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Black Filmmakers Take on Sundance Film Festival

Malik Bazille, Trevor Jackson, Tosin Cole, Octavius Johnson and DeRon Horton appear in Burning Sands by Gerard McMurray. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Isiah Dont? Lee.

The black experience in all its various forms is on display at this year's Sundance Film Festival, taking place January 19-29 in Park City, Utah. From a Jay Z produced documentary, to films starring Mary J. Blige, Nia Long, Lakeith Stanfield and Mahershala Ali. NBCBLK previews 22 of these features, which depending on your perspective, may or may not be the definitive list.

The beauty of Sundance is that it is as much a festival devoted to film, as it is devoted to filmmakers. It’s where directors like Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler cement their place in the cinematic world, before going on to make Hollywood backed films like Selma and Creed. Just getting your movie into the festival is a huge deal. Besides the features, there are also several shorts that speak to the black experience or are helmed by black filmmakers.

Winnie Mandela appears in WINNIE by Pascale Lamche. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Felix Meyburgh

For the 2017 Sundance Festival, 120 feature-length films were selected from 13,782 submissions including 4,068 feature-length films and 8,985 short films. Given all the new platforms for releasing films such as Amazon and Netflix, along with the traditional routes like movie studios, it is almost certain everything on this list will be available for viewing at some point this year.

Back for it’s 10th year is The Blackhouse, which is a gathering point and resource for all that is black at Sundance. It’s where Quincy Jones, Nate Parker, Danny Glover and Gabrielle Union have all gone to network, learn, chill and just find a Sundance family while at the festival. Many of their events are free and will be streamed online.

NBC BLK contributor Julie Walker previews the black side of Sundance for 2017.


Kalief Browder appears in TIME: The Kalief Browder Story by Jenner Furst. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Jay Z produced TIME: The Kalief Browder Story will screen at Sundance ahead of its Spike TV airing. Browder was the Bronx teen arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, which he repeatedly denied. He was locked up in Rikers Island Jail for three years, two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. Browder was never tried and finally released due to technicalities. He later committed suicide.

President Obama called Browder's case "heartbreaking" in an op-ed arguing for an end to solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders. The socially conscience docu-series mixes archival footage with reenactments of Browder’s life, as well as interviews with family and friends.


Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James and Will Patton. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

While not a movie, Shots Fired is one of the highly anticipated new TV shows screening at Sundance. It will air on Fox TV in January. The all star cast includes Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Moyer, Mack Wilds. It’s the brainchild of executive producers and writers Reggie Rock Bythewood and his wife Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also directs the series. She shot to fame with her film Love & Basketball.

Shots Fired takes us inside the shooting of a white teen by a black policer officer, which is a reversal from what we are used to. I saw the first episode back in August and was so impressed that I couldn’t wait to see more...and now I won’t have to, it premieres on Fox stations March 22.


Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan appear in Mudbound by Dee Rees. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Steve Dietl

Mary J Blige, who has been acting one and off since the late 1990’s, makes her Sundance acting debut in Mudbound, the long awaited second feature from filmmaker Dee Rees. Her first feature, Pariah, debuted at Sundance in 2011 and was quickly picked up by Focus features, which also gave Rees a deal for another film. Rees directed Mudbound and co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams based on the book of the same name.

The film is about two families, one white, the other black in the post–World War II South and some of the things they deal with including racism. It also stars Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, who starred in a gem of a film called The Bicycle and Kelvin Harrison Jr., who was in The Birth of a Nation, among other actors.


A still from Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities by Stanley Nelson. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Stanley Nelson could well be considered the godfather of modern black documentaries. He’s premiered eight of them at Sundance, including 2015’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson is back again this year with his ninth Sundance premiere, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.

The documentary chronicles the history of HBCU’s and looks at some of the amazing people who have graduated. Nelson is asking HBCU students and alum to share personal stories online for the HBCU Rising Yearbook. Besides premiering his own film, Nelson’s company has three Firelight Media Documentary Lab alums premiering their own films, 2 features and a short.


A film still from Kusoby Steven Ellison. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Those in the know, like Pharrell, call him Flylo. Music producer Flying Lotus, who was born Steven Ellison is the grandnephew of John Coltrane. His debut film Kuso makes its world premiere in the Midnight section. The cast includes Iesha Coston, Hannibal Buress, Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton, and others.

As Kuso’s synopsis puts it, “Broadcasting through a makeshift network of discarded televisions, this story is tangled up in the aftermath of Los Angeles's worst earthquake nightmare. Travel between screens and aftershocks into the twisted lives of the survived.”


Rashida and Quincy Jones attend the 56th annual GRAMMY Awards. Michael Kovac / WireImage

Rashida Jones returns to Sundance with Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. The documentary is part of a Netflix series about people affected by the explosion of the internet, where pornography, dating apps, and virtual relationships are just a click away, according to the synopsis.

Jones is the director and executive producer. She was at Sundance in 2015 with Hot Girls Wanted, the original documentary that the series is based on. Before that Jones was at Sundance in 2012 with her film Celeste & Jesse Forever, which she wrote and starred in. (When I saw her at the Blackhouse for a dinner that Bevy Smith threw, Jones was sitting on her dad Quincy Jones’ lap, getting props from a proud pappa.)


Chante Adams appears in Roxanne Roxanne by Michael Larnell. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Tom Zuback

One of the most anticipated Sundance films is the feature Roxanne Roxanne, based on the story of Roxanne Shante, the 80’s rap legend who shot to fame with Roxanne’s Revenge. Shante is one of the producers, along with Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams.

Theatre actress Chanté Adams makes her feature film debut playing the young MC. Also cast are Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips and Shenell Edmonds. The film is written and directed by Michael Larnell. His first feature Cronies, which I really enjoyed, was produced by Spike Lee and premiered at Sundance in 2015.


Jessica Williams appears in The Incredible Jessica James by Jim Strouse. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Incredible Jessica James starring Jessica Williams has the honor of closing out the festival. Director Jim Strouse had The Daily Show correspondent in mind when he wrote the comedy, after she appeared in another of his films, People Places Things.

Strouse says Williams charisma is very powerful. She plays a young, aspiring playwright in New York City, struggling to get over a recent breakup while trying to make it in the competitive world of theater. Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield plays her ex, while Chris O’Dowd plays her current love interest.


Malik Bazille, Trevor Jackson, Tosin Cole, Octavius Johnson and DeRon Horton appear in Burning Sands by Gerard McMurray. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Isiah Donte Lee

Burning Sands takes us into Hell Week at a fictional HBCU, where fraternities can often get away with hazing with impunity. The film marks co-writer and director Gerard McMurray’s feature debut. McMurray attended Howard and is a Que Dog, which is frat speak for Omega Psi Phi.

McMurray helped produce Sundance favorite Fruitvale Station, which launched director Ryan Coogler’s career. The film stars Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, Power’s Olurotimi Akinosho aka Rotimi, American Crime’s Trevor Jackson, DeRon Horton, who will co-star in the TV version of Dear White People and Alfre Woodard, who needs no introduction. The film is a Netflix original movie.


A still from STEP by Amanda Lipitz. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The documentary STEP follows the senior girls who are members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s step team called “Lethal Ladies” as they try to become the first in their families to attend college. These 12th graders are also the first graduating class of the school.

Besides the three young women profiled, we also see the women who “champion and challenge them their mothers, an unstoppable college counselor, and a no-nonsense step coach.” STEP was conceived and directed by Tony Award–winning Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz.


A still from Quest by Jonathan Olshefski. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Jonathan Olshefski

The documentary Quest was filmed over a decade. It started out as a way to show how the Rainey family and their home music studio, was reshaping their North Philadelphia neighborhood. While making the film, a stray bullet suddenly changed things, leaving Director Jonathan Olshefski the challenge of showing how resolve and strength can get you through the hardest of times.


Peter Nicks, director of The Force. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Brian Mahany

The Force is a documentary from Peter Nicks that takes a look inside the long-troubled Oakland Police Department - OPD. It also examines the relationship between community and one of the public institutions that serve them.

The OPD was forced to undergo mandatory reforms under a 2003 police misconduct settlement, after officers allegedly planted drugs and beat West Oakland residents.

The Oakland based filmmaker’s work ranges from social media storytelling projects to narrative features like Fruitvale Station, where he worked on the camera crew.


Andrew Dosunmu, director of Where Is Kyra? Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Nigerian Director Andrew Dosunmuand cinematographer Bradford Young, are back at Sundance with another feature, Where is Kyra, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland. The movie is about a woman struggling to survive after she loses her job.

It’s also a big departure from the pair's two previous collaborations that showed at Sundance, Restless City, about a West African immigrant in Harlem and Mother of George, about a Nigerian couple in Brooklyn. That film, as well as Where is Kyra, was written by Darci Picoult.

It's worth noting that while Mother of George took 10 years to get made, Where is Kyra took just one year.

It’s also worth noting that Young, was the cinematographer behind Selma and is now signed onto the Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film along with Donald Glover.


A still from Whose Streets? by Sabaah Folayan. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Lucas Alvarado Farrar, Autumn Lin Photography

WHOSE STREETS? Is one of the opening night films at the festival and is part of the U.S. documentary competition. It’s also one of the many socially conscious films at Sundance. As the title suggests, WHOSE STREETS? tells the story of the Ferguson, Missouri uprising, by the people who lived it.

The film follows the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, killed by a white police officer. Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan, are the filmmakers. They received grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Sundance Institute and Tribeca Film Institute.


Keith Stanfield appears in Crown Heights by Matt Ruskin. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Ben Kutchins

The feature film Crown Heights is based on the true story of a wrongly convicted black teen, Colin Warner, whose best friend, Carl “KC” King, fights for 20 years to his murder conviction overturned. Both Warner and King will be at the film’s Sundance premiere, so now you know how the story ends.

Actor and rapper Lakeith Stanfield, who appears in the Golden Globe winning Atlanta plays Warner, while former All-Pro NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, who is married to Kerry Washington, portrays King. Filmmaker Matt Ruskin says he was incredibly moved by the courage and integrity of the people at the heart of this story, which is why he wanted to make the film.


A still from Strong Island by Yance Ford. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Documentary filmmaker Yance Ford is at Sundance with a very personal project. Strong Island tells the story of her family following the violent death of her brother. In 1992, long before there was Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, there was William Ford, Jr.

The black 24-year-old teacher was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white mechanic, who said he fired in self defense, following a complaint about a car repair. An all-white grand jury declined to indict the shooter and he went free. Strong Island is Ford’s first film and she received a MacArthur Foundation grant to help fund it.


Lance Grey, Rachel Crow, Ashleigh Murray and David Sullivan appear in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train by Sydney Freeland. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Fred Hayes

Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland is back at Sundance with the comedy Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, which follows two teens who start robbing trains to make ends meet after their mother ends up in jail. That mother is played by Danielle Nicolet and the school principal is played by Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata.

Rachel Crow, the 5th runner-up in the first season of X Factor (USA) and Ashleigh Murray, who is in the CW's new teen drama Riverdale, play her daughters. The film is another Netflix original movie, which will launch in March. Freeland was part of Sundance’s Women’s Initiative Fellows


Janicza Bravo, director of Lemon, an official selection of the NEXT program. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Luke Fontana

Janicza Bravo, director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning short, Gregory Go Boom, premieres her first feature Lemon this year. The film synopsis says a man watches his life unravel after he is left by his blind girlfriend.

The cast includes her husband Brett Gelman, who also co-wrote the movie, Judy Greer, Michael Cera and Nia Long. Before her directing career took of, Bravo was a costume designer and stylist. Her directing credits include several short films and work on the show Atlanta.


Kordell "KD" Johnson and Devin Blackmon appear in Dayveon by Amman Abbasi, an official selection of the NEXT program. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Dayveon is one of the feature films that opens Sundance. It's a coming of age story that follows 13-year-old Dayveon, as he copes with his older brother’s death during one hot summer in a rural Arkansas town. For Dayveon, the death of his brother leads to him falling in with a local gang.

Newcomer Devin Blackmon plays Dayveon. He was found after an exhaustive search for someone who could carry the film. Filmmakers also cast real gang members, which came with consequences. One member of the cast was shot in the leg during production, so that was added to the film.

This is Pakistani-American filmmaker Amman Abbasi’s debut feature. He directed it and also co-wrote the script with Steven Reneau.


Paul appears in The Workers Cup by Adam Sobel. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Four other films playing at Sundance are notable for their connection to the black community:

Winnie, a documentary about Winnie Mandela; The Workers Cup, a documentary about the African and Asian migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup facilities; The Wound, a feature that examines African masculinity; And Novitiate, by Maggie Betts, a film about a young woman training to become a nun in the 1960's.

A film still from The Wound. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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