An African American Film Festival Has Turned Martha’s Vineyard Into a Black Celebrity Hot Spot

An African American Film Festival Has Turned Martha’s Vineyard Into a Black Celebrity Hot Spot

Martha’s Vineyard, a tiny island in Massachusetts, has played host to Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival for the last two decades, making it a hub for Black celebrities.

The annual event takes place the first two weeks of August and brings the best in Black entertainment to celebrate and showcase Black films and culture.

This year’s festival included an appearance by former first lady Michelle Obama, who presented the film Descendant, a Netflix documentary produced by the Obama’s production company Higher Ground, on the last slave ship in America.

Martha’s Vineyard has been a summer escape for wealthy Black Americans for decades, including the industry’s best such as Don Cheadle, Spike Lee, Tyler PerryJordan Peele, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jennifer Hudson, Kasi Lemmons, Larry Wilmore, and many more.

“One of the powers of this festival, and the work that the Rances have done, is to lift up stories that too often have been lost in the flow of time,” former President Barack Obama told the audience, according to the Washington Post.

“I’m looking out at this audience, and we got a bunch of movers and shakers and [sic] influentials.”

The festival initially showed independent films; however, big studios and production companies quickly noticed. Now the summer event promotes Black projects to entertainment bigwigs wearing casual short sets instead of suits and ties.

The Festival is the brainchild of filmmaker Floyd Rance and his wife, Stephanie Rance, who were planning a one-time festival in Barbados in 2001. However, the Sept. 11 tragedy upended international travel overnight. So they moved the festival to Massachusetts.

“Why not do the Vineyard?” The inaugural MVAAFF had “no promotion, no marketing, no nothing,” Floyd told the Post.

“Just some heart and some grit” and about half a dozen people in a conference room.

HBO was an early partner of the festival, and over the years, Netflix, ESPN, and others have joined the festival, turning it from a small one to the flagship event of the summer for Black entertainers and celebrities. In 2018 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences accredited the festival as a qualifying festival for the short film category at the Oscars.