Jeff Friday was an advertising executive running the film division of a New York firm the year the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a boycott of the Academy Awards over a dearth of black Oscar nominees.
It was 1997, and Friday persuaded his firm to launch the American Black Film Festival as a platform for blacks in Hollywood.
Going out on his own to run the project in 2001, he’s watched it grow from just 90 people attending in year one to 19,000. Now, amid the current “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy, Friday, 51, has created the ABFF Awards, being held Sunday — a week before the Oscars are handed out — at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Featuring Academy Awards boycotters including Spike Lee, the event will honor black achievement in film and TV, according to Friday, who spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika during a trip to Chicago. A condensed transcript follows.
“In 1997, I attended Sundance to see a film called ‘Love Jones’ that Larenz Tate and Nia Long starred in, directed by a young brother from Chicago, Ted Witcher. I spent a week at Sundance and just didn’t see people of color.
“At the same time, Jesse Jackson was calling for a boycott of what was being called the ‘Hollywood Blackout.’ For five years, no black person had been nominated. Jesse called my office, trying to get black leaders in communications to support the boycott.
“That’s how I started ABFF. And, for 20 years, we’ve been providing a platform for talented young writers, directors, producers and actors to break in.
“The strategy was to inform people about what they’re missing. You do it gently. Our supporters are HBO, Comcast, NBC, Universal, ABC and Fox. All these big companies that we criticize to some degree have supported this effort. We’ve been churning out talented men and women now working in the system, like Ryan Coogler, the young brother who directed ‘Creed.’ He got his start with us.
“It’s ridiculous that, 20 years later, we’re still talking about the same thing. But because of social media, Jada Pinkett goes on, says, ‘I’m going to boycott,’ and it becomes an international story. Had we had social media 20 years ago, it might have been different.
“Movies are all about box office. As long as people come out, the industry will keep doing what it’s doing. There’s seven studios making movies. All seven, with the exception of one, have a white male, 50-plus, at the head.
“And the report card for those white men is the Oscars. They make 400 movies a year, and we go and participate. And what we see is 400 movies, for the most part, that appeal to the sensitivities of white males.
“African-Americans and Hispanics account for about 30 percent of the movie business. You would think 30 percent of all films would be tailored to or marketed to us. Instead, we’re talking about four movies this year. The Oscars is not the problem. When you look up and all the nominees are white, the Oscars is telling on the system.
“Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs is a friend. She’s dealing with an 85-year history. A black man is producing the Oscars this year, Reggie Hudlin, with host Chris Rock. This is the blackest the Oscars has ever been.
“But what we’re missing is what matters most. It’s not about art. When you win or get nominated for an Oscar, your quote goes up, from, ‘I make $100,000 per movie’ to ‘I make $4 million a movie.’
“The festival’s doing great, in terms of platforming new people. But we have these people who’ve already made it that Oscar and other entities aren’t recognizing. That’s why we launched ABFF Awards.
“We’re honoring Diahann Carroll, with Kerry Washington participating in her tribute; Don Cheadle; Regina King; Ryan Coogle; and Will Packer, another ABFF alum. And we’ll have two competitive awards: film of the year and television show of the year. We’re going to recognize our movies, our television shows, our people.
“I’m of the belief that we, as black folks, spend too much energy on mainstream validation. We don’t give enough credit to black things. We don’t always show up at black stuff.
“If we gave less energy to mainstream validation, we’d be OK with not being nominated.”