‘Swagger’ Director on the Importance of DEI Officers and Festivals Like Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Fest

If there’s one thing married couple Floyd Rance and Stephanie Tavares-Rance know how to do, it’s keep a secret. Last year, on the eve of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, its founders were tight-lipped about their 20th anniversary opening-night presenters. “I just told my mother,” says Tavares-Rance of the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama were on hand to screen their Higher Ground and Netflix documentary Descendant.

This year, the Rances face the unexpected of another kind, with the SAG-AFTRA strike beginning weeks before the Aug. 4-12 fest, which is preventing actors from promoting their projects. Says Tavares-Rance, with equanimity: “Celebrity is awesome — people love to see their favorite actor or actress on the stage, but it really is about these filmmakers of color, specifically African American filmmakers, that we want to highlight.”

Programming includes panels with the National Museum of African American History & Culture and (separately) Chuck D, Matthew Cherry and Misty Copeland; a screening of ESPN Films’ The Crossover: 50 Years of Hip Hop and Sports; and trailers or clips of Netflix’s biopic Rustin, Lionsgate’s 1992 and Warner Bros. Discovery’s The Color Purple.

Between the screenings and conversations, the Director’s Brunch, an intimate and inclusive gathering of emerging and established filmmakers, is one of the festival’s dedicated initiatives for community building. “Creatives should definitely have moments to chat and talk amongst themselves,” says Rance. “It’s how classic art is made. Something great is bound to be born.”

Director Reggie “Rock” Bythewood, a first-time fest attendee, talks with THR about the importance of DEI officers, Black festivals and his Apple TV+ series Swagger, loosely based on NBA star Kevin Durant’s days as a basketball protégé.

What intrigued you about participating in MVAAFF?

Stephanie Tavares-Rance and Floyd Rance, whose Run & Shoot Filmworks produces the fest. “We made it through COVID,” he says when asked about the SAG-AFTRA strike’s impact.

Bernard Fairclough Photography

Quite frankly, I love Black film festivals. It’s a celebration of our stories. We believe that if we don’t say it, it won’t be said. And to come together as a collective of Black storytellers, to share stories, to see how it impacts all of us, to see storytelling beyond entertainment.

Why select Swagger‘s season two episode “Are We Free?” to screen?

I have a mantra: “If we should get the audience at the edge of their seat, you might as well lean them forward and hit them with the truth.” It’s the most important [episode] because it really holds a mirror up to where we are as a country. We’re at a place that we’re looking to make advancements, [but] we’re under attack culturally. But the other reality is that the number one provider for people with mental illness are our prisons and detention centers. We really address that in the episode.

From a cinematic standpoint, there’s some high-caliber basketball [filming] — we do an entire basketball game in one shot with no edits, no cuts. The other part: It celebrates one of our legends, John Carlos, who has a role in the episode. [At the 1968 Summer Olympics, during their medal ceremony, Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their hands in a Black Power salute and were expelled from the Games.]

Aside from the strikes, there’s also a trend of prominent DEI executives at studios and the Academy stepping down from their C-suite positions without replacements. Will not having those roles impact Black storytelling?

One of the ways I came into the industry, decades ago, was through a woman named Sandra Evers-Manly. She was the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP. She went around to every studio and was displeased with the number of Black writers and other creatives being hired. Out of that was born a lot of fellowship and diversity programs. Gina [Prince-Bythewood, Reggie’s wife and director of The Woman King] came into the industry that way; Mara Brock Akil [exec producer of Paramount+’s 2021 The Game reboot] came in through a diversity program like this. If you’re going to get rid of diversity initiatives, you have to get rid of the need for it. So are you in a studio that says your numbers are exactly where they need to be? That you’re fully diverse? That you’re fully inclusive? If you’re not, then you have to keep these programs. So, yes, I do think it’s concerning, but I don’t think that they’re going to stick. You’re going to hear a lot of speaking out against it pretty soon.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story appears in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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