Thursday, June 19th, kicked off the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) in New York, providing a weekend-long of events that shine light on the need to bring diverse images of African Americans to film. From movie screenings to acting workshops and panels, ABFF attendees are in for a weekend of enlightenment as it pertains to the portrayal of blacks in media.
In a panel event moderated by journalist Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and programmed in support of President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, actors Morris Chestnut, Omari Hardwick, and Stephen Bishop of BET’s hit show Being Mary Jane gathered to talk about their journey to success, their work in the community and the messages they hope to send to young boys and men of color.
Titled “The Leading Man,” the panel discussion was also presented by BET Networks, who announced the unveiling of “H.I.S. BET,” a new initiative put on by the network that will feature original content, videos, photographs and editorial features that focus exclusively on the black male experience in America.
As the actors candidly opened up about the ups and downs they face in Hollywood and the need to support each other despite being pitted against one another for limited roles, the conversation also led to whether or not celebrities should feel they have an obligation to use their platform to openly speak up against the social injustices that still exist today.
With Dr. Lamont Hill referencing the passing of icons like Ruby Dee, Dr. Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, he highlighted how these great figures used their platforms and voices to fight for justice, referring to these great individuals as “freedom fighters.” While all the actors agreed that it’s important for them to be more than just a celebrity, but to also use their voice to take a stand and fight for the greater good of the black community, Morris pointed out that unlike back in the day where celebrities could march and protest without any major news outlets really knowing, in today’s world they have to be careful and strategic about what social causes they align themselves with because the power of social media and the Internet can quickly twist the intentions of their work.
Hardwick chimed in, agreeing with Chestnut, and pointing out that whether they like it or not every move they make has a subconscious influence on the culture. He referenced Jay Z rapping about wearing suits and before we knew it a whole generation had thrown out their jerseys and started going for a more cleaned up look. He also addressed the role of President Obama, who holds the highest position in our country wearing a suit accompanied with a swagger we’ve never seen before in a president, helping to change the image of black men on a platform that we’ve never been on.
Bishop then added that it’s important for us to not only talk about the injustices of today, but to also teach the next generation about these issues and educate them on how they can make a difference. He drove his point home with the reference of a Lil Way lyric saying “they talk that freedom matters, and didn’t even leave a ladder,” further highlighting the need to not leave the young boys of today behind in our fight for justice.
With successful careers under their belt and sights on longevity in Hollywood, it was nice to hear these leading men talk about their commitment to using their platforms to make a difference.