In the spirit of those who reach for the stars to change the world, Stacy Spikes created the Urbanworld Film Festival 21 years ago. Spikes is a former executive at Miramax and October Films. In 1997, with virtually no Black presence at film festivals, Spikes decided to do something about it. In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel he explained, “We saw at some of the major festivals that there was an obvious void for works by people of color. I was the VP of Marketing at Miramax at the time and just decided to try and do what I could. [I wanted] to give a platform for exposure for the works of minority filmmakers, actors, writers and directors in contemporary cinema. And to provide a festival that can educate the filmmakers of the future and give studios a robust marketplace to acquire such works and discover new talent.”

Looking back on the past year in Black cinema, it appears that Spikes’ vision is coming to fruition. Black film and filmmakers have gained visibility and are taken more seriously in the film marketplace. Studios have also become more sophisticated about effectively advertising and promoting Black films. Multiple movies featuring Black casts and filmmakers were marketed to mainstream filmgoers this past year. A number of them, such as “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight,” snagged major industry awards. Viola Davis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Fences,” directed by Denzel Washington. Without a doubt, these gains came about because of the efforts of people such as Spikes and initiatives such as Urbanworld.

“Marshall,” a film chronicling the life of America’s first Black Supreme Court justice, is one of the most highly anticipated projects at this year’s Urbanworld festival. It is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who was also at the vanguard in creating and promoting Black film for more than 20 years. In an email interview, Hudlin stated, “I’m looking forward to showing my film ‘Marshall’ to a New York City audience. They are smart, they are tasteful and they speak their mind!” Reflecting on the past year in film, he added, “Validation by your artistic peers is wonderful, and it’s great that the brilliant work of Viola Davis and ‘Moonlight’ got recognized. Which is why it’s also so important that we build our own institutions that support and promote our work. I’ve worked with Black organizations like the Black Filmmaker Foundation, the Pan-African Film Festival, AAFCA, ABFF, The NAACP Image Awards and now Urbanworld for my entire career, and they are crucial to the advancement of Black cinema.”

In addition to “Marshall,” film lovers have a lot to look forward to at this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival. Ava DuVernay will be present, along with celebrated film director Julie Dash (“Daughters of The Dust”) who directed the midseason premiere of “Queen Sugar.” The program’s stars, Kofi Siriboe, Rutina Wesley and Dawn Lyen-Gardiner, will also be in attendance. Sonja Sohn from “The Wire” will unveil her film, “Baltimore Rising,” and longtime Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson’s film “Double Play” will also be a part of the slate of Spotlight Films. Among the extensive list of short films, actress Gabourey Sidibe will showcase her own, “The Tale of Four.” Based on Nalo Hopkinson’s Afro-futuristic award-winning novel, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” Sharon Lewis’ “Brown Girl Begins” will also debut at this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival. Gina Hara’s “Geek Girls” is the first feature-length documentary exploring the hidden half of fan culture: nerdy women. Also a must-see is Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” which will serve as the thematic backdrop of the episode of legendary music executive Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo’s BET scripted anthology series, “Tales,” which redefines the music genre with song stories, using lyrics of classic and current hip-hop songs and reimagining them into mini-movies.

Urbanworld Digital, presented by longtime Urbanworld Film Festival partner HBO, will also return with a series of thought-provoking conversations, covering a range of topics, including global opportunity, the convergence of content and technology and diversity in the industry. Dennis Williams, senior vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility, HBO, explained, “As the platforms and mediums for content, communication and interaction evolve at an unprecedented pace, they continue providing and opening unique opportunities to amplify and elevate remarkable voices from a wide array of talented multicultural storytellers. HBO is delighted to host the seventh annual Urbanworld Digital, which provides precisely this forum to explore the convergence of creativity, media and technology.”

The 21st Urbanworld Film Festival will take place in Manhattan Sept. 20-24, 2017, at AMC Empire 25 at 234 West 42nd St. Tickets and passes for the festival are on sale now. For additional announcements in September, go to www.urbanworld.org. Follow @UWFilmFest and use #UW21 to join the conversation about Urbanworld on social media.