It’s a brand new decade, but we have a familiar festival season!
Like last year, I’m going to give you the scoop on some black-ass films I’m looking forward to. The mountains may be white, but we are going to stay black, always.
I, along with most of Hollywood, will be lollygagging in Park City, Utah, during opening weekend of the festival so I will be stuffing my rarely-used winter coat into my suitcase in hopes of ingesting as many hot indie films as possible. It’ll be my second time at Sundance—my first visit was in 2017—so I’m looking forward to rejoining the fun! FYI, a little birdie called The Weather Channel (shout-out to Byron Allen) told me it’s going to average in the 30s (Fahrenheit) for the duration of the Sundance Film Festival this year.
As per my usual disclaimer with these types of lists, it isn’t definitive nor comprehensive. It’s a guide—specifically, my guide of films that caught my eye. Also, “black” involvement can extend to director, writer, producer, lead actor/talent and beyond. Feel free to recommend more films in the comments!
Let’s get it...
1. Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo.
“You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Zola meets Stefani at a restaurant where Zola waitresses, and the two immediately click over pole dancing. Only a day after they exchange numbers, Stefani invites Zola on a cross-country road trip, where the goal is to make as much money as possible dancing in Florida strip clubs. Zola agrees, and suddenly she is trapped in the craziest, most unexpected trip of her life.
Thoughts: Yes, the movie from that epic Twitter thread is actually (and finally) happening! Plus, Joi McMillion (the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar in editing, for Moonlight) is serving as editor on this film!
2. Cuties (Mignonnes) directed by Maïmouna Doucouré.
Eleven-year-old Amy lives with her mom, Mariam, and younger brother, awaiting her father to rejoin the family from Senegal. Amy is fascinated by disobedient neighbor Angelica’s free-spirited dance clique, a group that stands in sharp contrast to stoic Mariam’s deeply held traditional values. Undeterred by the girls’ initial brutal dismissal and eager to escape her family’s simmering dysfunction, Amy, through an ignited awareness of her burgeoning femininity, propels the group to enthusiastically embrace an increasingly sensual dance routine, sparking the girls’ hope to twerk their way to stardom at a local dance contest.
Thoughts: As the great Bong Joon Ho brilliantly said at the 2020 Golden Globes, “overcome that one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” and get into this French cinema! I am eager to catch Doucouré’s directorial feature debut and I live for a coming-of-age tale.
3. The Last Thing He Wanted, directed by Dee Rees.
Journalist and single mother Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) has rigorously investigated Contra activity in Central America for years. Frustrated when her coverage is censored, relief comes in an unexpected package: her acerbic father (Willem Dafoe) falls ill and leaves her a series of unfinished and unsavory arms deals in that very region. Now a pawn in a risky and unfamiliar game, surrounded by live ammunition in more ways than one, and alongside a U.S. state official (Ben Affleck) with whom she has a checkered past, Elena needs to parse her own story to survive. With her disenchanting life awaiting her back home, she is forced to consider what she really wants.
Thoughts: All you had to say was “Dee Rees” and I was in. Along with directing one of my favorite coming-of-age films, Pariah, Rees is a Sundance staple (Mudbound screened there, as well), so I’m looking forward to her next foray into the fest.
4. The 40-Year-Old Version, directed by Radha Blank.
Radha, a once-promising playwright, is barreling toward the stigma of being single and a struggling artist at the age of 40. Facing nonstop rejections from the theatre community while teaching a motley group of teens, she becomes creatively re-invigorated when she returns to rapping, her long-forgotten passion. When her play finally gets going, however, she puts recording a rap demo on the back burner and must navigate the awful tension of compromising her voice for career success.
Thoughts: This one has Lena Waithe’s stamp of approval as she’s listed as one of the producers. I got a pre-Sundance sneak peek at this film, so I won’t say much more right now except for this: it’s a very pleasant surprise and I’m excited for Radha. Stay tuned for my review...
5. Bad Hair, directed by Justin Simien.
Los Angeles, 1989. Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) is a scarred survivor of a scalp burn from a mild relaxer perm. She also has the smarts and ambition to be the next on-air star at Culture, a music video TV show. After years of struggling to be seen for her ideas and hard work, Anna fears the worst when her dreadlocked boss is replaced by Zora (Vanessa Williams), an ex-supermodel with a silver tongue. Zora warns Anna that her nappy look has got to go, so Anna bites the bullet and gets a weave. Turns out, her flowing new hair is the key to success—but it arrived with a mind of its own, and it bites back!
Thoughts: Let’s just say I can’t wait to see that hilariously ridiculous wig Waithe is wearing on the big screen. Plus, Simien (another Sundance alum for Dear White People) just amped up the film promo with this:
6. Miss Juneteenth, directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples.
Built like a bird, Turquoise Jones is a single mom who holds down a household, a rebellious teenager, and pretty much everything that goes down at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge. Turquoise is also a bona fide beauty queen—she was once crowned Miss Juneteenth, a title commemorating the day slavery was abolished in Texas. Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised, but Turquoise, determined to right her wrongs, is cultivating her daughter, Kai, to become Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.
Thoughts: Similar to my reaction to Rees, I saw “Nicole Beharie,” and was immediately all-in. Beharie is one of the most underrated actresses in the game and though she has been selective for personal reasons, I am glad to see her return in a big project!
7. On The Record (formerly Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film), directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.
This documentary presents the haunting story of music executive Drew Dixon, whose career and personal life have been deeply affected by the abuse she faced from the men she admired in the industry she loves. Directed by the Academy Award–nominated filmmaking duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, 2012 Sundance Film Festival), the film follows Dixon (producer of hit records by 2Pac, Method Man, and Mary J. Blige) as she grapples with her decision to become one of the first women of color to come forward as part of the #MeToo movement.
Thoughts: Naturally, the content itself (reportedly about the sexual assault allegations against Russell Simmons) has had my stomach in knots, but the rollercoaster surrounding the film (including Oprah dropping out as producer, and later releasing a more detailed statement regarding her reasoning for pulling the film from Apple TV) has added to that anxiety. Regardless, I’m about that “believe women” life, so I’ll be at the premiere to witness Dixon’s chance to tell her stories.
8. Sylvie’s Love, directed by Eugene Ashe.
The jazz is smooth and the air sultry in the New York summer of 1957. Sylvie helps around her father’s record store as she waits for her fiancé to return from war—until sweet saxophonist Robert walks in looking for a day job to subsidize his residency at the Blue Morocco lounge. This chance meeting kindles a deep passion in each of them unlike anything they’ve felt before. Sylvie’s mother immediately disapproves and reminds Sylvie of her engagement, while Robert’s band books their first big gig overseas. As time passes, the sexual revolution begins, and Motown becomes king, the two fall in and out of each other’s arms, but never out of love.
Thoughts: Seeing Tessa Thompson in the lead has intrigued me and this film seems like it’ll be the soothing kind of love depiction we witnessed in If Beale Street Could Talk. Plus, a potentially fire jazz soundtrack? Sign me up!
9. The Fight, directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres.
Seven days after President Trump’s inauguration, the country’s airports and courthouses were clogged with protesters fighting to protect immigrants facing deportation due to the administration’s “Muslim ban” policy. It was to be the opening salvo of a relentless attack on civil liberties—and a tsunami of lawsuits waged against the Trump administration.
What must it be like to be an ACLU lawyer in this day and age?
Thoughts: Kerry Washington is taking a lead role as executive producer of this documentary that is exceedingly relevant right now as we undergo an impeachment trial and President Tyrant Tang appears to have his untanned eyes on expanding the “Muslim ban” to a general “immigration ban.”
10. Charm City Kings, directed by Angel Manuel Soto.
Fourteen-year-old Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) desperately wants to join the Midnight Clique, an infamous group of Baltimore dirt-bike riders who rule the summertime streets. His older brother, Stro, was their top rider before his tragic death—a loss that consumes Mouse as much as his passion for bikes. Mouse’s mom (Teyonah Parris) and his police mentor, Detective Rivers (William Catlett), work overtime to help the charismatic teen reach his full potential, but when the Midnight Clique’s leader, Blax (Meek Mill), takes the boy under his wing, the lure of revving his own dirt bike skids Mouse toward a road way past the straight and narrow.
Thoughts: Meek is in his element with this film and I’m looking forward to seeing Parris and Catlett again. Young Winston is fresh off of Queen & Slim (which, as I watched, I kept thinking, hey that’s little Ralph Tresvant from the New Edition Story!) Plus, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith are listed as producers and I spy Barry Jenkins with a “Story By” credit. This film looks black as hell and I am very intrigued.
11. Farewell Amor, directed by Ekwa Msangi.
It’s been 17 years since Walter was forced to leave his family in Angola. Now he is picking up his wife, Esther, and daughter, Sylvia, from the airport to bring them home to his one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. The reunion isn’t seamless. Walter cooks a welcome dinner, and Esther wonders who taught him how to cook. Before they eat, Esther says grace, revealing her thunderous new passion for Jesus. And later, Walter realizes that he has not moved on from Linda, his lover who moved out of his apartment to make way for the family. When young Sylvia starts to explore the city and takes part in a dance competition, she unexpectedly opens up a pathway of muscle memory for the family to rediscover one another.
Thoughts: This is Msangi’s directorial feature debut, which appears to be an extension of her short, Farewell Meu Amor. From the description alone, it looks like this film will present a few fascinating sources of conflict. I’m down!
12. See You Next Time, directed by Crystal Kayiza.
A window into the intimate moments shared across a nail-salon table between a Chinese nail artist and her black client in Brooklyn, New York.
Thoughts: If you know anything about me, you know how much I love short films (I admire the ability to share a complete story in a brief amount of time). So, when I saw the description of this one, I immediately knew I had to get my hands on it. Plus, since this will be through the eyes of a black female director, I am looking forward to seeing the careful nuance of a rarely-seen romance.
13. Nine Days, directed by Edson Oda.
What if being born is not the beginning but the goal? In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man named Will interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege he once had: to be born. Five contenders emerge. During the course of nine days, Will tests each of them, but he can choose only one. The victor will be rewarded with a coveted opportunity to become a newborn in the real world, while the others will cease to exist—nine days is everything they’ll ever experience.
Thoughts: This film will be bringing us Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in a truly fascinating concept in a post-apocalyptic world that gives me the intriguing feeling I had with Netflix’s 3%. I’m ready!
Well, that wraps it up! It looks like this year will be rather rich—according to the Wrap, more than half of this year’s Dramatic Competition films are helmed by people of color.
Oh, and by the way, please make sure to break up some of your theater-sitting time by attending panels and parties, as well. As always, The Blackhouse (download their app to RSVP for events!) has great programming, as they’re teaming up with HBO (WarnerMedia) to showcase some fun events (for example, Insecure is going to have a huge presence, promoting its spring return through the network’s Our Stories to Tell pop-up experience).
Secondly, if you’re black and at Sundance, you definitely need to hit up the MACRO lodge (in addition to its infamous opening party, there will be a great selection of in-conversation panels for films including Hair Love, Bad Hair and The Photograph. Let’s get lit! The cocktails will keep us warm.
See ya soon, Sundance kids!
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival will take place in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 23 - Feb. 2. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, check out the full schedule and more, head to sundance.org.