The Urbanworld Film Festival is a space for black cinematic excellence.

For five days (from Sept. 18-22), Urbanworld showed New York City and the world why the festival is in its 23rd year (The Root was a media sponsor of the festival). On Wednesday, Harriet, a film directed by Kasi Lemmons, opened the festival with a packed-house (which required an overflow theater).

And there was more cinematic blackness to follow.

Here are a few festival highlights:

Just Mercy

Jelani Cobb, left, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Karan Kendrick, Tim Blake Nelson and Bryan Stevenson.
Photo: Mychal Watts/Getty Images

Just Mercy is a harrowing film set in the late 1980s. Michael B. Jordan plays Harvard-educated lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, who defends a wrongly convicted black man on death row.

The film also stars Jamie Foxx, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. On the Urbanworld red carpet, the 28-year-old actor spoke about the social injustices that persist today. “It’s a sad thing when you can be rich and guilty and get more justice than somebody who is poor and innocent,” Jackson said.

Just Mercy is based on Stevenson’s 2014 New York Times bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The attorney and author is also the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He says that fear, in part, has caused the presumption of guilt when it comes to black people.

“From slavery, this presumption of dangerousness and guilt was assigned to black people. It’s what caused thousands to be lynched. It’s why there was segregation. It’s why there are police shootings of unarmed black people.” Stevenson told The Root. “We have been acculturated to accepting these conditions, and that has to change.”


First Wives Club

Mark Tallman, left, Ronreaco Lee, Tobias Truvillion and Felice León after the Urbanworld Q&A for “First Wives Club”
Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

First Wives Club (now streaming on BET+) is an original series centered around three best friends: Ari (Ryan Michelle Bathe), Hazel (Jill Scott) and Bree (Michelle Buteau). The nine-episode series is based on the 1996 film, but with black women at the helm of the project (Tracy Oliver executive produces the project, and the three leads are black women), we know it’s going to have some flavor.

But the Urbanworld spotlight presentation was all about the fellas.

In an intimate conversation (moderated by yours truly), RonReaco Lee, Mark Tallman and Tobias Truvillion spoke about the brotherhood they were able to develop on set and the significance of being in a cast executive produced and directed by women.


“Somebody like Michelle can easily make everybody crack up and laugh, but she’s also very vulnerable with her work.” Lee said of Michelle Buteau.“It’s something that as an artist, I want to strive to do.”

Black and Blue

Gia Peppers, left, Nafessa Williams, Tyrese Gibson and Deon Taylor during the Urbanworld premiere of “Black and Blue”
Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

The festival ended with Black and Blue, directed by Deon Taylor (Traffik, The Intruder) and starring Academy Award nominee Naomie Harris, who plays a rookie cop, and Tyrese Gibson. In a Q&A moderated by Gia Peppers, Gibson became emotional.

“I’m so grateful right now, I can’t even look up,” said Gibson as he fought tears. The Urbanworld audience cheered him on in that black church sort of way (Imagine the aunties lightly applauding with some affirming words: “Take your tiiiime, baby”). The actor continued, “You know moments like this, I would leave this moment and I would call John Singleton.” At that point, the audience began to feel what Gibson felt. I certainly did.


But one can’t help but wonder, in this world of unjust policing, why center a film around a black female officer? Taylor, who was raised by a single mother, said he’s seen strong black women throughout his life—this was a source of inspiration.

“It was the perfect storm for the movie.” The Black and Blue director continued, “I never seen a film with a black female lead as a police officer in cinematic history. When I researched it and found out this would be the first movie, it blew my mind.” Indeed.


Urbanworld winners were announced on Sunday—here are a few of the winners:

Best Narrative Feature (U.S. Cinema)

Yellow Rose, directed by Diane Paragas

Best Narrative Feature (World Cinema)

The Ghost And The House Of Truth, directed by Akin Omotoso

Best Narrative Short

Cap, directed by Marshall Tyler

Best Documentary Feature

The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion, directed by Lisa Cortés and Farah X

Find the complete list of winners for the 23rd Urbanworld Film Festival on

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

About the author

Felice León

Afro-Cuban woman that was born and branded in New York. When León isn't actually creating cool videos, she's thinking of cool videos that she can create.