14 Films That Matter at Sundance

From a feature on Oscar Grant to a doc on Anita Hill, this year's movies are profound and poignant.

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    Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale; Anita Hill in Anita (sundance.org)

    The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah, with a respectable slate of movies that either deal with black subject matters or star some of Hollywood’s top black actors. While at first look the lineup does not seem as abundant as in years past, it’s quality, not quantity, that the festival prides itself on. The true test of Sundance is what comes out of the festival: distribution and studio deals. Last year’s Sundance winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which The Root previewed, is up for two top Oscars: best picture and best actress for its star Quvenzhané Wallis.

    For this year’s festival, 119 feature-length films were selected, representing 32 countries and 51 first-time filmmakers, including 27 in competition. Organizers said that these films were selected from 12,146 submissions. Just getting your film accepted into Sundance, which is considered the premier U.S. independent film festival, is an accomplishment.

    Sundance has become a magnet for African Americans in the movie business. Over the years, black participation on every level has grown, and returning for a sixth time to Park City is the Blackhouse Foundation. The Blackhouse provides a venue (in the case of Sundance, a restaurant on Main Street) where blacks in film can come together for parties, panels and networking. The Root will be at Sundance reporting on some of the films and events. Check out our past coverage and the 14 films that are the standout submissions this year.

     

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    Sundance.org

    Blue Caprice

    This feature film about the Washington, D.C., Beltway sniper is produced by and stars Isaiah Washington. It was written by Alexandre Moors and R.F.I. Porto, who also collaborated with Kanye West on the short Cruel Summer. Tequan Richmond (Everybody Hates Chris) stars as Lee Boyd Malvo, the impressionable youth guided by John Allen Muhammad. Together they killed 10 people over a three-week period in D.C., Maryland and Virginia while driving a blue Caprice.

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    Sundance.org

    The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

    Check out the cast: Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. If that lineup of high-profile talent isn’t enough, veteran filmmaker George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) sits in the director’s chair. The feature tells the story of two Brooklyn, N.Y., boys who are left to fend for themselves after the authorities take their mothers away. Alicia Keys, who is one of the executive producers, scored the independent film.

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    Sundance.org

    Fruitvale

    Michael B. Jordan (best known as Wallace from HBO’s The Wire) plays Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Bay Area man who was shot and killed by BART officers at the Fruitvale train station in San Francisco on New Year’s Day 2009. Octavia Spencer, Tristan Wilds and Melonie Diaz also star in the Forest Whitaker-produced film, and Ryan Coogler, 26, makes his directorial debut. Coogler was selected for the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. Fruitvale is part of the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition.

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    Sundance.org

    Mother of George

    Directed by fashion photographer-cum-filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu, this feature film stars The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira as Adenike, a Nigerian woman living in Brooklyn who is willing to do anything and risk everything for her marriage. Isaach De Bankolé plays her husband, the owner of a small Nigerian restaurant in the New York City borough. Marital problems stress the relationship as Adenike tries to conceive a child, the unborn but already named George. Also cast in the film are former America’s Next Top Model runner-up Yaya Alafia and Anthony Okungbowa. Dosunmu returns to the festival this year after screening his magically shot film, Restless City, at Sundance in 2011.

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    Sundance.org

    Newlyweeds

    Writer and director Shaka King makes his feature directorial debut at the festival this year with this film about a Brooklyn couple in love, not only with each other but also with weed. Amari Cheatom, who had a part in Django Unchained, stars as a repo man, with Trae Harris as his girlfriend. The cast also includes Tone Tank, Colman Domingo, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Adrian Martinez. Another star of the movie is the New York City neighborhood that cinematographer Daniel Patterson vibrantly captures on film. King recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, with a very funny video, to finish his film for Sundance.

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    Sundance.org

    Milkshake

    A dark teen comedy, this film examines the tragic sex life of Jolie Jolson, a wannabe thug (and great-great-grandson of legendary vaudevillian Al Jolson) in suburban D.C. as he strives to become something he can never be: black. Shareeka Epps plays his girlfriend on the down low. The movie, set in the 1990s, also includes some of that decade’s more prominent news events, including O.J Simpson’s trial and Marion Barry’s re-election.

     

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    Slamdance.com

    Vipaka

    This Forest Whitaker-produced thriller is screening at Slamdance, a film festival taking place in Park City the same time as Sundance. Whitaker plays a disturbed man receiving therapy from a life coach played by Anthony Mackie. The movie takes a dark turn when Whitaker’s character takes Mackie’s character hostage. The all-star cast also includes Mike Epps, Sanaa Lathan and Nicole Ari Parker. “Vipaka” is a Buddhist concept that refers to karma and how thoughts or actions have consequences or ripple effects.

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    Sundance.org

    Anita

    Who of a certain age could forget when a bookish black woman named Anita Hill addressed a Senate committee of 14 white men and candidly spoke of graphic sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas? The explosive, race-tinged hearings in 1991 had all of America, especially black America, captivated. Sexual politics became part of the lexicon, and Hill became a divisive figure. We know what became of Thomas — now we get a rare glimpse into Hill’s private life with friends and family, who stood by her through it all.

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    Sundance.org

    Gideon's Army

    For three public defenders working in the Deep South, the hours are long, the pay is low and the caseloads are staggering. Many of the clients are African Americans at the low end of the economic ladder. This film reveals the ups and downs of defense attorneys and the criminal-justice system. Its title comes from the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which gave every person accused of a serious crime the right to a lawyer, even if he or she could not afford one. The Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative is supporting the documentary for its commitment to social justice.

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    Sundance.org

    Twenty Feet From Stardom

    This documentary explores the lives of the backup singers who spend years working with some of the biggest names in the business, yet never quite become as famous as the stars they harmonize with. The film puts the spotlight on vocalists such as Darlene Love, who, along with the Blossoms, sang backup on a variety of Elvis Presley recordings and now sings with some of the biggest names in the business; and Merry Clayton, the gospel singer best known for singing backing vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Interspersed within the film are interviews with several of the stars for whom they sang backup.

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    Sundance.org

    The Stuart Hall Project 

    This documentary looks at the life and work of cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall, who was born in Jamaica but has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1951. Hall theorizes that cultural identity is fluid, meaning that it is always morphing but also constantly experiences nostalgia for a past that can never be revisited. Filmmaker John Akomfrah describes his documentary as interweaving 70 years of Hall’s life to document and construct a portrait of Britain’s foremost radical intellectual. The masterly music of Miles Davis adds to the documentary.

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    Sundance.org

    Muscle Shoals

    This other music documentary takes a look at the iconic music created at FAME Studios in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Gregg Allman, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Alicia Keys and Bono are just some of the musicians who help tell the story. Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier calls it “a place where, even before the civil rights movement really took shape, the color of your skin didn’t matter inside the studio.” The documentary includes a never-before-seen or -heard recording by Keys at the studios of a Bob Dylan track originally recorded there.

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    Sundance.org

    American Promise

    Following two middle-class black families for 12 years, the doc captures them as they pursue the promise of opportunity through the education of their sons. Both are attending the prestigious Dalton School in New York City. The tagline for the documentary is “Opportunity is just the first step,” and that could not be more true, as the film shows. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson say that their “goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators and help close the black-male achievement gap.” The film will air on PBS after its Sundance premiere, and there will also be a companion book on parenting.

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    Sundance.org

    God Loves Uganda

    American and Ugandan religious leaders star in this gripping look at how they spread God’s word and evangelical values to millions desperate for a better life. The documentary explores the campaign to infuse African culture with values imported from America’s Christian right. Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams drew inspiration from his own roots growing up in the African-American Baptist church. In 2010 Williams won an Academy Award for his documentary short Music by Prudence. The award made him the first African American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film.

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