NEW YORK -- Chi Moui Lo's film debut, "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," centers on two young Vietnamese refugees who come to America and end up being adopted by a black family. Suffice to say, it's not mainstream Hollywood fare.
Lo had difficulty getting a studio to finance the film, which cost $2 million to make and stars Paul Winfield, "Love and Basketball's" Sanaa Lathan, "The Joy Luck Club's" Lauren Tom, and the filmmaker himself.
"The studios basically hinted that the problem with the film was too many minorities, too many old people," said Lo, who has appeared on shows such as "NYPD Blue." "They said, 'Your movie is a minority of a minority of a minority."'
While the film has not been embraced by major Hollywood studios, it has found an audience -- at this year's Urbanworld Film Festival. Now in its fourth year, the New York-based event has become a key venue for minority filmmakers.
The festival, which opens Wednesday, features approximately 70 films ranging from short independent flicks to big-budget, high-profile releases. Among the films that have premiered at Urbanworld are last year's hit "The Best Man."
"Here's an opportunity for your film as a filmmaker of color to get seen and to have audiences understand it and to relate to it and to connect to it," said Malcolm Lee, director of "The Best Man." "A lot of other film festivals don't always offer that, an opportunity to be lauded as such."
Most films entered at Urbanworld must either be made by a black person or be about black people. However, there are opportunities for other minorities to show their work -- eight Hispanic filmmakers and eight Asian filmmakers will have their projects shown this year.
Urbanworld was launched in 1997 by 32-year-old Stacy Spikes, a former marketing executive at Miramax Films and October Films. Spikes saw how few opportunities there were for minority filmmakers to display their talents, especially at other film festivals, even those designed to focus on non-mainstream films.
"I feel there is a lot more black content that should be shown at those festivals that are shown," he said. "But they are doing us a favor. If they were doing such a great job, Urbanworld wouldn't exist."
Lee credits the festival for helping "The Best Man" debut at No. 1 at the box office last fall.
"It was a very good platform for us in that it got the word of mouth going early, that was about two months before we opened," he said. "A lot of people sent e-mails out regarding the film after Urbanworld."
In many respects, Urbanworld's success is representative of the strides made in black film over the past two decades. Films like "Soul Food," "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" have proved profitable and demonstrated that there is an audience willing to plunk down money to see blacks in starring roles.
And blacks are having more success behind the camera as well. One of the summer's biggest hits, "Scary Movie," was directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, and co-written by two of his brothers, Shawn and Marlon.
Wayans remembers how few black films were being made when he helped write Robert Townsend's 1987 film "Hollywood Shuffle," which he also starred in. Along with Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," those films ushered in a new era in black filmmaking, he said.
"If you look at all the people who are here now just in that short period of time, it's definitely had a positive impact, and we can see growth," he said. "It's just a matter of now going to the next level, which is not being perceived just as black filmmakers, and just being filmmakers."
Other minority filmmakers are hoping for the same thing. Lo's "Catfish" opens nationwide Aug. 25 in 40 markets, and despite its minority theme, Lo considers the film mainstream.
"My story is about mother and child, family relationships," he said. "I think for decades we have been seeing films about mother and child through a white perspective. And in my film, I think we get to see it through an African-American and Asian perspective ... and it's universal."
On the Net:
"Catfish in Black Bean Sauce": http://www.catfishthemovie.com
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