The white mountains in Sundance just got a bit blacker—and we, specifically, have a black woman to celebrate!
Chinonye Chukwu, the director of Clemency, has made history as the first black woman in the festival’s 35-year existence to win the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Clemency, starring Aldis Hodge and Alfre Woodard, follows Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) as she wars with the demons of executing death row inmates. It all comes to a head when she connects with a man (Hodge) she’s sanctioned to kill.
This is a huge fucking deal, as the Grand Jury dramatic competition prize is considered to be the biggest prize at Sundance. As IndieWire notes, Ryan Coogler also won this prize (and the audience award) in 2013 for his debut feature, Fruitvale Station.
One important thing to note: Back in January, when we reported on USC’s study confirming that only five top-grossing films since 2007 were directed by black women—with two being helmed by Ava DuVernay—the A Wrinkle in Time director pointed out how much “better” we needed to do.
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With her tweet in response to the news, she listed a few other black women filmmakers with films debuting this year, including Chukwu. DuVernay was essentially passing the torch to Chukwu, and the young filmmaker lit it ablaze. This is significant, because DuVernay also made history at Sundance with her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, which won her the Best Director prize. She was the first black woman to win that prize in the festival’s history.
As The Hollywood Reporter previously reported, only nine women have ever won the Grand Jury prize in the festival’s history (the festival was technically founded in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival, but Sundance Institute took over in 1984), making Chukwu the tenth. USC also revealed only 4.3% of the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2018 were directed by women, sparking the “4% challenge.”
Like most times when women’s movements make strides in history, it takes much longer for black women to be included in the triumph.
Another blackity-black film on my Sundance to-watch list also won awards: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Directing and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award). While the film’s director isn’t black (Joe Talbot), I have to give shouts to its acting lead and co-writer, Jimmie Fails.
Keep this list in your back pocket as some of them have already scored distribution deals and more are expected to come, given the awards.
For the full list of 2019 Sundance Film Festival winners, head to sundance.org.