Ben Vereen talks about
Ben Vereen talks about "Idlewild" at the movie's Edgartown screening. Photo by Ralph Stewart

African-American Film Festival marks fourth year with "Idlewild"

By Brooks Robards - August 17, 2006

Making his first visit to Martha's Vineyard, award-winning actor Ben Vereen launched the fourth annual Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival on Thursday, August 10, to a standing ovation. Vereen introduced "Idlewild," the black 1930s jazz-gangster musical that had its world premiere at the start of the four-day festival.

The premiere of the HBO/Universal movie, directed by Bryan Barber, was held at the Edgartown Cinemas and was sold out. Ben Vereen plays the mortician father of piano-playing Percival (André 3000) a talented composer who falls in love with singer Angel (Paula Patton), in the star-studded, action-packed movie set in the Prohibition South.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

"The kid is a genius," Mr. Vereen said of Big Boi, also known as Antwan Patton, who plays speak-easy owner Rooster. "Idlewild," which opens this week in New York City, gave the platinum-record hip-hop band Outkast star his first acting opportunity. Although Mr. Vereen, who has been celebrated on Broadway as a song and dance man, doesn't sing or dance in "Idlewild," he served as acting coach to Outkast's André 3000, also known as André Benjamin, and his co-lead Big Boi.

"They hadn't dealt with where I come from," says Mr. Vereen of his hip-hop co-stars. "It was a matter of getting them into that headset." Mr. Vereen introduced them to the classic Black movie musical "Stormy Weather." He also advised Big Boi to watch "Casablanca" and to study Black bandleader and songwriter Cab Calloway.

Originally made for TV, "Idlewild" was moved to a theatrical release after HBO teamed up with Universal Pictures and the movie's crossover potential became clear. The music in the movie blends hip-hop with '30s forms like swing and jitterbug.

"It's huge," Mr. Vereen says," It's really done well."

On Thursday night, the movie was interrupted 15 minutes before finishing when a violent electrical storm cut electricity at the theatre, and members of the audience who wanted to see the end came back the next morning.

The "Idlewild" screening was only the first of a series of events organized by MVA-AFF. HBO hosted a second premiere on Friday of its popular TV drama series "The Wire," entering its fourth season. The first episode of the show's new season was introduced by actor/director Karyn Parsons.

In addition to screenings over the weekend, the festival featured a rooftop party at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, actor's workshops, celebrity question-and-answer sessions, and panel discussions. The festival was started four years ago by commercials director Floyd Rance and his wife, Stephanie Tavares-Rance, of Run and Shoot Filmworks and has grown dramatically.

"The word is spreading," says Mr. Rance. "It is definitely on the radar screen." Mr. Rance first came to the Vineyard when he and his then-girlfriend started dating.

"She would drag me up here," he said. "One year she rented a house and did a barbecue. That was the genesis of the festival-in the summer of 2000." For a while, the couple considered holding the festival in Barbados. Then the attacks of 9/11 happened.

"By 2002, we knew the lay of the land here," Mr. Rance says. "Premiering 'Idlewild' is a big coup." Once HBO came on board, the festival could sponsor three awards. They were won by "The Hip Hop Project" (Best Documentary), "The Situation" (Best Feature and Audience Awards), and "Results" (Best Short).

"At the heart of the festival is the ideology of sharing and support," says Mr. Rance.

In 2007, Mr. Rance and Ms. Tavares-Rance hope to offer music as well as movies. In the meantime, the second weekend in August has become the annual slot for the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.