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The Social Justice Now Film Festival: What it is and Why Everyone Should Watch
by Mark Millien
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October 8, 2020

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The Social Justice Now Film Festival: What it is and Why Everyone Should Watch

Knight (top) and Mark Millien (bottom) (Photo courtesy of Halle Millien)
Knight (top) and Mark Millien (bottom) (Photo courtesy of Halle Millien)

My oldest son has participated in protests from atop my shoulders since before he could walk. He was born in the dying summer of Obama’s presidency. In four years he’s “marched” for women, for science, for democracy itself. Today, he is a big brother to my youngest son, whose first steps came on a day when the president flouted a ruling by the Supreme Court to further erode transgender protections.

On the day that George Floyd was murdered, silent streets abandoned to the pandemic teemed with men, women, and children who risked infection, arrest, maiming, and death to ensure that they were heard, and have every single day since. 

The world waiting for my sons has always required a set of warnings. 

It wasn’t that the dynamics on the ground had changed. People hadn’t become more racist  overnight. Law enforcement in communities of color have a long history of being untrustworthy, radicalized, and predatory. The only difference was, it felt like my children’s childhood had run out of time. Naively, I thought The Talk could wait. Tom Cotton was urging for military intervention. Boogaloo Boys and Proud Boys and common everyday white boys were armed, inciting violence as prelude to killings, and it all felt like it was just outside the door we’d been sequestering behind for months.  

For Jeff and Nicole Friday, the husband and wife team behind the American Black Film Festival who are also parents to two sons that look like mine, the sentiment was exactly the same. 

“George Floyd’s murder, to be honest with you, really did trigger that thought process. And Nicole said ‘hey, let’s do a social justice festival,’ and that was really it.” Those are Jeff’s words, describing his own shared sense of urgency that this moment demanded. His wife, Nicole, elaborated. 

“On a personal level, we struggle with it because we have two black boys and just wanted to be able to show them how to obviously maneuver around this, and what can we do. On a professional level, [we wanted] to really highlight some of the things that are happening, and how can we push it forward.”

For Nicole and Jeff Friday, it was a call to arms, and they did what they’ve always done. 

The Friday Family attends the American Black Film Festival Honors Awards Ceremony held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Photo courtesy of Kelvin Bullock Photography)
The Friday Family attends the American Black Film Festival Honors Awards Ceremony held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Photo courtesy of Kelvin Bullock Photography)

In 1997, Jeff went to the Sundance Film Festival to support Love Jones, a unique cinematic achievement in the Black film canon that didn’t require history to contextualize its importance. “Seeing Love Jones at Sundance reinforced for me that black filmmakers didn’t have a place to showcase their work. And I looked around the room and saw primarily white men having a great time and building an enterprise and doing deals, and I said we need to be in those deals too.” 

He created, seemingly on the spot, the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). It was an ambitious multi-dimensional undertaking from its inception. In addition to providing exposure to films by Black creatives describing the Black experience, it also served as a node for scholarship, mentorship, and entrepreneurship. In its 24 years of existence, it has fostered the careers of Will Packer, Issa Rae, Ryan Coogler, and Omari Hardwick to name a few. Their alumni is as prestigious behind the camera as it is for those in the spotlight. The mantra was simple, as Jeff described it. “Because Hollywouldn’t, because Hollywood wasn’t checking for Black stuff”.

When Floyd was murdered, Nicole was asking the same questions a lot of us were asking ourselves. “What do we do, and what do we know how to do?”

They know how to amplify, harness, and nurture creative talent and have decades of cache and influence to execute in a way that very few people can. An exigent storytelling vehicle that would focus on societal repair. Nicole summarized it well. “This is our form of organized protest.”

The Social Justice Now Film Festival

The Social Justice Now Film Festival
The Social Justice Now Film Festival

The nascent festival wasted no time in securing powerful partnerships. Higher Heights, Color of Change, Rock the Vote, Endeavor Content, and One Community all signed on as well as Sony Pictures as a founding partner. 

Michael B. Jordan’s company Outlier Society is also a partner and Jordan himself is a co-ambassador for the inaugural festival. 

“I am honored to serve as an inaugural ambassador for the Social Justice Now Festival,” Jordan said in a statement. “It was both a professional and personal achievement to have had the opportunity to portray the great Bryan Stevenson in ‘Just Mercy’ and with the help of festivals like this we will continue to bring those stories to life. Now more than ever it is important that we shine a light on those who have been marginalized by our society and I look forward to joining Jeff and Nicole as we continue the fight for social justice reform.”

Jordan will serve in the role alongside human rights activist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi. 

“As a media maker and a human rights advocate,” Tometi added, I know that there’s no denying the importance of truth-telling and the power of film to facilitate that. Given the significance of these times, I trust that the Social Justice Now Film Festival will provide the catalytic insight and creative inspiration we need.”

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The festival will take place October 21-25, 2020 featuring 30-40 independent films, spotlight screenings, and conversations with professionals in the social advocacy space as well as entertainment, law enforcement, and wealth management. The pandemic dictates that the festival will be an almost entirely virtual event this year, but there will be a Drive In component to some of the spotlight films that will take place in Los Angeles.  

Jeff describes the goals of the festival succinctly. “Watch, Reflect, and Take Action.”

The conversation reminds me of the one that I’m dreading having with my own sons, when I ask about their own experience of raising two black sons, and Nicole shares something innocuous but simultaneously revelatory. 

“It’s all about providing information. We show our kids documentaries. Documentaries are my favorite genre of film.”

They describe, in tandem, a process of straight talk, supplemental video evidence when applicable, and earnestness that seems almost formulaic in its application and wholly approachable. I push though for something uncomfortable, not wanting to chance that their methodology is honed in on children much older than mine and therefore still out of reach. 

“The White Privilege conversation. Understand your blackness.” That one was hard he says. 

“Most of the kids they go to school with are not black, so I always like to make points about ‘Don’t think you’re white’. And that’s not about insulting white people at all, it’s certainly not about us being bigoted, it’s about…”

“It’s about knowing your blackness,” Nicole interjects. 

“And understand the privileges that your white friends have that you don’t have.”

This lands heavy. As I write this, my son’s best friends outside of his cousins are three white siblings who love my two boys in the uncomplicated way that only innocence can provide. The world feels hungry to devour that precious residue of birth and replace it with corrosive nuance. 

I think of their parents as family. We chose each other to commune with in a pandemic pod to ride out the prudent isolation together, to provide our children with the social engagement they so clearly miss and the intoxicant of adult conversation that we’ve come to rely on. 

From left to right: Mark, Sage, Knight, and Halle Millien (Photo courtesy of Icarian Photography)
From left to right: Mark, Sage, Knight, and Halle Millien (Photo courtesy of Icarian Photography)

My love for my boys is all consuming. My need for their safety is absolute. It’s in that vein that I appreciate what the Fridays have accomplished. They have arrayed a set of tools, and like any tool handled poorly, it can cut. It can harm. The pain of our lived experiences is real and must be consumed with care, but when applied properly, these films create a starting place for the dialogue articulating in my heart but trapped in my throat. 

It’s then, at the end of our time together, that I ask them, in another 24 years, what would you like your legacy from this festival to be? 

“It’s certainly not the Oscars changing their criteria for Best Movie,” Jeff says. 

“Ownership, ownership, ownership, is what we’re about. I want to see more black TV networks, and I want to see some black streaming services, I want to see that kind of stuff, because ultimately that’s what this industry centers around. Ownership, and influence and distribution.”

Your impact in shaping black Hollywood is quantifiable, I respond. In 23 years, in all likelihood you’ll be able to trace a path from policy then to the opportunities you’ve created now. If there were one area of change that you would like to have the most impact in, what would it be?

“I’m not really in the policy business,” Jeff says, “ I’m in the enlightenment and cultural change business. We would like to encourage two things. The importance of ownership and the importance of collaboration. And collaboration is when Black people can come together and trust each other, and break bread, and share money and share profits, and suffer through losses together, and when that collaboration is centered around black love, it’s even better.”

The SJNFF website is adding new information daily and you can follow them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Keep checking Blacklove.com for the complete list of films and conversations in the festival. 

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