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Voices From ABFF

Posted By Shirley Williams, Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Updated: Monday, July 9, 2018

The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) is America’s largest annual gathering of African-American film, web and TV enthusiasts. Held in Miami, Florida this year, the festival took place at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel and drew nearly 12,000 attendees. The home of Marvel’s Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, ABFF is sponsored by its long-time partner HBO. At this year’s festival, Sony Pictures premiered Superfly along with screenings of Universal Picture’s The Purge and TNT’s Claws. BET premiered The Bobby Brown Story about the life of the R&B star along with a screening of the film of his late ex-wife Whitney Houston, Whitney.

Ryan Coogler headlined the “ABFF Talk Series” where he discussed his journey to success, from his start at ABFF in 2011 where he made his directorial debut with Fig to his Hollywood hit Black Panther. In 2011 Coogler was rewarded $20,000 through HBO’s Short Film Competition; this year, HBO awarded $10,000 to director Alfonso Johnson for his short Moths and Butterflies.

Panel highlights included “Write Or Die” featuring panelists Cheo Hodari Coker (Marvel's Luke Cage), Karin Gist (STAR) and Kriss Turner Towner (Greenleaf) who shared tips on getting scripts greenlit, and discussed diversity in the writers room. Programming also included Master Classes where festival-goers got a chance to learn from power players like Karin Gist (STAR) EP, (Grey's Anatomy) on how to become a showrunner and Taj Paxton (Head of Logo Documentary Films) & Darrien Gipson (National Director of SAGindie) on how to get feature films financed.

Cadillac offered Ride With Cadillac, a complimentary shuttle service offering rides to all ABFF festivities as well as a VR lounge where you could build the first-ever XT4 Sport crossover. American Airlines hosted a lounge where attendees could check out the ABFF history and meet the official 2018 Filmmakers.

Pharrell Williams with Mimi Valdes

I got a chance to catch up PGA’s own Mimi Valdes, the Hollywood producer responsible for films like Netflix’s Dope and Roxanne Roxanne as well as the hit motion picture Hidden Figures to discuss how she as a woman of color makes sure her work spaces are always reflective of the world we live in.


Shirley: Tell me about your role at I Am Other.

Mimi: As Chief Creative Officer I am in charge of film and TV and our media ventures at I Am Other. I’ve been at I Am Other since Pharrell started it back in 2011 but working on film and TV since summer of 2014. That’s when we did our first movie, Dope. Pharrell considers it a creative collective. It’s really the umbrella company for all of his projects, but I’m specifically handling film and TV.


Do you have any upcoming projects?

We have a kids’ show that we’ve been developing for a couple of years now. We’re in post for Netflix. It’s a show for 8 - 12 year olds, similar to Brain Games. We partnered with the guys who created it - Atomic Entertainment - to do a kids’ version. We haven’t announced it yet because we’re still trying to figure out our launch date but that’ll be the next thing that comes out.


What are some of the things you do outside of I Am Other?

I am forever a student. I’m super curious. I just love discovering new things. I love people. I’m constantly trying to learn as much as I can about the world. I don’t really have a lot of time to do things outside of I Am Other. I do speaking engagements. I still write every now and then. I come from journalism; I used to be a magazine editor. I did a Solange cover story for Glamour a couple of months ago. I’m a storyteller first and foremost. In any medium that I can have an opportunity to tell a great story, that’s where I go. Wherever.


How do YOU bring diversity into your work spaces?

The magazine world has always had a lot of diversity. I’m from New York City, born and raised. Diversity to me is like normal life. It doesn’t feel comfortable if I’m not around lots of different people, and not even just people of color. I want all sexual orientations, I want different religions, I want everybody, because coming from New York - Manhattan, specifically, which is such a melting pot—that’s what makes me feel comfortable. But what I found in Hollywood is that there aren’t a lot of us. So what’s frustrating is you’re constantly on the lookout to make sure that our crews reflect the world that we live in. It’s not easy, because there’s not enough of us, in Hollywood, that have these positions of power, whether it’s greenlighting a film, or knowing the buyers that are making the acquisitions. But it’s important that we’re not just focused on the glamorous roles. We need all the positions. Whether it’s production designer, costume designer, craft services, line producers…we really need to be represented in all facets of putting together a production, but there’s not a lot of us. What I’ve tried to do is expose as many people as possible to these jobs, starting within my own personal crew of friends and family. We have to continue to let people know there are jobs in this field beyond just director, actor, producer. All of us that have been blessed and lucky enough to be in these positions where we are creating content in Hollywood. We have a responsibility to bring other people along with us and just let people know that these jobs exist.


Dennis Williams

I also spoke with Dennis Williams, HBO’s SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility, about his role at HBO and how it impacts the content the major media brand produces.


Shirley: What would you call social responsibility?

Dennis: I would call it “Robin Hood.” (laughs). I would say it’s just good business. You know, I’ve been at HBO for a couple of decades now but there was a time when people talked about things like business ethics—not just that you have a product and you make money, but is your product good? I think, fortunately in our culture now, we’ve gotten to a place where people are asking that question again and holding brands accountable in ways that we’ve not seen before. And we’re seeing brands understand in a very, very real way that consumers will choose to engage with you if they feel like your values match their values. If they feel like your product is welcoming and supportive of their experience, then they will support and buy your product. And if not, if that relationship isn’t authentic, then consumers will step away. I think it’s good business. I think it’s ethical business. I think it’s about business that has a moral compass. I think it’s the way that all companies should behave and operate, particularly in the media space. Media is so incredibly influential and powerful in our lives, it really nudges the culture forward in some very unique ways, so I think we have an even greater responsibility because we’re shaping ideas. We are speaking to people who feel invisible in the middle of nowhere, and they turn on their television and they see themselves reflected or they see their stories reflected or they see issues that they are grappling with handled in a mature, thoughtful, complex, compelling way and you can’t take that for granted. I think you have to be responsible with that power.


Talk about how you, growing up in Kansas as a child, didn’t see images of yourself reflected in the media and how that inspired you.

You called me out on my very selfish examplesometimes I say a “boy in Iowa.” (laughs) In my experience, it was growing up as an African-American kid in the midwest. My community was full of people who looked just like me and who were bound by the same kind of constraints that generations of folks had been bound by. So it was very difficult for me to see or to know what I didn’t know, right? It was hard to think outside of that. So media was key for me. I was incredibly fortunate to be born during the time that Oprah Winfrey launched her nationally syndicated talk show. I was obsessed with it. She looked like people that I knew. If up until that point all I had ever seen was Phil Donahue, then I could have never imagined that for me, because little black boys didn’t grow up to be old white men—not that we grew up to be black women (laughs) but at least that’s a little closer, you can get there. That’s not a bridge too far. Oprah is the best example, the shining example, and seeing her made a difference. Then I started to look for myself in other stories and other programs that I watched. As I grew older that became increasingly complicated, because I realized I’m probably not like the other boys here. I’m probably not going to grow up and marry a woman. I’m probably going to grow up and hang with other boys. I didn’t see that reflected. In this kind of crazy, scary way, my identity was so limited because I just didn’t see it reflected anywhere else. So I understand in a very personal, deep and visceral way how important it is to see yourself reflected, and if you don’t, it can be incredibly isolating and that leads to people going to very, very bad places. I’m fortunate that there were some examples there that showed me another way. I tell this story pretty often—and my mother is probably going to get upset with me—but I was so obsessed with television as a kid, that I would literally sit and time television commercials. I’d heard that television commercials were 30 seconds, and I didn’t believe it! I was like, that’s just not possible! There’s a commercial and the black woman is sitting at the table and her son comes in behind her from the army, surprises her, and they cry and they eat? How do they do all that in 30 seconds? And so I would sit and time television commercials. I was that into media at an early age. And my mother would say—in particular about Oprah because I watched Oprah all the time—she’d say, “Oprah has hers, you need to figure out how you’re going to get yours, television is going to get you nowhere in life.” And now I’m like, “Hey, you know that company HBO? That worked out pretty good for us, didn’t it?” (laughs). But like they say, if you knew better, you’d do better. My mother was working with the cards that life had dealt for black folks in Kansas. It didn’t look like we were going to be media moguls. Teacher, preacher, post office – that was what we were encouraged to strive for. Thankfully it got bigger for me.


The ABFF festival has proven to be essential to the growth of the African-American creative community. It has created platforms for untapped talent, granted award money to gifted artists and continues to be a space for emerging talent to meet other creatives to build relationships and cultivate partnerships. ABFF has signed a deal to return to Miami for the next three years. The 2019 American Black Film Festival will be held June 12-16, 2019. See full ABFF winner list below!




2018 HBO SHORT FILM AWARD, sponsored by HBO (Prize: $10,000)

Moths and Butterflies written and directed by Alfonso Johnson


2018 TV ONE SCREENPLAY COMPETITION WINNER (Prize: $5,000 and a production deal)

Connected – written by Rashim Cannad



Harold Williams Wait…What Had Happened Was



Craig T. Williams Allergic (Comedy)

Terrence L. Moore Uptown (Drama)


2018 BEST WEB SERIES, sponsored by Xfinity (Prize: $3,000)

 KELOID U.S.A., written, produced and directed by Huriyyah Muhammad


2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE, sponsored by Prudential (Prize: $5,000)

Sprinter directed by Storm Saulter


2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST DIRECTOR, sponsored by Cadillac (Prize: $5,000)

 Storm Salter, Sprinter


2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY, presented by ABFF (Prize: $2 500)

Not in My Neighbourhood, directed by Kurt Orderson


2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST SCREENPLAY, sponsored by Time Warner

 JINN, by Nijla Mumin


2018 AUDIENCE AWARD, sponsored by BET Networks (Prize: $10,000)

 Sprinter, directed by Storm Saulter



Kamie Crawford

Winston Marshall


2018 NBC SPOTLIGHT ACTOR AWARD (Prize: $5,000)

Zoe Renee, performance in JINN


2018 SCRIPT TO SCREEN COMPETITION, sponsored by BET Networks and Color Creative

Courtney Perdue & Baindu Saidu, African-America

April Blair, Curves

Darnell Brown, The Good Book


2018 ABFF COMEDY WINGS WINNER, sponsored by HBO (Prize:  $2,500)

Blaq Ron


Post by Shirley Vernae Williams



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Posted Monday, July 9, 2018
LOVED reading this article about #ABFF by #PGADiversity and #PGAWomen'sImpactNetwork and #CultureSHIFT member @ShirleyVernaeWilliams- Fantastic article Shirley! Features new PGA East Vice Chair @MimiValdes and longtime #Diversity partner @DennisWilliams who heads #HBO CSR.
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Posted Monday, July 9, 2018
LOVED reading this article about #ABFF by #PGADiversity and #PGAWomen'sImpactNetwork and #CultureSHIFT member @ShirleyVernaeWilliams- Fantastic article Shirley! Features new PGA East Vice Chair @MimiValdes and longtime #Diversity partner @DennisWilliams who heads #HBO CSR.
Permalink to this Comment }