The Black Side of Sundance

For nearly 30 years, the Sundance Film Festival has been the undisputed champion of independent filmmaking. "Precious" got its start there. This year, there was a record representation of black films. Is Sundance becoming “Blackdance”?

Harry Belafonte at a panel at Sundance. (Getty Images)
Harry Belafonte at a panel at Sundance. (Getty Images)

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.

Sundance Senior Programmer Shari Frilot, who is the only African American on the seven-member programming panel, attributes the record number to several factors, including “accessibility to filmmaking,” saying, “it used to be elitist — not anymore.” Yes, the cost of making movies has gone down as the technology has gotten better, but that is only part of the reason more blacks are making films and more of those films are being shown at Sundance.

Frilot, who has been with the festival for 11 years, credits an older generation of black filmmakers with paving the way for the new guard. “The groundwork was laid before them, and they are coming from programs that support them,” Frilot says.

Dee Rees is a prime example. The young, black female filmmaker had a lot of support from the Sundance Institute’s lab programs for writers and directors. Rees also had Spike Lee, her teacher at New York University’s graduate film program, as an executive producer of her debut feature, Pariah.

The movie tells the story of a Brooklyn teenager who comes out while trying to placate conservative parents. Rees says it was loosely based on some of her own experiences. When Sundance Director of Programming Trevor Groth introduced Pariah to a predominantly white audience at a packed Wednesday-afternoon screening, he called it “a showcase of immense talent.” Rees is grateful for the compliment, but even more grateful that Sundance chose to debut her film on the festival’s opening night in the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater.

Sundance programmers also chose another black-themed film to play opening night in the same venue: Sing Your Song, a documentary about the life and times of Harry Belafonte. (His daughter, Gina Belafonte, served as a producer on the film.) As Rees sees it, two black films playing on opening night, as well as the proliferation of black films at Sundance, is “not an ‘either/or’ programming choice, but an ‘and.’ ”

But even though there were more black films and filmmakers than ever before, none were able to garner the coveted top jury prize. Contrast that with 2009, when Lee Daniels’ film, Precious, then titled Push, won three awards, including the grand jury prize for best drama. Or you could go back 21 years to when black filmmaker Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street became the first black film to win the top prize at Sundance.

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.”