African American Film Festival enters 14th year

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in "Southside with You."

The annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival arrives at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center on Monday, August 8. The festival, founded by North Carolinians Floyd and Stephanie Rance in 2002, will screen five major films and a new HBO series through Saturday, August 13, along with daily screenings of shorts.

This year the festival begins with “Citizen,” a postmodern dance performance by Reggie Wilson on Monday, August 8. Mr. Wilson is artistic director of the Brooklyn-based dance company Fist and Heel. The documentary “Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows” launches the film presentations on Tuesday, August 9. Directed by Rob Hatch-Miller, it highlights the life of a singer and record producer best known for his blues and soul music, but who also included funk and hip-hop in his repertoire. Johnson’s breakout hit “Come On Sock It to Me” came out in 1967, and “Is It Because I’m Black” rose to No. 11 on the R&B Billboard charts in 1969. Another of his songs, “Different Strokes,” has been sampled by rap groups such as Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy.

A special prerelease screening of “Southside with You” will also play on August 9. The film fictionalizes the first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and then lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), which took place in 1989 Chicago. Written and directed by Richard Tanne, it premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and will play at Edgartown’s Entertainment Cinemas.

Wednesday, August 10, brings to the screen “Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ,” directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah. The Black Entertainment Television (BET) biography includes interviews with daughter Laila Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and LL Cool J.

“Babes Behind Bars” follows on Thursday, August 11. In this documentary, producer and journalist Soledad O’Brien examines the program at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash., that allows women to keep their babies for up to two years. Playing during the Brazil Olympics on Saturday, August 13, the documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” explores how 18 African American athletes succeeded in competing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Despite the prejudice they confronted, the athletes won 10 medals. Director Deborah Riley Draper directed the film. Friday, August 12, brings the HBO series “Insecure,” which will premiere this fall. It follows the friendship of two contemporary black women and the experiences they face as women of color.

A highlight of the festival comes on Saturday, August 13, when filmmaker and Vineyard summer visitor Spike Lee will join actors Nate Parker (“The Great Debaters”) and Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away With Murder”) for “The Color of Conversation.” Their discussion will address “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by Mr. Parker, about Nat Turner and the 1831 slave uprising. Mr. Parker’s first film, it won the 2016 Sundance Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize.


For a schedule of the short films also playing, and information on the featured films, go to


This article by Brooks Robards originally appeared on