Urbanworld 2020 Recap

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

It’s a brave, new world as the Urbanworld Film Festival musters on despite a worldwide pandemic.

While that introductory description seems more like the plot line from a movie about the end of the world, it is a totally accurate summation of the 2020 Urbanworld Film Festival.  For the first time, Urbanworld went completely virtual with all of its features, Q&A sessions, and spotlights happening safely on the internet. 

The opening night feature was the Stacey Abrams anchored documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy.  Directed by Dawn Porter, the doc delves into the complex and subtle world of voter suppression.  The film’s message is extremely timely and boils down to the fact that with so much on the line both past and present, every vote is important. 

Festivities continued on Wednesday with the first Spotlight film being David Oyelowo’s latest feature The Water Man.  Directed by Oyelowo, The Water Man, is a fantasy-adventure about a boy who calls upon the mythical, titular person, who supposedly has the key to immortality, to save the life of his mother.  With a cast of Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Maria Bello, and up-and-comer Lonnie Chavis (young Randall from This Is Us), the movie is tender and well-acted.  An impressive effort for Oyelowo’s directorial debut.

The festival closes again with Oyelowo and his film Come Away.  The film is an interesting feature about Peter (Pan) and Alice (of Wonderland) who live in their own world with their older brother under the supervision of their father.  As their brother is becoming of the age of adulthood, their mean and intrusive aunt thinks it is necessary for him to go to school to prepare him for life.  After a disastrous turn, Alice and Peter find themselves in London trying to bring the family back together. Come Away is a beautiful and endearing take on the origins of two timeless literary characters.

In between the Oyelowo bookends, were a great number of inspiring and creative features.  In fact, each day contained no less than six feature films (including a shorts block) and three conversations with Saturday having nine features and three conversations.  When attending the festival, one is confronted with the task of seeing as many films as possible but, with a number of films being shown at the same time, it is impossible.  With the festival going virtual, the temptation is to try to see all of the films.  Again, it is impossible.  With each film having a 24-hour window to watch it, unless you are going to spend every waking hour (and some sleeping hours) watching films, the slate is so large that is a daunting job to complete.

Each year, Urbanworld features unforgettable narrative and documentary features from world cinema to homegrown talent.  This festival has it all.  Unfortunately, like the Toronto International Film Festival, there were some features that were “geo-located” meaning that they could only be viewed if you lived in the United States but it is still better than the Cleveland Film Festival that was locked to those outside the state of Ohio. 

There were some conversations that were missed like the Q&A (formal or informal) for the ambitious film A Rose Between Thorns, the first feature released from the islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis.  It would have been good to have a live session to congratulate the artists on their work (and to question some of the imagery that was used).  There were some technical issues (the availability of films).  All in all, Urbanworld continues to be one of the best and consistent places to see quality Black films from around the world, pandemic or not.  Kudos to Gabrielle Glore, her staff and partners HBO, Netflix, Peacock, and more for another great year!

Grade:  B+