Black Films Are Buzzing at This Year’s Sundance Festival

These 14 movies—plus one from the edgier Slamdance—are sure to get some notice at the pre-eminent showcase for independent films.

Scene from Dope
Scene from Dope Rick Famuyiwa via Sundance Institute

Every year the Sundance Film Festival premieres some of the best independent black films around, and it looks as if 2015 will be no different. Viola Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rick Famuyiwa, Zoë Kravitz and Stanley Nelson are just a few of the black actors and filmmakers attending the festival in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1. Sundance was where films like Fruitvale Station and directors like Ava DuVernay won big before going on to garner even more acclaim. This year, early buzz for many of the films is extremely positive.

One of the films opening the festival will be What Happened, Miss Simone?—a documentary about Nina Simone by Liz Garbus. One of the closing films will be Lila & Eve, starring Davis and Jennifer Lopez. Of course, Sundance isn’t just about movies—there are panels and parties, too. The Blackhouse Foundation is back again with a full day of programming not just for entertainment veterans but also for those looking to break into the business. Every year the foundation opens its doors to all the black people attending. Tao nightclub also returns, but will it be the place where Spike Lee throws one of his infamous Sundance parties? This year he’s at the festival with a film he executive-produced, Cronies. Lee has some competition in that department from Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams, who produced Famuyiwa’s film Dope.

We’re highlighting 14 films that will play at Sundance this year. Given recent events regarding North Korea and hacking, we’re also including one film from Slamdance, Sundance’s edgier companion, which takes place in Park City Jan. 23-29. In addition, there are some shorts at Sundance that highlight issues in the black community, including Stop, about stop and frisk, and Mulignans, which is Italian slang for a racially offensive term for a black person.

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    David Moir via Sundance Institute

    Dope

    Dope is the latest film from writer and director Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar and The Wood). The coming-of-age dramedy centers around Malcolm, played by Shameik Moore from the Cartoon Network’s Incredible Crew. The film also stars Zoë Kravitz, Keith Stanfield, Kimberly Elise, A$AP Rocky and Tyga. Forest Whitaker lends his voice for narration and also produces alongside Pharrell Williams, who created the film’s music. Famuyiwa, who is of Nigerian descent, set the film in Inglewood, Calif., where he was raised. According to the film notes, “Malcolm is carefully surviving life in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles while juggling college applications, academic interviews, and the SAT. A chance invitation to an underground party leads him into an adventure that could allow him to go from being a geek, to being dope, to ultimately being himself.”

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    Participant Media via Sundance Institute

    3 1/2 Minutes

    The most relevant film to play at the festival this year, given recent events, may just be 3 1/2 Minutes, directed by Marc Silver. The documentary explores the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The unarmed black teenager was shot at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station by a white man, Michael Dunn, who was upset that Jordan and his friends were blaring loud music from their car. Unlike in some cases currently making headlines, Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but not before an earlier trial ended in a hung jury.

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    Sembene Estate via Sundance Institute

    Sembene!

    Ousmane Sembène, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, has often been called the “father of African film.” His life and legacy are the subject of the documentary Sembene! by filmmakers Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman. The Senegalese filmmaker “promoted a new vision of Africa, and his films injected that vision into the world,” according to the filmmakers, who also say in their notes that he created “films that shocked the sociopolitical power structures of the day.”

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    Sundance Institute

    Z for Zachariah

    Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) stars in Z for Zachariah, along with Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. Ejiofor plays a scientist searching for survivors in a postapocalyptic world. The three characters are forced into an emotionally charged love triangle. Director Craig Zobel told The Root that his film “is not necessarily directly about race, but it touches on issues related to the subject.” Zobel also said that when he was casting his movie, he “couldn’t imagine a world where the only three people left on Earth would all be white.” However, it turns out that in his film, the only three people left on Earth all happen to be extremely good-looking.

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    Christian Carretero via Sundance Institute

    Cronies

    In 2011 The Root highlighted three of Spike Lee’s students from New York University’s film school who had movies at Sundance. This year another one of Lee’s students, writer and director Michael Larnell, will be in the spotlight with Cronies. Lee is executive producer of the film, which is a coming-of-age drama set in St Louis. “I wrote Cronies to tell a different story of male friendship,” Larnell has said. Cronies weaves issues of class, race and growing pains into a story of friendship and understanding. George Sample III stars as Louis, whose new bond with a white buddy, played by Brian Kowalski, threatens his lifelong relationship with his black friend, played by Zurich Buckner. Although Cronies is set in St. Louis, it was filmed before the Michael Brown shooting in nearby Ferguson, Mo. See the trailer here.

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    David Felix Sutcliffe via Sundance Institute

    (T)error

    First-time director Lyric R. Cabral and her filmmaking partner David Felix Sutcliffe will premiere their documentary (T)error at Sundance. The film takes a behind-the-scenes look at a former Black Panther who works as an informant for the FBI in counterterrorism sting operations. (T)error deals with issues such as entrapment, racial profiling and everything else we have come to see as modern-day law-enforcement tools since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Cabral told The Root via email that it is an important film for the black community because “(T)error provides a rare window into the experiences of an active, Afro-Latino, counterterrorism informant for the FBI and illumines the impacts of the war on terror for Muslims and communities of color.”

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    Pirkie Jones via Sundance Institute

    Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

    Filmmaker Stanley Nelson is back at Sundance for a record eighth time with his documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The film explores the history and impact of the controversial civil rights group, which was founded in 1966 to monitor police brutality against blacks. On his website Nelson said, “They changed so much about the way black people see themselves—the way we look, the way we act. Hip-hop and that whole hip-hop attitude wouldn’t have come about if it wasn’t for the Black Panthers.” In 2016, the 50th anniversary of the group’s founding, PBS will air the documentary.

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    Bob Mahoney via Sundance Institute

    Lila & Eve

    Viola Davis is everywhere these days. The Oscar winner is on TV in How to Get Away With Murder and in movie theaters with Blackhat, and she will be at Sundance co-starring in the crime drama Lila & Eve with Jennifer Lopez. It’s said to be in the vein of Thelma & Louise, but obviously the black-and-brown version. According to the film notes, Lila (Davis) is a grief-stricken mother still reeling from her son’s murder. She attends a support group, where she meets Eve, portrayed by Lopez, who urges her to take matters into her own hands to track down her son’s killers. The movie is directed by Charles Stone III (Drumline, Mr. 3000 and Paid in Full).

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    Fresh Dressed director Sacha Jenkins (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

    Fresh Dressed

    Hip-hop comes to Sundance in the form of Fresh Dressed, a Nas-produced, Sacha Jenkins-directed documentary. The film looks at the history of hip-hop fashion and culture, noting that it was founded on the black-and-brown side of town before moving into the mainstream. According to the film notes, the documentary looks back at slavery to bring us to where we are culturally today with hip-hop fashion. Hip-hop and fashion luminaries such as Kanye West, André Leon Talley, Pharrell Williams and, of course, Nas make appearances in the film. So do shell-toe Adidas, Kangol hats and Cazal shades, along with lots of cool music that was the soundtrack for so many outfits forgotten over the years.

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    Strand Releasing via Sundance Institute

    Girlhood (Bande de Filles)

    Girlhood (Bande de Filles) is a French film about a young girl of African descent who, according to the film notes, “is oppressed by her family, dead-end school prospects and the boys in the neighborhood. Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls. She changes her name and dress and quits school to be accepted in the gang, hoping to find a way to freedom.” It was written and directed by Céline Sciamma and stars Karidja Touré. It opens Jan. 30 in New York City with a national rollout to follow. See the trailer here.

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    Matyas Erdely via Sundance Institute

    James White

    Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi has a major supporting role in James White and also did the music for the film. This is his first time scoring a feature-length film. On the movie’s Kickstarter page, Kid Cudi says, “All I want to do is make cool [s–t] and this movie is a cool movie. I’m just really proud of it.” The film is about a troubled 20-something trying to stay afloat in a frenzied New York City. James White, the lead character, is played by Christopher Abbott, with Kid Cudi portraying his best friend. It was written and directed by Josh Mond and also stars Cynthia Nixon and Ron Livingston.

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    Aaron Wickenden via Sundance Institute

    Dreamcatcher

    Brenda Myers-Powell and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson are the stars of Dreamcatcher, a documentary directed by Kim Longinotto. The pair are survivors of the sex trade and now help other women, many of them black, through their Chicago-based Dreamcatcher Foundation. Their story has been told before, but according to the filmmaker, this documentary is “an exploration into the cycle of neglect, violence and exploitation, which each year pushes thousands of girls and women into prostitution and the individuals who strive to help them.”

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    Peter Rodis via Sundance Institute

    What Happened, Miss Simone?

    One of the opening-night films at Sundance is What Happened, Miss Simone? The documentary, about the life of Nina Simone, is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, who “interweaves never-heard-before recordings and rare archival footage together with Nina’s most memorable songs, to create an unforgettable portrait of one of the least understood, yet most beloved, artists of our time,” according to the film notes. Simone’s daughter, friends and collaborators are also interviewed in the film, which will be on Netflix later this year. John Legend will pay musical tribute to Simone on Thursday, covering songs by Simone after the film’s premiere. The legendary singer and activist is also the subject of a biopic starring Zoe Saldana that has generated a lot of controversy.

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    Radium via Sundance Institute

    Tangerine

    Tangerine introduces two new actors to Sundance: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who stars in the film, and Mya Taylor, who plays her best friend. The story revolves around a Sunset Strip prostitute who sets out to find the pimp who broke her heart on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. It’s described as a comedic drama. Taylor, who has a musical background, sings the song “Toyland” in the film. According to Mickey O’Hagan, who is also in the movie, Taylor sounds like a cross between Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston.

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    Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang

    Although it’s not playing at Sundance, Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang will be shown at Slamdance, premiering Jan. 25. Known as the edgy, no-frills companion festival to Sundance, Slamdance also takes place in Park City, at the same time as its more notable older sibling. Rodman, who has never shied away from publicity, has been making the media rounds promoting his movie. In fact, he said the documentary is the only place to see what really happened when he went to North Korea. It seems that even after all the publicity surrounding his trips in 2013 and 2014 to bring basketball diplomacy to the country that the U.S. government blames for the Sony hack, there is still enough we haven’t seen to make into a documentary.

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