Black Movies on Display at Sundance

Spike Lee, Chris Rock and Ice-T showcase new projects at independent film's top festival.

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    Kris Connor/Getty Images; John Shearer/Getty Images for Art of Elysium; Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

    This year’s Sundance Film Festival offers fewer black films and filmmakers than last year, but the star power is in the house. Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Common, Rashida Jones and Ice-T all have movies showing there. The festival begins Jan. 19 and runs through the end of the month. The Root takes a look at some of the feature films and documentaries that will premiere at the festival this year.

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    David Lee

    Red Hook Summer

    Award-winning director Spike Lee returns to his film roots with a movie about a middle-class boy from Atlanta who is sent to Red Hook in Brooklyn, N.Y., to spend the summer with his minister grandfather in a housing project. Lee wrote and directed the drama, in which he also appears as Mookie, whom some may remember from Do the Right Thing. The cast also includes Clarke Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, James Ransone and Thomas Jefferson Byrd.

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    Jojo Whilden

    2 Days in New York

    The film and the filmmaker are not black, but Chris Rock does co-star as the hipster boyfriend in this follow-up to Julie Delpy’s biting romantic comedy 2 Days in Paris. In the movie, Delpy and Rock live together with their children from previous relationships. When her family visits from France for two very explosive days, racial tensions rise.

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    Bill Gray


    The cast of Luv includes Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and Michael Kenneth Williams, and the film was directed by Sheldon Candis. Need we say more? OK, the plot revolves around an 11-year-old boy who is forced to face the unpleasant truth about his beloved uncle during one harrowing day in the streets of Baltimore. Common, who signed on as a producer of the movie, plays the ex-con uncle, while Rainey Jr. gets his big film break as the young boy.

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    Middle of Nowhere

    Director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay makes her Sundance premiere with a film about an African-American woman struggling to maintain her marriage and her identity after her husband is incarcerated. The movie was shot by Bradford Young, who was also the cinematographer for last year’s Sundance favorite, Pariah. The cast includes Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint and Edwina Findley. DuVernay is also the force behind the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

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    Library of Congress

    Slavery by Another Name

    This documentary looks at the many ways that slavery persisted in America decades after its supposed abolition with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Filmmaker Sam Pollard (Eyes on the Prize, When the Levees Broke) shines a spotlight on how new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South following the Civil War and kept hundreds of thousands of African Americans in bondage. Slavery by Another Name is based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon.

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    Gunner Fox

    Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap

    This documentary by Ice-T explores the roots and history of rap and reveals the creative process behind this now dominant art form. It includes conversations with some of rap’s most influential artists — among them Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, MC Lyte, Mos Def and Kanye West. It’s a very personal film for Ice-T, who began his entertainment career as a rapper.

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    Agatha Nitecka

    Wuthering Heights

    You know the story: A poor English boy is taken from poverty in the city to live with a farm family and falls for his new sister. Well, this version of Wuthering Heights is a freshly conceived retelling of Emily Brontë’s classic novel about two teens whose passionate love creates a storm of vengeance. That’s because Heathcliff is black, played by newcomer James Howson, while Catherine is white. The film has already opened overseas.

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    The Ambassador

    What happens when a white European man buys his way into becoming a diplomat in one of Central Africa’s most failed nations? Welcome to the bizarre and hidden world of African diplomacy, where gin and tonics flow, and diamond hustlers and corrupt politicians run free. In this documentary, which could be considered a mockumentary, filmmaker Mads Brügger gets his hands on a diplomatic passport and uses a hidden camera to uncover the deep-rooted corruption that allows others to continue to get rich from Africa’s resources.

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    David Lanzenberg

    Celeste and Jesse Forever

    Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg are a divorcing couple who try to remain friends while also pursuing other love interests. They are forever linked in their friends’ minds as the perfect couple — she, a high-powered businesswoman and budding novelist; he, a free spirit who keeps things from getting boring. The romantic comedy was written and executive-produced by Jones and Will McCormack.

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    Ben Richards

    Beasts of the Southern Wild

    In this epic tale, an intrepid 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink, in a Southern Louisiana Delta community known as “the Bathtub” on the wrong side of a levee. When he gets very sick, she refuses to leave him and evacuate their home, even as the Southern Apocalypse descends upon them. The film employs a cast of nonactors from Louisiana, where it was shot, including Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Director Benh Zeitlin is part of Court 13, a New Orleans-based filmmakers’ collective.

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    Tony Hardmon


    Detroit was once a middle-class capital — an industrial utopia — where anyone who worked hard enough could live the American dream. But the city has seen record unemployment and record foreclosures linked to the demise of manufacturing, along with other industries. The documentary paints a picture of those who stayed to try and rebuild. According to filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Detropia is a cinematic tapestry of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.

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    Paul Simon Private Collection

    Under African Skies

    Singer Paul Simon returns to South Africa for a reunion concert to mark the 25th anniversary of his historic album, Graceland. The documentary explores his journey, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end apartheid. The film includes interviews with anti-apartheid activists and music legends such as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney and David Byrne.

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    Searching for Sugar Man

    The documentary is one of three films that will open the festival. Swedish film director Malik Bendjelloul explores the world of 1970s rock icon Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, aka Sugar Man. The film takes us from Detroit, where he was discovered, to Cape Town, South Africa, where he gained a cult following for music that struck a chord with South Africans fed up with apartheid.

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    Etienne Sauret

    The House I Live In

    For many black men, the house they live in is a jailhouse. This documentary takes a look at the impact the war on drugs has had on the prison population and the policies that surround it. In the past 40 years, the war on drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, yet drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. Danny Glover is one of the film’s producers.

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    Cathleen Miles

    An Oversimplification of Her Beauty

    Director, writer and actor Terence Nance’s debut feature explores the relationship between Nance and a lovely woman as it teeters on the divide between platonic and romantic. Nance utilizes live action and various styles of animation in the film, which also features his music. Nance is well-known to many in the art world as the subject of a recent Kehinde Wiley painting that The Root told you about in its Art Basel report.