Words by Andreas Hale
With the Oscars ostracizing most films featuring casts and crews of color, it almost seems poetic that this year’s Sundance Film Festival spotlighted a wide array of movies that indirectly respond to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that the Academy Awards rightfully earned.
From biopics on slave revolt leader Nat Turner and jazz legend Miles Davis to documentaries on Maya Angelou and Michael Jackson and coming of age stories set in the present day, Sundance did an excellent job with culling together a variety of films that narrate the black experience from a number of viewpoints. Here are a few of our favorites.
The Birth Of A Nation
For a debut film, Nate Parker certainly didn’t tread lightly with his choice to spotlight the 1831 slave insurrection that was led by Baptist slave preacher turned commandeer of forces, Nat Turner. Starring Parker in the lead role and also featuring the likes of Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Roger Guenveur Smith, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union (in a very understated role), The Birth Of A Nation is as gorgeously cinematic as it is frightfully haunting. Parker handles Turner’s story exceptionally by avoiding slave movie tropes of finding a white savior and focusing heavily on the downtrodden slave. Instead, Turner is portrayed with much gusto as he wrestles with his lofty position atop the slave hierarchy, a post that may have been good enough for many slaves. But Turner is a man of principal and this is less of a transformation from coward to hero than it is of a man reaching a tipping point. The violence is brutal and serves as a reminder that nothing is sacred in war. With the current racial climate, The Birth of a Nation is a timely piece of brilliant filmmaking that will be discussed for years to come.
Status: Purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures
On the surface, director Sara Jordeno’s “Kiki” serves as a love story to the current-day NYC vogue ballroom scene. However, what you get once you settle in is a powerful documentary that traverses the black and brown LGBTQ landscape and spotlights some of the individuals that make up this scene. Much less a dance film and far more strongly rooted in community activism, discrimination and the challenges of being young, gay and black in America, “Kiki” is necessary viewing for anyone curious about the uphill mountain these individuals proudly climb. At times it is heartbreaking to see a group of pre-teens chastise a kindhearted gay man and a trans woman or hear their stories of how they were banished from their homes once they came out, but it is 100% honest filmmaking. With co-creator Twiggy Pucci Garcon featured along with Chi Chi Mizrahi, Zariya, Symba McQueen and Gia Marie Love all having equal time telling their stories, “Kiki” is a force of nature that slightly parallels the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” but stands on its own two feet.
Michael Jackson: Journey From Motown To Off The Wall
Although gone, the legacy of Michael Jackson will never be forgotten. As obvious as Jackson’s history is tied to his groundbreaking Thriller album, Spike Lee’s “Michael Jackson: Journey From Motown To Off The Wall” highlights what many believe to be MJ’s greatest artistic feat. Pulling together some lost footage of Jackson performances and interviews along with interviewing the minds behind Off The Wall, “Journey” is a treasure chest of King of Pop moments. Clearly, any footage of Jackson performing is welcome. But some of the anecdotes from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy and Valerie Simpson along with old interviews with Sammy Davis Jr. and Quincy Jones are a welcome addition and help form the narrative of what led Jackson to separate from his brothers and strike out on his own. Add that to footage from 1979’s Destiny tour and you have yet another excellent piece of cinema that serves as a reminder that nobody will ever be as big as Michael Jackson.
STATUS: Premiering On Showtime at 9pm on Friday February 5th.
Coming of age stories have long been a staple of Sundance. And although Steven Caple Jr.’s “The Land” seems to fit the mold, it also does a few things to keep things fresh. Set in the desolate confines of Cleveland, “The Land” finds four skateboard loving teenagers who are desperate to navigate their way out of their poverty stricken dwellings. An accidental encounter with an excessive amount of MDMA offers a life altering experience but the perils of dabbling in the drug game are certain to rear their ugly head. With strong performances from its cast of young actors (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moses Arias, Rafi Garvon & Ezri Walker) along with small roles by Erykah Badu, Michael K Williams and Machine Gun Kelly, a screen chewing performance Linda Emond as the drug queen-pin Momma and Nas serving as an executive producer, “The Land” offers a unique look into modern day Cleveland.
How To Tell You’re A Douchebag
The black dating scene in the social media age is a topic you would think to see more often in film. But when you really think about it, most films involving African American relationships opt to skew toward the over-30 crowd. Tahir Jetter’s witty “How To Tell You’re A Douchebag” knows exactly the void it fills as it focuses on Brooklyn freelance writer Ray Livingston’s (Charles Brice) womanizing ways. Scorned somewhat by his girlfriend’s confession that she’s in love with another woman, Ray goes full-blown douchebag while bedding multiple women. A chance encounter with the strong willed Rochelle (DeWanda Wise) puts Livingston in his place and leads to the inevitable chase. The strength of the film isn’t the script but instead the colorful cast characters, ranging from Rochelle’s matter-of-fact sentiments to Ray’s buddy Jake (William Jackson Harper) and his stream of cleaver consciousness. It’s not perfect, but if you’re a young writer of color, it will certainly hit a bevy of notes.