The Black Side of Sundance

Julie Walker, The Root, January 31, 2011

For those bemoaning the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations, they can at least take heart in knowing that diversity at the Sundance Film Festival is alive and well and flourishing, with no fewer than a combined 30 black filmmakers and films.

2011 is proving to be a banner year for black films and black filmmakers at the festival, which wrapped yesterday. This year, there were more features, documentaries and shorts by blacks and about blacks than at any other time in the prestigious festival’s history, which began in 1978 as the Utah/U.S. Film Festival.

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But even without snaring the top award, black-themed films fared well in terms of awards. The documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, about Kevin Clash, the black man behind the fuzzy red monster, was given a special jury award, while the audience award for world dramatic feature went to Kinyarwanda, a film about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Kinyarwanda director and writer Alrick Brown, who was also mentored by Spike Lee while attending NYU film school, remembers his first time at Sundance as very different from today. “In 2005 it was two or three days before I saw another black person,” says Brown, adding that he was “blown away by how white it was.” Now he calls it “the perfect black storm.”

That storm certainly blew a lot of black people into town. You could not walk down Main Street in Park City without seeing another person of color. {snip}

Prior to the festival, OWN bought Becoming Chaz, a documentary about Sonny and Cher’s daughter, Chastity Bono, becoming a man. In 2009 Oprah swooped in and helped Lee Daniels get a distribution deal for Precious. So far there is no word on whether she will come to the aid of any of this year’s black films.

Kinyarwanda is still without a distributor. Pariah, however, got picked up during the festival by Focus Features for what’s being reported as a high-six-figure deal, and for some filmmakers that’s like hitting the jackpot. {snip}

Director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is African American, also won a distribution deal for his first feature, Gun Hill Road. The movie, which was picked up by Motion Film Group in a seven-figure deal, is another coming-out and coming-of-age story. It stars Esai Morales, who also co-produced the film with an African-American producer, Ron Simons. Morales says, “Sundance has gotten back to a place where they are focusing on diversity.” Green, another NYU alum mentored by Spike Lee, says, “It feels like there is a movement going on” at Sundance–a movement that he is eager to join.

Green took part in several events at Sundance geared toward black filmmakers, including one with the Blackhouse Foundation, an Institute Associate of Sundance. Dolly Turner, one of the Blackhouse directors, credits the foundation’s involvement over the past five years with increasing diversity at Sundance. “If we are there to help black filmmakers, then people, take note,” she says.

Another black presence at the festival this year was the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM). It’s the brainchild of Ava DuVernay, a filmmaker and publicist who is trying to create a distribution network for black films. For DuVernay, who has taken to calling Sundance “Blackdance,” it’s not a question of why they chose so many black filmmakers and films to spotlight this year, but “how can we make sure it continues next year,” and “why not every year?”

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