It’s that time again; indie filmmakers and film lovers alike are descending upon the frosty mecca known as Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. Founded by Robert Redford in 1978, the Sundance Film Festival is known as the largest independent film festival in the U.S.
Most folks don’t necessarily think of blackness when they think of Sundance (or Utah, to be honest), but some of our biggest black filmmakers today are Sundance alumni, including Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler.
As such, if you happen to be gallivanting around the skiing mountains, I want to put some new films with black filmmakers and black content on your radar. And if, like me, you can’t make it in person this year, make a note for these films to look out for because some will be snagging future distribution deals, if they haven’t already.
Oh, and before I get started with my movie recommendation list, if you’re at Sundance this year, make sure you stop by the Blackhouse Foundation in between screenings for your daily dose of blackness. Thank me later.
And now, for the films! Note: This list isn’t definitive. Each film synopsis is provided courtesy of sundance.org.
(Director: Rashid Johnson, Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks, Producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman) — In this modern reimagining of Richard Wright’s seminal novel, a young African-American man named Bigger Thomas takes a job working for a highly influential Chicago family, a decision that will change the course of his life forever. Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan.
(Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green, Screenwriters: Rashaad Ernesto Green, Zora Howard, Producers: Joy Ganes, Rashaad Ernesto Green, Darren Dean) — The summer before she leaves for college, Ayanna meets handsome and mysterious outsider Isaiah; her entire world is turned upside down as she navigates the demanding terrain of young love against a changing Harlem landscape. Cast: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington.
(Director and screenwriter: Chinonye Chukwu, Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov) — Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill. Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks.
(Director: Julius Onah, Screenwriters: JC Lee, Julius Onah, Producers: John Baker, Julius Onah, Andrew Yang) — A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student. Cast: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz.
(Director: Joe Talbot, Screenwriters: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, Producers: Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh) — Jimmie Fails dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont, Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind. Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover.
(Director: Jacqueline Olive, Producers: Jacqueline Olive, Jessica Devaney) — When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins as the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present.
(Director: Rachel Lears, Producers: Sarah Olson, Robin Blotnick, Rachel Lears) — A young bartender in the Bronx, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, a grieving mother in Nevada and a registered nurse in Missouri build a movement of insurgent candidates challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. One of their races will become the most shocking political upset in recent American history. Cast: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
(Directors: Ivete Lucas, Patrick Bresnan, Producers: Ivete Lucas, Patrick Bresnan, Maida Lynn) — In a small agricultural town in the Florida Everglades, hopes for the future are concentrated on the youth. Four teens face heartbreak and celebrate in the rituals of an extraordinary senior year.
(Director and screenwriter: Shola Amoo, Producers: Lee Thomas, Myf Hopkins) — Femi is a British boy of Nigerian heritage who, after a happy childhood in rural Lincolnshire, moves to inner London to live with his mum. Struggling with the unfamiliar culture and values of his new environment, teenage Femi has to figure out which path to adulthood he wants to take. Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock.
(Director: Jacob Estes, Screenwriters: Jacob Estes, Drew Daywalt, Producers: Jason Blum, Bobby Cohen, David Oyelowo) — After a man’s family dies in what appears to be a murder, he gets a phone call from one of the dead, his niece. He’s not sure if she’s a ghost or if he’s going mad — but as it turns out, he’s not. Instead, her calls help him rewrite history. Cast: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Mykelti Williamson, Alfred Molina, Brian Tyree Henry.
(Director and screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Producers: Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan) — Against all the odds, a thirteen year old boy in Malawi invents an unconventional way to save his family and village from famine. Based on the true story of William Kamkwamba. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aissa Maiga, Joseph Marcell.
(Director: Bert & Bertie, Screenwriter: Lucy Alibar, Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Alex Siskin, Viola Davis) — In rural 1977 Georgia, a misfit girl dreams of life in outer space. When a national competition offers her a chance at her dream, to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, she recruits a makeshift troop of Birdie Scouts, forging friendships that last a lifetime and beyond. Cast: Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell, Allison Janney.
(Director: Wayne Blair, Screenwriters: Joshua Tyler, Miranda Tapsell, Producers: Rosemary Blight, Kylie du Fresne, Kate Croser) — Lauren and Ned are engaged, they are in love, and they have just ten days to find Lauren’s mother who has gone AWOL somewhere in the remote far north of Australia, reunite her parents and pull off their dream wedding. Cast: Miranda Tapsell, Gwilym Lee, Kerry Fox, Huw Higginson, Ursula Yovich, Shari Sebbens.
(Director: Stanley Nelson, Producers: Nicole London, Stanley Nelson) — A visionary, innovator, and originator who defied categorization and embodied the word cool: a foray into the life and career of musical and cultural icon Miles Davis.
(Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Producers: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Johanna Giebelhaus, Chad Thompson, Tommy Walker) — This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary storyteller examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career. Toni Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, history, America and the human condition.
(Director: Kirill Mikhanovsky, Screenwriters: Alice Austen, Kirill Mikhanovsky, Producers: Alice Austen, George Rush, Walter S. Hall, Michael Manasseri, Sergey Shtern, Val Abel) — When a riot breaks out in Milwaukee, America’s most segregated city, medical transport driver Vic is torn between his promise to get a group of elderly Russians to a funeral and his desire to help Tracy, a young black woman with ALS. Cast: Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, Chris Galust, Maksim Stoyanov, Darya Ekamasova.
(Director and screenwriter: Tayarisha Poe, Producers: Lauren McBride, Lucas Joaquin, Drew Houpt, Tayarisha Poe, Jill Ahrens) — Five factions run the underground life of the prestigious Haldwell boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction - The Spades - sits Selah Summers. By turns charming and callous, she chooses whom to keep close and whom to cut loose, walking the fine line between being feared and loved. Cast: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams.
(Director and screenwriter: Abe Forsythe, Producers: Jodi Matterson, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Keith Calder, Jessica Calder) — A film dedicated to all the kindergarten teachers who motivate children to learn, instill them with confidence and stop them from being devoured by zombies. Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Josh Gad.
(Director: Lucas Heyne, Screenwriters: Lucas Heyne, Zack Newkirk, Producers: Kelly Hayes, Brian Cooper, Kern Saxton, Danny Roth) — Two ‘mopes’ – the lowest-level male performers in the porn industry – set their sights on an impossible dream: stardom. Cast: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Kelly Sry, Brian Huskey, Max Adler, David Arquette, Tonya Cornelisse.
(Director: JD Dillard, Screenwriters: JD Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner, Producers: Jason Blum, JD Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner, Bill Karesh) — Jenn has washed ashore a small tropical island and it doesn’t take her long to realize she’s completely alone. She must spend her days not only surviving the elements, but must also fend off the malevolent force that comes out each night.Cast: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Andrew Crawford.
Throughout the history of hip-hop, no single group changed the game in the same way the Wu-Tang Clan did. In the early ’90s, a group of young rappers from Staten Island and Brooklyn joined forces to escape the poverty, violence, and oppression of their neighborhoods through music. Hot off the success of their single “Protect Ya Neck,” RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon da Chef, and Masta Killa “formed like Voltron” to release Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a seminal album that redefined a genre and forever changed the economics of the industry.
The real story of the Clan unfurls here, with never-before-seen footage and interviews recounting the obstacles traversed to stay united as one Wu family. Director Sacha Jenkins (Fresh Dressed, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) poignantly captures their struggles and triumphs in intimate detail, creating a group portrait that transcends music and delves into broader themes of race, economic strife, and brotherhood while weaving their distinctly raw and resonant sound throughout.
As one of the world’s most celebrated icons, Michael Jackson represents many things to many people—a pop star, a humanitarian, a beloved idol. When allegations of sexual abuse by Jackson involving young boys surfaced in 1993, many found it hard to believe that the King of Pop could be guilty of such unspeakable acts. In separate but parallel stories that echo one another, two boys were each befriended by Jackson, who invited them into his singular and wondrous world. Seduced by the singer’s fairy-tale existence and enthralled by their relationship with him, both boys’ families were blind to the manipulation and abuse that he would ultimately subject them to.
Through gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families, Leaving Neverland crafts a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception, documenting the power of celebrity that allowed a revered figure to infiltrate the lives of starstruck children and their parents.
Lorena Bobbitt became a household name in 1993, when accounts of a mutilation dominated headlines: she cut off her husband’s penis, and the country collectively gasped.
Twenty-five years later, Joshua Rofé excavates the scandalized case through a modern cultural lens. Each episode of this four-part docuseries, executive produced by Jordan Peele, builds upon the last, exposing the issues surrounding the couple and their criminal trials—Lorena’s then-husband, John Wayne Bobbit, for marital sexual assault, and Lorena for malicious wounding. In unearthing the long-term abuse that precipitated the infamous night, Rofé dives into a wider discussion about the lack of support for domestic-violence victims, the power and fragility of the word penis, John’s increasingly unpredictable life post-recovery, and how the public’s insatiable appetite for the Bobbitts’ story paved the way for the 24-hour news cycle. Rofé’s re-examination restores depth to a woman reduced to parodies and caricatures and prompts us to reconsider our preconceptions.
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival will run in Park City, Ut. January 24-February 3, 2019.