(pictured above: Cheryl Lindsay (center) poses with Spark Award winners Tyler James Williams and Sophie Desmarais.)
The 16th Annual RiverRun International Film Festival ended Sunday, after bringing more than 150 films, a bevy of actors, producers and directors and a stream of film lovers to town over the last two weeks.
One of the most prominent attendees was actor Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris” fame. A RiverRun Spark Award, for up-and-coming talents, was bestowed upon him Friday night at Black Horse Studio on East Third Street.
“It was really humbling and honoring at the same time simply to be recognized, not only for a body of work, but for a body of work (that is still) to come,” said Williams, who played the title role in the Emmy Award-winning series based on the childhood of actor/comedian Chris Rock. “…I was really humbled by their belief in me. That’s why we do this in the first place, to inspire others.”
Williams, a 21-year-old Westchester County, N.Y. native, launched his acting career at the tender age of four and says he has never looked back.
“It’s pretty much always been a passion for me,” he confessed. “…I can’t really imagine myself doing anything else.”
His two younger brothers Tyrel Jackson Williams and Tylen Jacob Williams have since followed him into the industry. Tyrel stars as Leo in the Disney XD series “Lab Rats,” while Tylen plays James on the Nick at Nite’s “Instant Mom.”
The eldest Williams brother is now making a splash in the film industry with his starring role in the satire “Dear White People.” The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was recently picked up by Lionsgate and is slated for release in the fall, Williams said.
“It’s the little movie that could, and we’re really excited that it’s going to be shown on a broader scale,” he said of “Dear White People,” which he lists among his favorite projects to date. “…I don’t feel like I’d yet done a project that not only entertained, but challenged people to think, and that’s definitely what that project does.”
Williams praised RiverRun for its simplistic approach and commitment to showcasing the best work possible, as well as its focus on local talent.
“It’s one of the few festivals that’s still just a festival. There’s so much glitz and glamour around festivals now … that great filmmaking just kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” he observed. “…I think it’s really great that there’s a festival that stays true to the area and gives people not only hope but the tools to say, ‘You can do this if you want to.’”
Director Tommy Oliver was also one of the standouts at the festival. The Philadelphia native’s film “1982” created quite the buzz. Semiautobiographical, the film chronicles the struggle of a young black father to raise his daughter as his wife struggles with crack addiction. Though there are themes abound in “1982,” Oliver says he trusts viewers to draw their own messages.
“I believe that audiences are smart and I trust the audience,” he said. “Different people will get different things from the movie, and that’s the way I’d like it to be.”
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last fall, has done well on the film festival circuit, picking up audience awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival, and snagging Oliver a nomination for The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year. Oliver also served as a producer on the 2011 film “Kinyarwanda,” which received a coveted four star review from film critic Roger Ebert.
“It’s been incredible,” the 30-year-old said of the reception his work has received. “It’s been absolutely incredible and humbling.”
When he’s not touring the film circuit with “1982,” Oliver says he is hard at work, cultivating the opportunities it has afforded him. A television series produced by an Oscar-nominated producer with a “big star” in the lead role is forthcoming, Oliver says. The Carnegie Mellon University alumnus has also signed on as director of “Destined,” a film produced by Quasim Basir that he describes as “‘Boys n the Hood’ meets ‘Sliding Doors.’”
“1982” has been something of a good luck charm for Oliver. He met his fiancee, Codie Brooks, in Toronto the day after it premiered. He proposed to her three weeks ago, at his 30th birthday bash in LA. The two are planning a February 2015 wedding in Costa Rica.
“I can’t wait,” he confessed. “The one thing that’s been really important to me is being the best dad ever and being a really good husband, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Oliver said he enjoyed his time at RiverRun, where he conversed with local audiences about the film and his career.
“I actually really like it here. The people are so nice and it’s such a great atmosphere,” he declared. “I really appreciate the people and the openness. It’s been good.”
RiverRun Board Chair Cheryl Lindsay, the director of Human Resources and Inclusion/Diversity at HanesBrands, said the festival was thrilled to showcase the work of Williams, Oliver and countless others who have dedicated their lives and careers to telling stories that are authentic and inspiring.
“We are proud to recognize these gifted filmmakers and their inspiring films,” Lindsay declared. “RiverRun Film Festival is a wonderful avenue for exposing talented people from all over the world to our great city of Winston-Salem.”