Black Florida Filmmakers Create Festivals To Serve Untapped Talent

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
Black Filmmakers
Breion Moses, the creator of The ReelBack Film Summit, preps before the inaugural summit, held Oct. 2 during homecoming at Florida A&M University (FAMU). Photo By Isheka N. Harrison

There were so many film festivals in October, it should’ve been dubbed “Film Fest Frenzy Month.” Florida is no exception – and, as with most spaces Black people have created their own platforms to authentically tell their stories.

From Tallahassee to Miami, Black creatives have founded film festivals that cater to audiences often overlooked by mainstream events. Whether showcasing films that may not otherwise be seen or equipping the next generation of Avas and Spikes, Breion Moses, Marco Mall and Elijah Wells are being the change they want to see.

Moses’ ReelBack Film Summit, Mall’s Urban Film Festival and Wells’ iGen Film Festival each provide much needed access to the film festival circuit. Like Tyler Perry, they believe they can build something so phenomenal in their own state that eventually Hollywood will come knocking at their doors.

The ReelBack Film Summit

FAMU alum Chris Gees introduces his new product while telling his story of how he became a celebrity stylist at the ReelBack Film Summit. Photo Courtesy of ReelBack Film Summit.

On Oct. 2, Moses held the inaugural ReelBack Film Summit at her alma mater, Florida A&M University’s (FAMU) Homecoming. It is the first and only festival to focus solely on HBCU students and graduates. Presented by Seven Hillz Productions Foundation, the summit featured a variety of panels, film screenings and networking opportunities for students to engage with successful FAMU alumni working in various areas of entertainment and media.

Moses said she was given the vision by God to create the festival. In addition to the educational and exposure components, ReelBack also gives scholarships to students pursuing careers in the industry.

“The purpose of creating ReelBack was to showcase bodies of work by HBCU graduates, have them come home to their respective alma maters, or any HBCU for that matter, and encourage and equip those interested in the field with the knowledge and skills they need to break into the industry,” Moses told Moguldom in an exclusive interview.

Jazmin Johnson is a junior business administration major at FAMU who attended the summit. An actress, screenwriter and producer, Johnson was also the first ReelBack scholarship recipient.

Left to Right: FAMU alum Benjamin Carlton, FAMU student and inaugural ReelBack scholarship winner Jazmine Johnson and FAMU alum and ReelBack Summit creator Breion Moses during the scholarship check presentation. Photo Courtesy of ReelBack Film Summit.

“The summit coming to FAMU in itself was amazing because we don’t have a film major, so having somebody that’s willing to come back like Seven Hillz Productions, and bring a scholarship as well, is really motivating,” Johnson said.

She reiterated what a big deal the summit was and said she plans to use the money to help pay for talent salaries and production costs for her upcoming film.

“Just to see Rattlers coming back and providing that opportunity to me and my fellow classmates was greatly appreciated and well needed because there are so many creatives on our campus interested in the industry that didn’t see a direct pipeline until now,” Johnson said.

Due to what she sees as an immense need, Moses plans to grow the festival and travel the HBCU circuit with it.

“The thing that sets us apart is our commitment to HBCUs. There are a lot of student organizations on HBCU campuses interested in film and entertainment, but they have limited resources and no idea where to start. That’s where we come in,” Moses said. “To provide a platform for HBCU students to showcase their talent is beyond fulfilling. It’s always fun to just be on a college campus and help mentor and network with students.”

The Urban Film Festival

A member of 1st Take Youth Film Program interviews panelists at the Urban Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Urban Film Festival.

Four years ago, after none of their films made the cut to enter a specific film festival, Marco Mall and his team at Florida Film House (FFH) saw an opportunity to fill gaps for other Black creatives experiencing the same fate. It’s how the Urban Film Festival (UFF) was born.

“I go to a lot of the festivals and markets and I realized many festivals don’t really concentrate on giving the filmmakers what they need, but it’s more about monetizing off their passion and their art,” Mall told Moguldom.

According to its website, the Urban Film Festival is “dedicated to educating, exposing and providing distribution opportunities for the new generation of filmmakers,” while celebrating “culturally driven content.”

Citing the typically expensive costs for entering and screening content as well as limited access to educational, exposure and distribution opportunities, Mall said the challenge at mainstream festivals is magnified for urban filmmakers.

Marco Mall, right, and Florida Film House (FFH) partner Blademil Grullon started the Urban Film Festival after seeing the need for it. Photo Courtesy of Marco Mall.

“Urban films are different than adult contemporary Black films, religious Black films or Black films that cater to a certain kind of audience,” Mall said. “For this new-age, young demographic with a lot of short form content that might include a little bit of hip-hop, some curse words, people smoking weed and guns blazing, there are not a lot of places those filmmakers can go to and develop their art. Not to say this is the only type of content urban filmmakers make, but it is a part of the culture and I felt like a film festival was needed for that demographic.”

According to Mall, when they launched UFF on Withoutabox in the summer of 2015, it ranked seventh overall for the most submissions, underscoring the demand for what they were bringing to the table.

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This year’s festival took place Oct. 11-13 in Miami’s Historic Overtown community at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater, the Dorsey Memorial Library and the Overtown Performing Arts Center (OPAC). It opened with two movie screenings, “I Got The Hook Up 2” and “Liberty City.”

The inclusion of films by both national and local filmmakers is intentional They also incorporate films from their FFH 1st Take Youth Film Program, which provides students ages 13-18 with hands-on training to become filmmakers.

Mall said they plan to grow the festival beyond Miami to other parts of the South Florida region and abroad. This year’s ambassadors included: Master P. and his son Romeo Miller; actor, writer and director Alan Maldonado; and actor and activist Jimmy Jean-Louis.

Miller said UFF is “the best film festival there is,” adding it is his favorite time of year aside from Christmas. Mall said it’s because Miller and his father understand the vision.

“It’s kind of like that real recognize real thing. They’ve been everywhere. They see it. They know what I’m talking about. They’ve realized we’re passionate and we’re true to what we say so they have confidence in saying that,” Mall said.

The iGen Film Festival

Youth attendees were all smiles at the iGen Film Festival this year. Photo Courtesy of iGen Film Festival.

Elijah Wells truly believes the children are our future. The 22-year-old picked up his first camera when he was only nine-years-old and officially entered filmmaking at 11. Now boasting a filmography that outnumbers his years, Wells created the iGen Film Festival to help other youth and young adults realize their dreams.

“The reason I founded iGen is to provide a platform and give young people a voice so they could feel like they’re being heard,” Wells said. “I wanted to provide them with an environment where they could be comfortable and safe and know that they matter. If I can do anything to plant my seed of knowledge with a collective of young people and bring in other filmmakers to do the same, that’s what’s most important.”

Having worked with industry icons like Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, Omari Hardwick, Master P., Romeo Miller, Jeff Friday and others from the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), Wells knows it takes a village to succeed.

Elijah Wells, center, created the iGen Film Festival to give back. He is pictured here with film director Antwan Smith, left, and City of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, right. Photo Courtesy of iGen Film Festival.

He credits his mother ‘momager’ Martha Whisby Wells, and the rest of his family; his mentors Steven Drayton Sr. and Jalen Acosta; his community at home and other supporters with helping him rise.

“It’s been very humbling and I’ve been blessed to have people support me from my family and my community. To have people in Overtown or Liberty City or in different cities and countries tell me ‘You got this’ and ‘We’re going to help you no matter what’ is so encouraging,” Wells said.  

The fourth annual iGen (formerly the Elijah Wells Youth Indie Film Festival) took place Oct. 18-20 and was also held in Miami’s Historic Overtown community at the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater.

According to its website, iGen celebrates the talent of emerging filmmakers ages 16-25 and provides them with a platform that has international reach. Students as young as 12 also attend the festival.

This year’s festival included a mix of short film, short web and documentary screenings; workshops, panels and an awards banquet to honor filmmakers, ambassadors, alumni, etc. Actress, multimedia journalist and model Jasmine Avery served as this year’s main ambassador.

A gifted writer, actress and producer, Trinity Sage, 13, is one of the young filmmakers who attended iGen. She is also working with Wells on her upcoming short film “First Day of Middle School.” Managed by her mother Katrina Ductant, Sage spoke highly of Wells and the importance of iGen.

Actress and filmmaker Trinity Sage, right, with her mother Katrina Ductant on the blue carpet at the debut of the film Push Out at the iGen Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Trinity Sage Management.

“I loved the classes and getting to meet so many people. It’s really cool to see other kids who are involved in the industry and get to hear about their accomplishments. I wish I could take additional workshops, but I’m not always able to because of my weekend acting schedule,” Sage said.

Ductant echoed her daughter’s sentiments.

“She works a lot with Elijah and she’s learning a ton from him. She loves working with him because he’s such a kid person. Her time spent with Elijah has been very valuable and doing this film has been an amazing opportunity,” Ductant said. “What I love personally about iGen is that it exposes the youth in so many ways and has definitely opened doors for them. I think this is extremely important considering all the things our youth are facing today.”

Trinity Sage stand next to a banner for her upcoming film “First Day of Middle School” at the iGen Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Trinity Sage Management.

The Big Picture

While Moses, Mall and Wells all acknowledged their predecessors and peers who champion diversity and equitable inclusion of Black people in film, they say their festivals fill a niche where pervasive gaps still exist.

The ultimate goal: To rise together.

“In an industry that isn’t predominately run by my people and we’re not necessarily welcome into certain spaces right off the bat, having people in your corner that can really help you out can really bless your career,” Wells said.

“It’s important to focus on audiences like HBCUs, where the African Diaspora is heavily represented. Though other festivals do focus on Black people, I’ve never seen it done specifically with HBCUs, hence ReelBack,” Moses said. “These summits and these festivals give us opportunities to connect with people we might not have been able to meet under other circumstances, so I know they are all important. I believe we should all seize the moment.”

“Collectively we’re really trying to bring it all home and make it bigger and better every year. We bring people in that are really about giving back to the up and coming filmmakers to really help grow and nurture them because at the end of the day, we’re all gonna move the needle together,” Mall said.