happen.”

The exchange underscored another valuable thing about the film festival, beyond the glitz and the glamour: the opportunity to see people onstage who looked just like the people in the audience. The Hollywood power players from Netflix, Paramount, Amazon and executives of the academy traveled 3,000 miles away from the industry’s central nervous system to make their presence felt — to let others know that they’ve got eyes and ears in the rooms where things happen.

“We need us everywhere,” said Shawn Finnie, executive vice president of member relations and awards at the Academy. Finnie, along with his colleague Jeanell English, executive vice president of impact and inclusion, spoke at the closing brunch to a restaurant filled with power players and first-time filmmakers alike.

The pair, Black executives at the 95-year-old organization that administers the Oscars, knew a little something about the difference between perfection and progress. “It’s hard work,” Finnie said to a room of storytellers sipping mimosas on an island. Another movie. Another scene. But before the closing credits, Finnie wanted every filmmaker at the restaurant to stand up and be acknowledged.

“Before the awards, you are enough. Without the awards, you are enough,” Finnie said. “Your story matters if only you see it.”

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