Sundance 2014: 16 Black Movies That Matter

The annual showcase for independent films will feature stories from across the Diaspora. Plus, Hoop Dreams, which debuted at the festival in 1994, gets a special screening.

Image 1
  • images2Fslides2Fcover_sundance_film_3_1
    Still from Dear White People (Ashley Beireis Nguyen); still from We Come as Friends (We Come as Friends); still from Finding Fela (Stein Kertechian)

    Will we see another Fruitvale Station or Beasts of the Southern Wild coming out of the Sundance Film Festival this year? When it comes to the annual showcase for independent films in Park City, Utah—now in its 30th year—all bets are off for predicting which film will generate the most buzz.

    Of the more than 120 feature-length films, several should interest those who care about the African Diaspora. There is already quite a bit of buzz for Dear White People, a satirical film by director Justin Simien, who talked to The Root about it in 2012. There are documentaries about the civil rights movement, baseball player Dock Ellis and Nigerian activist and Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. There are feature films about Somali pirates, Albinos in Tanzania and homeboys on the streets of Los Angeles.

    The festival, which takes place Jan. 16-26, has also dug into its archives to bring back Hoop Dreams. In 1994 the documentary took the festival by storm and went on to award-winning and box office success. Now, 20 years later, a screening of the newly restored film will feature a Q&A with the filmmakers and cast.

    Of course, Sundance would not be complete without the Blackhouse Foundation bringing its panels and parties to Park City. The organization, dedicated to promoting black filmmakers, is promising some exciting programming to highlight how its presence at the festival has grown over the years.

  • images2Fslides2Fdear_white_people_1_2_1
    Still from Dear White People (Ashley Beireis Nguyen)

    Dear White People

    A film The Root has been covering since its successful Indiegogo campaign, Dear White People is a satirical look at how race relations play out at a prestigious college where the white students throw an African-American-themed party. Writer and director Justin Simien previously told The Root that he developed the voice of one his main characters, Sam, through the Twitter account @DearWhitePeople. “That’s where I really honed her in a little bit as a funny, Angela Davis-Malcolm X-Huey-Lisa Bonet-type of amalgamation.” Last year Indiewire named Dear White People Project of the Year, and Simien was named one of Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch.”

  • images2Fslides2Ffinding_fela_2_2_1
    Still from Finding Fela (Stein Kertechian)

    Finding Fela

    Finding Fela tells the extraordinary life story of musician and civil rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who created the Afrobeat movement to oppose Nigerian dictatorship. The documentary follows the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Fela! overseas to Nigeria, where it is staged in Kuti’s hometown of Lagos. The film also uses archival footage of Fela to more deeply explore his life. Director Alex Gibney has tackled numerous fascinating and timely topics in his documentaries, including U.S. torture practices during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Taxi to the Dark Side) and the downfall of Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie). He was also a producer of Venus and Serena.

  • images2Fslides2Ffreedom_summer_2_2_1
    Still from Freedom Summer (Stanley Nelson)

    Freedom Summer

    Filmmaker Stanley Nelson is a 2002 MacArthur “genius” fellow who has spent a lifetime documenting the black experience. Some of the stories Nelson has brought to the big and small screens have focused on Emmett Till, the black press and Marcus Garvey. His latest documentary, Freedom Summer, looks at the summer of 1964, when more than 700 students descended on Mississippi during the segregation riots. They registered voters and created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

  • images2Fslides2Fhoop_dreams_3_1
    Still from Hoop Dreams (Kartemquin Films)

    Hoop Dreams

    A newly restored Hoop Dreams will screen in the “From the Collection” program. The documentary made its world premiere at Sundance in 1994 and went on to receive critical acclaim. Filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx followed the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two inner-city Chicago teens who struggled to become college basketball players. The filmmakers and Agee are scheduled to be at Sundance to discuss the making of the documentary and where they are now.

  • images2Fslides2Fwhite_shadow_2_1
    Still from White Shadow (Armin Dierolf, Noaz Deshe)

    White Shadow

    White Shadow is a drama about an Albino boy trying to survive in Tanzania. In certain African countries, Albinos have a price on their head. Some believe their body parts possess magical powers, while others see them as evil, which leads to persecution and even death. According to filmmaker Noaz Deshe, there is a saying in East Africa: “Albinos don’t die; they just disappear.” Deshe, an Israeli, was preparing to teach in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, when he learned about the hunting of Albinos and changed paths to make his film. The movie tackles the subject head-on with a cast pulled directly from the streets of Tanzania. Actor Ryan Gosling lent his star power to the project by signing on as a producer.

  • images2Fslides2Fdifret_2_1
    Still from Difret (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari)


    In Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, difret means “courage” or “to dare,” but filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari points out that it is also a double entendre that means “the act of being raped.” Mehari, the film’s writer and director, was born and raised in Ethiopia. He came to the United States to study film at the University of Southern California and now spends his time between the two countries. Mehari says he wanted to make a film about how the old traditions and customs in his country, such as forced marriage for young girls, are competing with a modern worldview. The film highlights the plight of a 14-year-old rural girl who has been accused of killing the man who would have been her husband, along with the tenacious city lawyer who represents her.

  • images2Fslides2Fernest_and_celestine__2_1
    Still from Ernest and Celestine (G Kids)

    Ernest and Celestine

    Forest Whitaker has taken on many memorable roles, from his most recent in Lee Daniels’ The Butler to his star-making turn in The Crying Game. Now he’s lending his voice to Ernest and Celestine, an American remake of the animated French movie. Whitaker stars as the bear, Ernest. Actor Jeffrey Wright also voices another character in the movie. Last year Whitaker was at Sundance as a producer of Fruitvale Station, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, the festival’s top prizes.

  • images2Fslides2Fthrough_a_lens_darkly_2_1
    Still from Through a Lens Darkly (Thomas Sayers Ellis)

    Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

    Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris looks at how photographs of African Americans over the years were used as both self-affirmation and negation, from the family photo album to photos of blackface. In Through a Lens Darkly, Harris calls it a war of images within the American family album. The documentary is accompanied by an installation titled Digital Diaspora Family Reunion. Audiences from Sundance and beyond are invited to upload images to Instagram using the hashtag #DDFRtv or #1World1Family.

  • images2Fslides2Fimperial_dreams_2_1
    Still from Imperial Dreams (Katherine Fairfax Wright)

    Imperial Dreams

    This is director and co-writer Malik Vitthal’s first feature film, although he’s made quite a few shorts. The movie stars John Boyega, a British-Nigerian actor, who looks like a young Denzel Washington. According to the official synopsis, “a 21-year-old, reformed gangster’s devotion to his family and his future are put to the test when he is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in Watts, Los Angeles.” Vitthal was born and raised in L.A.

  • images2Fslides2Ffishing_without_nets_2_1
    Still from Fishing Without Nets (Cutter Hodierne)

    Fishing Without Nets

    Fishing Without Nets is a feature film about piracy in Somalia, told from the Somali point of view. The film was shot along the coast of Kenya on a real oil tanker using Somali refugees, including one who had been a pirate. Filmmaker Cutter Hodierne began researching the subject in 2008. Hodierne says he wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, while making sure that it showed the plight of Somalis who turn to piracy when they have nothing left to lose. In 2012 Hodierne’s short film of the same name won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

  • images2Fslides2Fno_no_a_dokumentary_2_1
    Still from No No: A Dockumentary (Langer)

    No No: A Dockumentary

    No No: A Dockumentary looks at the life of Dock Ellis—a flamboyant, outspoken baseball player who played in the late 1960s through the 1970s and advocated for fellow African-American players. He famously wore curlers in the dugout (there are pictures to prove it) and complained about racism when asked to remove them. Ellis also claimed to have pitched a no-hitter while on LSD. He later went on to counsel drug abusers. In the documentary, teammates, friends and family paint a vivid picture of Ellis on and off the field.

  • images2Fslides2Fivory_tower_2_1
    Still from Ivory Tower (Andrew Rossi)

    Ivory Tower

    The documentary Ivory Tower takes a look at the skyrocketing cost of higher education and asks the question, is it worth it? One of the main characters is African American. Plus, a major section of the documentary follows students at Spelman College who say that for them, a degree is worth every penny. Filmmaker Andrew Rossi, who has tackled other weighty subjects, says he chose the HBCU because “they wanted to illustrate the transformative power that college can have with certain students who are hungry for an experience that evolves their characters, as well as preparing them for the job market.”

  • images2Fslides2Fall_the_beautiful_things_2_1
    Still from All the Beautiful Things (Brian O'Carroll)

    All the Beautiful Things

    All the Beautiful Things is a documentary about friendship, betrayal and forgiveness. It also deals with racism, domestic abuse and hate. The movie stars filmmaker John Harkrider, who is white, and his best friend, Barron Claiborne, who is black. Much of the film takes place in a jazz bar as the pair rehash the episode in their lives that tore them apart. Claiborne is a photographer and a cinematographer. His most famous work may be the iconic image of Biggie Smalls wearing a crown.

  • images2Fslides2Fmemphis_2_1
    Still from Memphis (Chris Dapkins)


    Memphis stars Willis Earl Beal, an avant-garde blues-soul singer and songwriter originally from Chicago. The film flirts with both the fictional and nonfictional as we see Beal drift through a mystic-filled Memphis, Tenn., as he tries to save himself. The film includes some of his hauntingly beautiful music. Filmmaker Will Sutton says in his director’s statement that “as a true believer in ghost stories and a scholar of African-American studies, I was drawn to tell my own folk tale.” Beal’s latest album, Nobody Knows, was released last year.

  • images2Fslides2Fconcerning_violence_3_1
    Still from Concerning Violence (Lennart Malmer)

    Concerning Violence

    Narrated by ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill, Concerning Violence documents Africa’s liberation from colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s. Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson based it on newly discovered archival material. The footage is combined with text from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. In the trailer, Hill’s distinctive voice is heard reading the passage, “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” Olsson is also director of the Sundance Award-winning documentary The Black Power Mixtape.

  • images2Fslides2Fwe_come_as_friends_2_2_1
    Still from We Come as Friends (We Come as Friends)

    We Come as Friends

    Given the fighting going on South Sudan between the government and an opposition party, this documentary seems especially timely as it reminds us that it was just a few short years ago that the country was fighting for its freedom from Sudan; now it’s fighting itself. We Come as Friends is a modern odyssey by documentarian Hubert Sauper, who arrived in the country just as it was celebrating its independence. Some of his other films, such as Darwin’s Nightmare, also deal with African subjects.

    Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.