This year’s Sundance Film Festival concluded with four black directors leaving Park City, Utah, with awards. Although none of the four won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, as Fruitvale Station did last year, the fact that so many black filmmakers took home honors shows that black independent films are thriving.
This year’s Audience Award for World Cinema Dramatic Competition went to Difret, an Ethiopian film based on a true story about a 14-year-old girl accused of killing the man who abducted her as part of a marriage ritual and the lawyer who represents her. It’s the first time an Ethiopian feature film was screened at the festival.
First-time director and screenwriter Zeresenay Berhane Mehari got a standing ovation at one of his early-morning, sold-out screenings. During the audience Q&A, Mehari said he felt compelled to make the film after meeting real-life lawyer Meaza Ashenafi, who inspired the film. Mehari also chose to make it in his country’s native language of Amharic, but believes the theme crosses over to various audiences.
Mehari plans to show Difret in Ethiopia sometime later this year after doing the festival circuit. The movie also has a strong advocate in Angelina Jolie, who signed on as executive producer. Her daughter Zahara was adopted from Ethiopia in 2005.
Closer to home, the film Imperial Dreams, about a Los Angeles gangster trying to better his life, won the Best of NEXT Audience Award. It is director and co-writer Malik Vitthal’s first feature film. The movie stars John Boyega, who looks like a young Denzel Washington and gives a performance that shows he could grow into the next Sidney Poitier. The 21-year-old Boyega is of Nigerian descent but was raised in London.
The actor said he almost did not take the role. “The script was sent to me when I was in London having a full English breakfast … I was in Nottingham with eggs and toast,” said Boyega. The actor felt that his circumstances were as far removed from the housing projects of Watts as they could get, but Vitthal convinced him to read for the role.
The director said that while he saw Boyz ’n’ the Hood so many times he could recite the dialogue, it was not what influenced him to make his film.
“We created it so that 10 different people can come up to me and be like, ‘I was touched, I was flattened,’ and this is what touched me.” Vitthal said. “We made it dynamic enough where it speaks to something deep in a lot of people.”
The film and the director received a standing ovation at the premiere. As for the movie’s future, Vitthal told The Root, "I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I believe it’s going to get out there because no matter who watches it, they are getting touched somehow."
Justin Simien, the writer and director behind Dear White People, won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The film is a social comedy about four black students at a fictitious Ivy League school, where a predominantly white group throws a racist theme party. It was one of the most buzzed-about movies at Sundance, with posters of the four black stars plastered all over Park City.
Simien told The Root, "I’m just trying to enjoy the moment as best I can.” He also said he wanted to show how a black story isn’t “necessarily a street story or a hip-hop story or something that was gritty. It could be told with an artful, sort of punky, filmy touch."
As of the closing weekend of the festival, none of the feature films by black directors that won awards had distribution deals. That’s not stopping director and writer Janicza Bravo from forging ahead with her own feature film. Bravo’s 17-minute short, Gregory Go Boom, won the Short Film Jury Prize for U.S. Fiction. She told The Root that she is setting aside another short to work on her feature-length film.
“Winning makes me feel like I made the right choice; it gave me validation,” she said. Two things set her apart from the three other black directors who won. Not only is she a woman, but her film is about a white protagonist (played by Michael Cera) who discovers that life is not what it seems when he leaves home.
“If the feature doesn’t come to fruition this year, it’s OK because I have the win in my back pocket. It’s taken a while to get here.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.