African American Film Festival on Martha’s Vineyard “A Match Made in Heaven”
Photos by Caroline Price
“A bucket list is a list of the experiences or achievements that a person hopes to have or accomplish during their lifetime.”
There comes a time in everyone’s life when you reflect on the experiences you’ve had and create a bucket list composed of things and places you would still like to see, places you would still like to go, and goals you would still like to accomplish. Throughout my life, I have had an abundance of unique opportunities to do and see magnificent things, meet wonderful people, and make contributions to the community I love. As is the case for many, the pandemic prompted me to consider my own bucket list and try to complete as many items as possible to add to a lifetime of accomplishment.
This summer, I placed a checkmark on my bucket list by attending the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) after years of admiring stories and footage from the acclaimed event.
Floyd and Stephanie Rance, founders of the MVAAFF and Color of Conversations Film Series, presented the 21st annual film festival on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard from August 4-12. The long-awaited bucket list item was well worth the trip.
Martha’s Vineyard 101
Known for its natural beauty, the rolling hills and pristine beaches of The Vineyard are only accessible by boat, but that doesn’t stop the droves of visitors each year.
The island’s history dates back to 2270 BC when the indigenous Wamponoag people are documented to have inhabited the land they named “Noepe,” while living primarily under the breathtaking Aquinnah Cliffs. In 1602, European colonists pursued the island, ultimately battling for the territory in the King Phillips War of 1675-1676.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers maintained the industries of farming and fishing with the labor of enslaved West Africans. Subsequently, much of the island was transformed into a seaport to meet the demands of a growing whaling industry.
Over time, the island grew in popularity among tourists. In 1912, Charles Shearer, the son of an enslaved woman, turned one of the cottages in the town of Oak Bluffs into the first inn for Black vacationers. Since then, The Vineyard’s social and economic landscape has changed into one of the most popular travel destinations for prominent Black Americans. Maya Angelou is quoted describing Oak Bluffs as, “A safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Inkwell Beach is a well-known haven for Black beachgoers; its title references the island’s rich literary history along with the sun-kissed skin of its visitors.
A Dream, Realized
As a first-time visitor, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of riding the Peter Pan bus from the airport to the seaport, then riding a ferry to the island with my friends Caroline and Pattie. The experience was enlightening, educational and enjoyable.
Rideshare service was limited, but our wait was cut short by Lance, co-owner of Atlantic Taxi, and his brother Kevin, who rescued us from the ferry terminal and brought us to our accommodations.
Over the next nine days, we traveled with our own personal “taxi chauffeurs,” Ryan and O’Shane, throughout Oak Bluffs to the Circuit Avenue shopping district, art galleries, the very popular Linda Jean’s restaurant, a book festival in Chilmark, and of course the famous Inkwell Beach.
We took an island tour to see the elaborate landmark Gingerbread Houses and the Flying Horses Carousel built in 1876. We visited the stunning Aquinnah Cliffs and climbed to the top of the Gay Head Lighthouse in Vineyard Haven (Tisbury). We even visited the Edgartown location where the movie Jaws was filmed.
Each day, we traveled to the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, where MVAAFF took place.
With so much to see on the historic island, my friends and I soaked in the sun, the scenery, and the remarkable surroundings filled with film directors, producers, executives and MVAAFF attendees.
MVAAFF: The Vineyard Lounge
The Vineyard Lounge was a mainstay of the festival, with free events including “Clips and Conversations,” lively panel discussions about the film industry, and documentary screenings each day. The lounge also featured daily brunch gatherings and receptions, meet and greets, and art displays.
New Orleans & Company, a Nola-based marketing firm, partnered with MVAAFF to promote and encourage tourism to the Crescent City. They extended delightful southern hospitality, providing live jazz, pralines, and an opportunity to win a trip to New Orleans. “New Orleans on the Vineyard at MVAAFF” was one of the highlights of the festival, combining the unique cultures of New Orleans and New England in a dream-like setting.
I enjoyed hearing differing perspectives about each new film during the “Clips & Conversations” sessions. One of the most moving sessions featured Listen to Me, a documentary that weaves the stories of four women on the frontlines of maternal health, walking the tightrope of racism and birth in America. The session, hosted by Robert F. Smith’s Fund II Foundation Black Maternal Health Equity project, centered the voices, joy, healing and spirit of Black women.
Another great session was “Legacy of Black Farmers.” Presented by the Black Farmer Fund, the panel discussion centered on the legacy of Blacks in agriculture, the impact of storytelling, and ideas about how we can build the health and wealth of our community together.
Land ownership and agriculture were popular themes of this year’s festival, with additional events centered around the documentary Gaining Ground, and a discussion about Eliminating Inequities in Land Ownership hosted by John Deere and Al Roker Entertainment.
MVAAFF: Short Films, Feature Films, Documentaries
The films presented at this year’s festival were diverse and multi-dimensional. Viewing all of them would have been impressive, but despite our ambitions we had to pick and choose based on the time of each event and our ability to fit it all in.
The list of films included the following (plus many more): The Space Race (African Americans at NASA), Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, A Real One (friendship, short film finalist), Regret to Inform You (aging, short-film finalist), Sound of the Police (African Americans and the Police), Pretty Boy (homeless Black teen), Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World (featuring Chuck D), We Were Meant To Be (rites of passage), 1992 (crime thriller starring Tyrese), The Wallace Prince (abandonment); Speak Up Brotha! (relationship) and Young Love (an animated series of the Young family).
Highly anticipated projects were premiered, including Back on the Strip, an upcoming theatrical release featuring Wesley Snipes and Tiffany Haddish, and Time of Essence (Episode 1). There was also a “Clips and Conversation” session featuring The Color Purple.
Despite not having time to attend every screening, we were fortunate to view all of the documentaries nominated for Best Documentary awards. After seeing them, I understand why! They were all very well-deserved projects.
Each screening was followed by a talk-back session with the directors, actors, and sometimes a moderator who asked insightful questions about the project’s creation and impact. Audiences were also given the opportunity to ask questions about each project during a time set aside for Q&A.
The following are descriptions of several featured films, with quotes and comments from each post-screening conversation:
Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land
• Executive Producer/Moder-ator, Television Personality Al Roker
This documentary shines a spotlight on the legacy of Black farming in America, the devastating impact of heirs’ property, and how landowners are reclaiming their agriculture rights and their paths to generational wealth.
“There are these notions that these issues are just too tough to tackle, and the forces that are lined up are too powerful. I see it as a demonstration project, that if in this one area, we can affect change, maybe that will change the notions about a host of other issues that also have been perceived as hopeless.”
- Thomas Mitchell, Boston College
“L.E.A.P., as mentioned in this film, is an acronym for Legislation, Education, Advocacy, and Production Systems...Its mission is to improve the livelihood of Black families, landowners, and farmers. Our mission is to help families clear title to their land, and we want to help them close the economic gap, increase the generational wealth that lies within the land, and to help them with the legacy that is tied to the land.”
- Marilyn Fox, John Deere
Black Barbie: A Documentary
• Director/Producer Lagueria Davis, Producer Aaliyah Williams
Through intimate access to a charismatic Mattel insider, Beulah Mae Mitchell, Black Barbie delves into the cross-section of merchandise and representation as Black women strive to elevate their own voices and stories, refusing to be invisible.
“I think it’s important to tell the story of the legacy of all these incredible Black women who are the reason why we have such an inclusive amount and all the different kinds of Barbie dolls that you have now to choose from.”
- Aaliyah Williams
“I have to credit the parents, because the parents are really affirming these children in who they are, what they come from, and the best aspects of what Black culture is.”
- Aaliyah Williams
• Director George C. Wolfe
Bayard Rustin was the architect of the 1963 march on Washington. He challenged authority and never apologized for who he was, but was forgotten despite making history. Rustin spotlights the man who, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., dared to imagine a different world and inspired a movement.
“My definition of the ultimate American is somebody who is of service. Someone who has expansive curiosity, because we live in a country of all different kinds of people; so, if you are actually curious about somebody, you will lean in and want to know them as opposed to allowing your fear to dictate your response to them.”
- George C. Wolfe
“Why was it important to show all of Byron Rustin? Well, because... I think all art is there to empower...We have monuments, and they’re very important. We go to them, and we look at them in awe. And then we have art, and art is not a monument. Art, I like to think, is wonderful to see. People dealing and struggling with the awkward, foolish, magnificent, wonderful thing that it means to be a human being. Which means you succeed, you fail, you say stupid stuff, you’ve got to backtrack, figure out how to get somebody to forgive you. All those things are how we grow and become a better version of ourselves. And you see that in the film. That’s why we go to the theater.”
- George C. Wolfe
King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones
• Director Harriet Marin Jones
Unable to escape discrimination, and in conflict with the mob and feds, Edward Jones rose to financial heights and political prominence in depression-era Chicago and is forced into a life on the run. The filmmaker uncovers an unparalleled story with repercussions for both her family and Chicago’s south-side.
“Thank you for reminding us that we must tell our story, otherwise it will not be told.”
- Constance Eve
“The money was really reinvested in the community. I mean, there were no saints, they made a lot of money. But they really created lots of jobs, lots of businesses...We couldn’t get any money at the time from banks, et cetera, it was way too racist, so they could go to Policy Kings — my grandfather and others — and they could get money to start their own business for school and things like that.”
- Harriet Marin Jones
Move when the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton
• Directors Ry Ferro, Deborah C. Hoard
Dorothy Cotton, the only woman on Dr. King Jr.’s executive staff, was a bold, courageous, highly effective civil rights leader who educated thousands about citizenship rights and inspired generations with powerful songs.
“The Dorothy Cotton Institute really wanted to have this film not only be about Dorothy, but one of the things that Dorothy did very consistently when she spoke in public, was she would name the names of other Sisters of Change... She would have a long list of women who she knew were the backbone of the movement... Black women are incredible, we’ve been holding up a lot of things here, and she just felt that it was so important never to just make her an icon, but to know that there are many other Sisters of Change who did incredible work.”
- Deborah C. Hoard
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project
• Director Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
With Giovanni’s guidance, the film reimagines her most iconic work with visual lyricism. She urges us to dream of a better future where equity and justice reign.
“There’s this line in Ego Tripping, ‘I will not be comprehended except by my permission.’ For me, that’s sort of this north star in terms of dealing with people, dealing with systemic injustice, dealing with the everyday on one’s own terms — and being comfortable with that, and that being enough, and being able to dig through that. That can feed the creative spirit.”
- Michèle Stephenson
“She puts the symbolism out there. She puts the text out there for us to take it, to relate to it, to grab what we can, get stronger by what we hear and what we see, and interpret in our own individual ways.”
- Michèle Stephenson
• Director Byron Hunt
Hurt lifts the veil on a variety of underground hazing rituals that are abusive, and sometimes deadly. His introspective journey to understand hazing culture through his own fraternity pledge experience reveals a world of toxic masculinity, violence, humiliation, binge drinking, denial, and institutional cover-ups.
“I think that there’s a lot of work still remains to be done to really change the culture. I really think that it’s going to take a lot of courage and a lot of leadership, and I think it’s going to require a lot more training and education...I hope that this film creates space for leaders who are opposed to hazing culture to stand up and confront it. The amount of people who have been affected is unknown honestly, but I think it was really important to include some of the stories that included some of the psychological and emotional damage in addition to the physical harm and the deaths because that’s probably the majority of people. Most people do survive the process, but how many people are still impacted by what they went through?”
- Byron Hurt
Martha’s Vineyard: Community
In the process of checking this item off my bucket list, I got to attend a festival that was both inspiring and educational. One of the highlights of MVAAFF was the sense of kinship and connectivity that coursed through the affair. There were opening and closing night parties, a white party, and plenty of networking opportunities hosted by partner organizations.
I remember watching the gentle ocean waves and devouring a fresh lobster roll when another attendee proudly showed off his autographed book from the R&B singer, Kem, who had just performed at the historic Trinity Park Tabernacle venue. During a trip to the Barn Bowl, we snapped a photo in front of a displayed photograph of Martha’s Vineyard resident, Barack Obama, bowling.
We connected with people from across the country and made friends with artist and actor Jaleeca Yancy and filmmaker Philip Musey who were our housemates at the Masonic House during our stay on Martha’s Vineyard, along with Jeanne and Carly. We extended our friendship circle further when Jaleeca and Philip invited producer Salma Qarnain, Rahsan King, and actor Roderick Lawrence – who plays Ike Turner in The Tina Turner Musical – to the house for a small gathering. The trip was rich with opportunities to expand and diversify our social networks.
We even connected with a few Denverites, including the Vineyard Lounge guest artist Thomas Lockhart III, and Dwayne Glapion. Being on such a small island and meeting people from all over made me feel appreciative of the connectedness of Black people.
As we traveled back from The Vineyard on the ferry, I reflected on the last ten days spent strolling through the community with shopping bags in hand, admiring the colorful landscape. It reminded me of visiting my grandmother in Mississippi as a little girl – people sat on their porches talking, eating, reading, playing cards, and passing time as they greeted and waved to the passer-byes.
The last night of our trip was spent in Falmouth, Massachusetts at a quaint hotel called The Red Horse. The owner, Cindy, was funny, kind, and very accommodating. It was the perfect send-off to finish off an idyllic stay.
Martha’s Vineyard is everything everyone said it would be – beautiful, alluring and yes, expensive! I checked it off my bucket list, but I look forward to checking it off again next year.
Editor’s Note: The 22nd Annual MVAAFF will be held August 2-10, 2024. For more information, visit www.MVAAFF.com.