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)

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. (According to a Focus representative, Rees also garnered a screenwriting deal with the studio.)

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?”

Julie Walker is an award-winning journalist who lives and works in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

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