Black excellence was in full force at the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) presented by General Motors (GM). Known as “summer’s finest film festival,” the 19th annual event was held on Martha’s Vineyard, a historic New England summer getaway known for hosting generations of affluent African Americans from Adam Clayton Powell to Maya Angelou to the Obamas.

The nine-day film festival Produced by Run&Shoot Filmworks, showcased over 70 original feature films, documentaries, and shorts produced and directed by Black filmmakers around the world. In addition to illuminating the best of Black film, the festival also included insightful conversations, network first-looks, and daily soirees.

“We are proud to be a part of the 19th Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival,” said Telva McGruder, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at General Motors, in a statement. “Creating a space to celebrate Black filmmakers and the arts reflects GM’s commitment to innovation and excellence. We are excited to uplift and recognize such powerful storytellers from around the world.”

McGruder moderated a panel discussion following the premiere of the documentary Barbara Lee: Speaking Power to Truth on Aug. 11. The film explored U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-CA) ascension to the highest-ranking Black woman in Congress, starting with her childhood in racially segregated El Paso, Texas, to raising two boys as a single mother to volunteering with the Black Panther Party. The documentary also shed light on the experiences that directly impacted her political career like volunteering for Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential bid, surviving an abusive marriage, and pulling herself out of poverty.

During the panel, Lee admitted that she was initially reluctant to participate in the documentary, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and showing in select theaters around the country. However, the congresswoman was eventually swayed by the persistence of Peabody Award-winning director Abby Ginzberg, who happens to be a constituent in Lee’s 13th district.

Other highlights from the festival included screenings of RESPECT, featuring Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Hudson, HBOMax’s Obama: In Pursuit of a Perfect Union, Netflix’s Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, ABC’s The Wonder Years, and first look at scenes at FOX’s Our Kind of People.

Kenya Barris speaking. Credit: ReShonda Tate

In addition to the line-up of documentaries, short films, and screenings, several Black Hollywood elites made appearances at the festival, including Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, musician and director Questlove, actor Morris Chestnut, director Sacha Jenkins, and legendary actress Lynn Whitfield.

GM also hosted an engaging discussion featuring Oscar winner and Cadillac brand ambassador Regina King.

Regina King talks with Stephanie Rance. Credit: ReShonda Tate

 “If you want to be a filmmaker, there’s no excuse,” Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee told aspiring filmmakers at the event. “You can edit on your phone or computer. If you want to be a storyteller, then be a storyteller. You have to make up your mind and make a commitment. Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life or are you faking the funk?”  He continued, “You have to put the work in. You have to roll up your sleeves, get the elbow grease in and make a commitment.”

Established in 2002 by husband-and-wife team Floyd A.B. Rance, III, and Stephanie T. Rance, MVAAFF is a platform for African American filmmakers to network, showcase their work and confirm valuable information. Next year, the festival will celebrate its 20-year anniversary from August 5 – 13, 2022.

“Despite the threat of COVID, this was still a banner year for the film festival”, said Floyd A.B. Rance in a statement. “Everyone had smiles underneath their mask and joy in their hearts. Positive vibes all around.”

“To experience the best of Black film, art, and culture in the heart of Martha’s Vineyard was simply inspiring,” added McGruder. “We were honored to be the leading sponsor during such a historic year and look forward to supporting the MVAAFF in the future.”