The 14th annual Urbanworld Film Festival, backed by presenting sponsor BET Networks and founding sponsor HBO, wrapped in New York City this past weekend. UWFF is widely known as the largest U.S. film festival showcasing films from around the world with a multicultural bent -- over 70 films screened in midtown Manhattan over four days.
Among the films I saw: One Night In Vegas, directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood (as part of ESPN Film's Thirty for Thirty Series). The film uses the date September 7, 1996, to explore the friend-mentor relationship between boxer Mike Tyson (who fought Bruce Seldon for the WBA title that night) and rapper Tupac Shakur, who was fatally wounded by gunshots that same evening while being driven to an after-party. I also caught The Lottery, Madeleine Sackler's harrowing and quite emotional tale of our failing public school system, which revealed that 58 percent of African American 4th graders are functionally illiterate. She follows four Harlem and Bronx families who have entered their children (and their hopes for an exit from public schools) in a charter school lottery. The degree to which public education has become politicized in New York City, and how badly these economically challenged families want a quality education for their children, breaks your heart.
Perhaps the film with the biggest buzz was first-time writer-director Qasim 'Q' Basir's world premiere of Mooz-lum, which highlights a young African American student's struggle between his strict Islamic upbringing and more secular pursuits when he goes off to college. He tries to find where he best fits in, a decision made more difficult in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the resulting negativity toward all things and people with ties to Islam. The film is an impressive first effort, with a surprisingly strong cast of accomplished actors (Nia Long, Roger Guenveur Smith and Danny Glover among them). Young actor Evan Ross ("ATL") plays the lead character, proving again that he could very well be headed down the path to stardom (he is the son of diva Diana Ross).
The film's title is a phonetic play on the way many Americans mistakenly pronounce the word Muslim. It couldn't have come at a better time, given the intense scrutiny and constant news coverage of all things Islamic in this country. On the heels of the film's strong advance buzz (nearly 70,000 fans on Facebook), Urbanworld was forced to add another screening to the two already scheduled -- all three sold out quickly. Mooz-lum went on to win the festival's Best Narrative Feature prize.