When the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival made its debut in 2003, just over 10 audience members turned out for screenings at the performing arts center in Oak Bluffs — which seats nearly 800. It was a woeful sight.

“I was definitely upset,” said Stephanie Rance, who founded the festival with her cinematographer husband Floyd. But, she added, “I always thought we had something here.”

It looks as if she was right. Fifteen years after that inauspicious beginning, the Rances’ annual festival is drawing huge crowds — including members of that initial audience who have stayed with the event ever since.

“We have people who have been with us since day one,” Ms. Rance told the Gazette this week.

This year’s festival, August 7 to 12, is bringing some heavy hitters to the performing arts center, where the event returned a few years ago after outgrowing smaller Island venues such as the Katharine Cornell Theatre and the Mansion House.

Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to win a best-director Academy Award (for The Hurt Locker, 2008), is coming with her new film Detroit. Oscar-winning director and summer Island resident Spike Lee is presenting a new Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, updating his first feature film from 1986, and also his Netflix-acquired performance documentary Rodney King, a monologue by Roger Guenveur Smith.

In all, Ms. Rance said, the 2017 festival is hosting 45 directors and showing 51 films, from shorts to full-length features. Many of the screenings will be followed by panel discussions in a series called The Color of Conversation, which the Rances have produced in other communities as stand-alone events.

After Detroit, which shows Monday at 4 p.m., Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad will moderate a talk with Ms. Bigelow. Friday’s 7 p.m. screening of the documentary series The Defiant Ones, chronicling the musical partnership of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, will be followed by a conversation with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and director Allen Hughes.

Thursday’s 7 p.m. screening of Rodney King will lead to a talk with Spike Lee and Roger Smith about how prominent African American athletes are using their cultural clout to shine a light on police brutality. Following She’s Gotta Have It, Sunday at 7 p.m., Mr. Lee and his wife Tonya Lewis Lee — who are executive producers for the series — will talk with actress DeWanda Wise.

Along with Detroit, one of the festival’s most buzz-worthy entries is director Reginald Hudlin’s new feature Marshall, based on a true case from early in the career of attorney Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Set for release in October, the picture stars Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown and James Cromwell. Marshall screens at the festival Tuesday at 7 p.m., followed by a talk with Mr. Hudlin.

Other highlights of the six-day festival include a five-minute edit of films — such as Cab Calloway’s home movies — from the preservation department of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a 60-minute examination of Blaxploitation: 100 Years of Blackness in Italian Cinema, and numerous short features. Screenings begin at 11 a.m. and continue throughout the day and evening.

There are also festival parties at Lola’s in Oak Bluffs. Beginning at 10 p.m. Thursday is the Summer White party, and Friday is HBO’s Defiant Friday Party. The closing-night bash is on Saturday.

As much of an Island summer institution as the African American Film Festival has become over its 15 years here, the Rances had originally planned to produce it in Barbados — even though the Vineyard provided the inspiration, Mr. Rance said. It was a screening of short films at the Island Theatre in the 1990s that sparked Ms. Rance’s ambition, her husband recalled. “The line was around the corner and a light bulb went off in her head,” he said.

A few years later the couple were in Barbados, which was endeavoring to attract more African American vacationers, and decided to produce a film festival there. Then came the terror attacks of 9/11, and their sponsors dropped out.

“I can’t not do this,” Ms. Rance remembers thinking. “Let’s do it on Martha’s Vineyard!”

While launching the festival here a decade and a half ago, the Rances were also starting a family. Their son is now 15 and their daughter 13.

“This film festival is kind of like our third child,” Mr. Rance said. “It’s very near and dear to our hearts. It’s a labor of love.”

Originally from New York city, where they met at a Christmas party for Def Jam Records, the Rances lived in Charlotte, S.C. for a number of years before moving to Colorado, where the family now resides. They tried replicating the film festival in Charlotte, but gave up after two years.

“The Vineyard has more cachet,” Ms. Rance said. The Island’s history among African-Americans is also important, she added.

“It’s definitely like a homecoming,” she said.

For the festival schedule, film descriptions and ticket information, visit mvaaff.com/itinerary.