Racial issues shape conversation at Sundance Film Festival


PARK CITY, Utah — Don Cheadle came to this year’s Sundance Film Festival to present his trifecta debut as star, director and writer of the Miles Davis biography “Miles Ahead.” But his script was quickly rewritten.

The standout hit of the festival is “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s uprising. Nate Parker stars in the film he directs and helped to write.
The standout hit of the festival is “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s uprising. Nate Parker stars in the film he directs and helped to write.

The star found that discussions of his passion project inevitably turned to questions about the hot-button topic of this year’s racially exclusive Oscar nominations. For the second year in a row, not a single actor of color received a nod.

“How do I feel about the Oscars controversy? There’s a lot,” said Cheadle, a 2005 best actor Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda.” “It has to do with exclusivity; it has to do with glass ceilings. It’s about diversity and inclusion at the earliest level of this industry. It’s a conversation that starts long before we get to the Oscars and people are deciding who likes what.”

So maybe it was only right that such talks were happening at Sundance, a festival that has long been a starting point for diverse filmmakers and future stars.

As for the Oscars, Cheadle plans to avoid this year’s gala once again, despite his ongoing invitation as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s not alone: The movie industry’s parity issue triggered complaints of bias and prompted notables including Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to announce that they will not attend the Academy Awards on Feb. 28.

Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has pledged to diversify the nomination process for next year’s event.

Diversity and independence
Much of the attention at this year’s Sundance focused on America’s polarizing fixations on race, gender and celebrity. Art seemed to take a back seat to issues of the movies’ political parallels.

Those discussions took center stage when the festival’s founder spoke at the traditional opening day media conference.

“We’re pretty proud of how we show diversity in the festival,” said Robert Redford, who began the showcase in 1985 to give a voice to independent filmmakers. Sundance has paid close attention to issues of race and gender throughout its 31-year history because “diversity comes out of the word independence,” he added.

Indeed, some of the program’s female and ethnically disparate filmmakers have gone on to win Oscars after their Sundance premieres. “Searching for Sugar Man,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Hustle and Flow” and “Precious” all earned Oscars after opening in Park City. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” made a best picture run after its Sundance screening in 2012.

Many others will be better remembered by history than the academy. “Fruitvale Station,” the 2012 true story of a young man killed by San Francisco transit police, introduced the breakout talents of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. The pair reunited for this past year’s box office hit “Creed,” which earned a supporting Oscar nod for Sylvester Stallone. But neither Coogler nor Jordan matched his Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama with Oscar nominations for either film.

The Sundance Institute also provides year-round support for artists in the film industry through fellowships and workshops. At the opening conference, former Miramax studio executive Keri Putnam (tapped this year as executive director of the Sundance Institute) cited alumni such as Coogler and “Selma” director Ava DuVernay as filmmakers the festival introduced to mainstream opportunities.

“We do provide a really great pipeline,” Putnam said. “We have a seat at that table in terms of providing a constructive voice to the decision makers to say, ‘Hey, take a look at this range of talent.’?”

Redford, himself a two-time Oscar winner, made it clear that he’s no enemy of the Hollywood establishment, “because I’ve been part of that, happily part of that.” As for the Oscars controversy, “I’m not into that.” The mission for Sundance, he said, is “to broaden the industry” and offer an outlet for “artists [who] are making films about what’s on the public’s mind.”

Birth of a slave film
This year’s Sundance slate has offered a wide range, many with Black leads. The standout hit of the festival is the slave revolt drama “The Birth of a Nation.” Repeating the title of D.W. Griffith’s racially insensitive 1915 epic, which launched modern cinema, it tells the story of Nat Turner’s uprising, one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history.

Nina Simone’s haunting lynching song “Strange Fruit” plays in a harrowing scene as the camera moves through a woodland of slaves hanged for challenging their plantation masters.

The film, which premiered to multiple standing ovations, launched a frenzied bidding war from distributors before selling to Fox Searchlight, which carried “12 Years a Slave” to Oscar glory in 2013. Its sale price was an eye-popping $17.5 million, the highest price yet paid at Sundance. The indie film was made for a fraction of that and encountered years of resistance from Hollywood investors who doubted it could draw a global market.

Still, marketing success alone was not what writer/director/star Nate Parker was aiming for. “I made this film for one reason, with the hope of creating change agents” with its portrayal of America’s historic legacy, he told the opening night audience. “I just want you, if you are affected and you are so moved, to ask yourself, ‘Are there systems in my life that need attention, whether it be racial [or] gender?’ There are lots of injustices.”

What women want
Racial themes triggered a cascade of buzz but were not the only item on the festival’s agenda, or on the mind of Sundance attendees. At a reception honoring female filmmakers, veteran producer Mridu Chandra noted that despite her 17 films, including a Sundance premiere on her resume, it’s still a challenge to overcome obstacles and climb the industry ladder.

“The glass ceiling is very much there,” she said. At a Sundance festival attended by director Catherine Hardwicke, “she explained how, despite making a film that broke box office records, ‘Twilight,’ she had to pitch herself as director of the follow-up, and she didn’t get it.”

Instead, the hit series recruited male filmmakers. “There may be other forces at work, but it isn’t common that a guy wouldn’t be offered Part 2 of the same series,” Chandra continued. “I don’t have a guy who is a big studio executive to help me because I am an Indian woman of color,” a matter she sees more as unconscious bias than deliberate misogyny. “We like to work with people who look or feel like us.

“But I’m not complaining because there is a very thriving independent world. It’s not million-dollar jobs and million-dollar movies, but I have had a career for 17 years in this field,” in part through Sundance’s commitment to female filmmakers. In this year’s lineup, women directed 40 percent of the festival’s films, an unofficial but dramatic quota system offering them a pathway to new opportunities.

For some outsider filmmakers, working in a specialized film field might be preferable to mainstream conformity.

As studios have shifted their budgets to lavish action fare, they have abandoned the “character-driven films that took to heart the problems of the nation and therefore stood as Oscar-worthy,” said Harlan Jacobson, director of Talk Cinema, a nationwide film club that offers its members theatrical screenings of hit festival films before their theatrical release. “The little films that show up at Sundance are giving the industry its integrity.”

That’s a viewpoint Cheadle shares as the Academy Awards approach.

“Who is or is not getting an Oscar is the least of what we’re talking about,” he said. “It’s about something that happens in the halls of executives who decide who will even get on the runway.

Nothing’s going to happen unless we’re discussing questions of access way before we get to February.”


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