Freshly dipped in cherry red denim, skin glowing and discreet diamonds sparkling, upon hitting the red carpet the petite film vet was quick to admit, “I cut my nails for this event.” Working the press line with her 11-year old son Massai in tow, the 41-year old industry darling has been absent from the red carpet scene after having a second son, Kez, last fall. Quickly exchanging her heels for bowling shoes actress / director Nia Long asserted, these days “when you see me, it will matter.”

Teaming up with longtime friend, Jeff Friday, the founder of the American Black Film Festival, Long co-hosted Saturday night’s 1st annual ABFF Strikes for Education event at Lucky Strikes Bowling Alley in Hollywood. With rumors of a Love Jones sequel brewing and plans to shoot a film with Omar Epps this summer, her presence and intention for the evening was clear — to raise funds and awareness for the Film Life Foundation, a charity that designs programs to educate and empower underprivileged youth interested in film and television careers. With a portion of the proceeds benefiting Howard University’s John H. Johnson School of Communications, the night, in Nia Long’s words, was “all about the babies. I left high school early, did 2 years of college, and then had to start working. When I think of the fact that there are fewer African-Americans behind the scenes than there should be, it makes me feel like we’re missing something in the training of our community.”

Nurturing the careers of independent black filmmakers for the past 16 years, the ABFF agrees that the idea for the Film Life Foundation grew out of necessity. “I’ve seen 500 independent films a year for the last 16 years. The quality of the films has not much improved. I attribute that to cameras and equipment being very accessible, but we’re not taking time to learn the craft. John Singleton was a boy from South Central who went to USC, that’s why we know him. There is no substitute for the academic environment,” says organizer Jeff Friday.

Fresh off the heels of a successful opening night for Steve Harvey and Tim Story’s Think Like a Man, Black Hollywood came out in full force. Personalities like Robert Townsend, Tatyana Ali, Eric LaSalle, Tisha Campbell and Duane Martin hobnobbed and snacked on sumptuous hors d’oeuvres between turns. Complete with corporate lane sponsors-including Cadillac, HBO and the newly formed SAG-AFTRA union — the 12 teams were driven by celebrity captains that ranged from proud and practiced pros to unashamed gutter-ball giants. Jason George, who currently depicts Dr. Ben Sherman on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, bowled on behalf of SAG-AFTRA. “The more diversity you have behind the camera, the more diversity you have in front of the camera. SAG-AFTRA put together a team because we’re a performance union. It’s all about empowering youth to be the creators of media, or even the executives that greenlight the films. That’s actually the language in our contracts, that film TV and studios should do their best to accurately depict the American scene.”

It’s a “scene,” that some black film insiders say is becoming increasingly narrow, not only on the talent front, but also for crew. Director and media personality, Russ Parr, recently shot “The Under Shepard, “a drama starring Isaiah Washington that he admits is already receiving pushback.” Hollywood has it in their mind that with urban films we just want comedies. It’s more financial than racial. They only cater to what’s demanded. We as a people are not demanding good, thought provoking stories.” Friday adds, “I think black voices are very conflicting. We say we want substance and we go see less than substantive things. The real problem is that the studio system isn’t putting out niche films anymore. They’re making big budget films that have international legs and will gross 300 million worldwide. It’s about stock price.”

For most, it’s about increasing their own stock by telling their own stories independently. Nia Long acquired the rights to female boxer, Ann Wolfe’s life story that she’s currently developing for the big screen. Model turned director Datari Turner revealed that it took 7 years to complete his small screen gem, Video Girl, starring Ruby Dee and Meagan Good. I waited on other studios to make the film, when I could have just raised the money and got it done a long time ago. Ultimately that’s what I did. Now I’ve done 6 films in the last 18 months. I just produced a film called Cherry with James Franco and Heather Graham in Berlin. You have to do it yourself. If you look at the Oscar’s last year, 7 of the best picture nominees were independent films.”

Whether thespians attach themselves to independent projects or studio productions, actress Joyful Drake of BET’s Let’s Stay Together says that it’s not about scarcity thinking. “If you look at the successful film Think like a Man, you have a lot of powerhouses, from Gabrielle Union to Taraji P. Henson to Kevin Hart and Michael Ealy. If they can come together and work, I think everyone should come together. Together we are a force and dynamic.” Friday encourages filmmakers to create films that are true to their own life experiences. “What they see is the Tyler Perry thing getting made and your natural inclination is to do what sells, so we’ve got filmmakers in the perpetual cycle of doing the same thing. We’ve really got to try to change,” he stresses. With a new crop of Spike Lees and Gina Prince-Bythewoods waiting in the wings, supporters of ABFF’s charity gala agreed that it’s crucial to ensure that the resources are there to meet them. For more information logon to: www.abff.com.

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 Chie Davis: Nia Long, ABFF & Celebrity Friends Support Black Film

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