The story of the killing of a rising young Black leader in 1969 hit the Sundance audience hard. As the details of Fred Hampton’s death rolled out — the Chicagoan was fatally shot by police in his apartment, a killing that felt like an assassination — it was evident that viewers were having an emotional reaction to The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. It was one of several visceral moments in Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary, and even though it was first viewed by a largely non-Black audience, those who witnessed the film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival gasped when they saw images of the 21-year-old’s bloody, bullet-ridden body hanging halfway off his bed.
That same emotional connection would play out at other Black films that screened at the festival. This year’s group of films ranged in terms of setting and era; some reached back to explore the Black Panthers party or Nina Simone, and others took on contemporary issues like racial profiling and subsequent unjust murders. The common link between them was that they all were striking cinematic experiences, gut-punching viewers with a dose of historical reality from which it was difficult to quickly recover.
Shari Frilot is the reason why these types of stories are even being presented at Sundance, particularly to an audience that tends to be largely White. Frilot has been with the Sundance Institute since 1998 (her first Sundance Film Festival was in 1999), and she’s the festival’s only Black programmer. She’s also the curator of Sundance’s New Frontier, an interactive art exhibit that presents storytelling in innovative and groundbreaking ways — to her, story is a way that we connect with our shared experiences.