It is a singular experience to be in a theater watching a film as it’s viscerally affecting the audience at the same time. The following films—all of them Spotlight selections—had audiences at the latest Urbanworld Film Festival crying, laughing, cheering and screaming in unison as they rooted for their characters to reach their goals and win.
“The Hate U Give”
By far one of the best films to come out in the past few years is George Tillman’s adaptation of the Angie Thomas YA novel, “The Hate U Give,” which had its New York City premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival. Amandla Stenberg, star of “The Hate U Give,” has a history with the book on which the film is based that stretches long before it went onto The New York Times best-seller list. In a Q&A after the screening of the film moderated by Ava DuVernay, Stenberg revealed that she read “The Hate U Give” when it was still in manuscript form. She was still in high school when a friend of her mother told her about the manuscript, which had been generating intense buzz in publishing circles. Stenberg explained, “She had heard about this project that highlighted the events around the Black Lives Matter movement but was through this personal narrative of a 16-year-old girl code-switching between different environments and she passed it along to me.” Stenberg was immediately taken with the story and kept an eye out. She says she “chased” the project because she felt it was “a special window into Blackness, into existing as a contemporary Black American. It was speaking so much to my heart, and I chased it.”
The film traces the effects on an adolescent girl, Starr, her family and her community in the aftermath of a police shooting of one of her oldest friends to which she is the only witness. Director George Tillman eschews a facile treatment of the subjects of the police officers’ relations with the Black communities they are tasked with policing and the realities of having to leave your culture and community behind to ensure a successful future, as Starr does each day at her prep school.
Stenberg delivers an affecting, impactful performance and Tillman gets rich, nuanced performances out of all the actors, even with the challenge of reshooting a number of difficult to watch and certainly difficult to act scenes. That became necessary when it was revealed that the original actor chosen for the role of Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend from her prep school, had racist posts on his social media pages. Issa Rae appears as a lawyer and social activist who helps Starr navigate the legal system. The film also stars Regina Hall (“Girls Trip”), Common, Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Algee Smith (“The New Edition Story”). Russell Hornsby (“Fences,” “Seven Seconds”) delivers an outstanding award-worthy performance as a protective father, loving husband and reformed criminal who runs a small business in his neighborhood. Dominique Fishback, likely one of the next generation’s best actresses (“The Deuce,” “Night Comes On”), also appears as a friend of Starr’s and part of her extended family. “The Hate U Give” will be in
theaters Oct. 19.
Viola Davis leads an all-star cast in the crime thriller “Widows.” She and two other women, played by Michelle Rodriguez (“Girlfight”) and Elizabeth Debicki (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), had husbands who were partners in crime who perished during a heist gone wrong. The story doesn’t end there though, because the money her husband (played by Liam Neeson) had on him belonged to crooked politician Jamal Manning (played by Brian Tyree Henry) and his ice-cold, sociopathic, homicidal sibling Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). The widows must get that money back or else. It’s an engaging thrill ride with some wicked plot twists. “Widows” will be in theaters Nov. 16.
“Running Out of Time”
Acting legend Telma Hopkins brings the heart and humor to this otherwise very dark BET hostage thriller that premiered at this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival. Also starring Tasha Smith (“Empire”), Ronreaco Lee (“Survivor’s Remorse”) and Sydney Elise Johnson (“When You Were Here”), it centers around a family taken hostage in their very upscale home after the death of Smith’s character’s husband. The family believes he died of an untimely heart attack but soon come to learn that something much more sinister and a whole lot closer to home played a role in his passing, and might lead to their own demise. Lee does an effective job as the smooth as silk but overly ambitious and ultimately craven
This comedy drama starring the excellent Jason Mitchell (“Detroit,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “The Chi”) made its world debut at the last Sundance Film Festival and was touted as being similar to “Get Out” in that Mitchell’s character is the only Black guy among a group of millennial men at a weekend getaway in the Catskills. Although there are certainly moments of tension and comedy that come out of the fact that Mitchell’s character is the only Black guy, the film at its core isn’t about that and smartly avoids the easy race-based comedy gags. Instead the film reaches deeper to sketch the men as real people and Tyrel as multidimensional. He is more than just a “Black guy.” Tyrel comes off as ultimately an introvert trying to make it in a world—and immediate circumstances—that demand that everyone be an extrovert, that he be someone who is “on” all the time. Something that Tyrel as wrought by Mitchell, in a very thoughtful performance, is unwilling to do. “Tyrel” hits theaters Dec. 5.