Urbanworld Film Festival is returning to New York for its 27th year with its foundational goal still in mind: amplifying Black stories. With Karen McMullen stepping into the role of festival director, this year’s five-day showcase will continue to portray the many nuances of Black culture, spotlight industry veterans, and introduce new talents to the industry.
The film festival began in 1997, prompted by founder Stacey Spikes’ simple desire to amplify Black artistry. At the festival’s inception, there were only a small number of projects by people of color featured in more mainstream film festivals, let alone festivals geared toward creatives of color. With the creation of Urbanworld Film Festival, he sought to fill that void, highlighting new talent and diverse stories. It soon became a frontrunner in the push to create our own spaces. While Urbanworld continues to reach new heights, it has never strayed from its original purpose.
“Entertainment is ever evolving,” McMullen told theGrio. “[T]here’s always something that challenges us, so [it’s about] being able to pivot and be nimble [to] keep at the core of the mission, which is to tell great authentic stories by filmmakers of color.”
Since its incarnation, the film festival launched and sustained the careers of many industry titans, including Ava DuVernay, Nia DaCosta and Malcolm D. Lee. It also provides a platform for people to jumpstart other roles for themselves in the industry.
“I feel proud to be able to showcase people at the beginning of their careers, some taking a shift or doing … something a little different than usual,” McMullen said. “[They are] stepping into the director role to tell stories that they feel need to be told, and they all do a good job.”
This year, the festival promises to continue its illustrious legacy, starting with its opening night film, “American Fiction,” which McMullen hopes will launch Urbanworld’s 2023 Visionary Award recipient, Emmy-winning writer Cord Jefferson’s directorial career. She describes the film, which stars Jeffrey Wright, as both funny and clever, as it expertly challenges the publishing industry for profiting off of and promoting Black caricatures. The movie stood out to McMullen because of its insightful message and application to other industries.
The following days of the festival are filled with other exciting releases, including “Jamaal,” the directorial debut of Yvonne Orji, the documentary “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story,” and “Black Barbie: A Documentary.” Rapper and actor RZA, who is serving as this year’s festival ambassador, also will premiere his first feature film, “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.” From the comedies to the documentaries, McMullen believes that every project on this year’s slate will prove that Black people are not monolithic.
“I love it because … that’s us,” she said. “You can come see everything [or] you can come see just a few things, [but] you’re going to have a good time.”
Urbanworld Film Festival will take place from Wednesday, Nov. 1, to Sunday, Nov. 5, in New York City. Tickets are available now.
Kayla Grant is a multimedia journalist with bylines in Business Insider, Shondaland, Oz Magazine, Prism, Rolling Out and more. She writes about culture, books and entertainment news. Follow her on Twitter: @TheKaylaGrant.
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