Let’s first put things in perspective: this year 12,146 films were submitted to Sundance and only 170 were selected. That’s a 1.4% acceptance rate. How crazy is that? A huge congrats goes out to the chosen ones already announced this week!
As I did last year, I skimmed the competition lineup for films that fall under what has been dubbed the “Blackdance” revolution. Specifically these are groundbreaking films made by Black artists or featuring Black lead characters and/or casts making their premiere at the independent film epicenter that is Sundance in January every year.
I was happy to see three very unique films on the list: “American Promise”, “Mother of George” and “Fruitvale”. These films could absolutely follow in the footsteps of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” by Benh Zeitlin and “Middle of Nowhere” by Ava DuVernay as a part of the new exciting period in Black cinema finding audiences with screenings on the major festival circuit. Both “Beasts” and “MON” were included in the US Dramatic Competition and went on to win top prizes at last year’s festival, propelling them into a year of positive global recognition. Will history repeat itself in 2013?
US Documentary Competition: AMERICAN PROMISE, Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
I first heard about this film when I was interning at Working Films, a wonderful organization in North Carolina that pairs documentary filmmakers with activist groups that match the film’s themes. I later had the opportunity to attend a rough cut screening at the Cucalorus Film Festival. I was interested in the story from the very first time I read the synopsis. Seriously, these parents have been filming their son and his friend for pretty much their entire lives. Crazy, right? After seeing select clips and hearing director and mother Michèle speak in the festival Q&A, I was hooked. It’s rare that I feel a documentary is actually capturing an aspect of my life, but that is exactly why I felt a connection to “American Promise”. Seeing the two Black boys on-screen navigating the private school worlds sent me back in time to the days I spent in predominantly white classrooms. It took years for me to realize that even though I was progressing into more advanced academic circles, I was really learning how to switch between two worlds: home and school; Black and white. I could not be more ecstatic that “American Promise” will premiere in competition at Sundance. It is number 1 on my must-see list, hands down. Great story aside, I’m dying to know how they have edited all of the hours of footage into a cohesive narrative. Regardless, I know it won’t be just another “Waiting for Superman”. For once we will have parents both on screen and behind the camera sharing stories of simply trying to provide the best education for their children.
US Dramatic Competition: MOTHER OF GEORGE (MA’ GEORGE), Directed by Andrew Dosunmu
I’m going to take a guess that this will be the fourth AFFRM film from founder Ava DuVernay to screen at Sundance (“Kinyarwanda” and “Restless City” in 2011; “Middle of Nowhere” in 2012). “Mother of George” has all the makings of another “Blackdance” gem. The incredibly talented Bradford Young as director of photography? Check. Distinct point-of-view tale from a rising Black director (Andrew Dosunmu)? Check. Supported by Sundance Labs? Check plus. Sundance has been very receptive to the AFFRM movement, I’d say. Hello, DuVernay is the first Black woman to win Best Director in festival history! This film is not only guaranteed to be beautiful to look at with Dosunmu and Young teaming up again after “Restless City”, but will offer yet another compelling perspective from the Black lens. Win-win.
US Dramatic Competition: FRUITVALE, Directed by Ryan Coogler
Festival synopsis: The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family and strangers on the last day of 2008. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray.
When I hear people say that fests like Sundance are becoming too commercial or indie film (especially Black indie film) is going down the drain, I’m reminded of true storytellers like Ryan Coogler. A tragic news story that I’d never heard of helmed by a newcomer Black filmmaker will have the attention of the entire film world next month? You can’t deny the magic of this opportunity. A quick turn on Google and I found a link to the San Francisco Film Society featuring a profile of Coogler and the film. This is what Sundance can do, folks.