One of Hollywood’s biggest film festivals is now underway. But instead of industry A-listers, up-and-comers, and indie film lovers all descending on Park City, the Omicron variant has pushed key components of the festival back online, and once again the premiere festival is a hybrid event. According to Tabitha Jackson, the British filmmaker who is the first female and person of color to head the festival, going digitally last year was a learning experience. COVID, she says, has definitely impacted the festival in more ways than just forcing it into the virtual space. Part of that has been identifying ways in which the festival can be even more inclusive.
“With an expanded festival and the different ways of people being able to engage,” says Jackson, “it's exciting that [various] communities can all be at the festival from wherever they are in the world.” However, going virtual has also "accelerated and made visible the cracks in our social fabric,” explains the festival head, as well as “amplified the opportunities for change.”
“What we're trying to get to is: what is a festival’s role in the 21st century? What is our accountability and responsibility around this work and these makers? And so all the challenges that are being thrown at us and our incredible team is part of understanding what is sustainable, what is vibrant, what is meaningful,” continues Jackson.
In that regard, Sundance’s producing director Gina Duncan—who joined the 40-year-old institution in 2020 from the Brooklyn Academy of Music( BAM), which has a stellar reputation for community outreach and engagement, especially when it comes to welcoming underrepresented groups into a longstanding institution—is an asset.
“I care about Sundance in terms of supporting the Black artists and the work that comes through the space. I think I've always felt that it was important to be at the festival to see those films, to see those artists on that stage,” shares Duncan.
To be sure, there have been big paydays for Black films at Sundance. Back in 2016, Fox Searchlight bought Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation for a record $17.5 million and, just last year, Netflix scooped up Rebecca Hall’s Passing, starring EBONY's December/January digital cover star Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga for $15 million.
And just as important, Duncan notes, are the positives outside organizations—such as The Blackhouse Foundation, led by Jenean Glover (which is celebrating 15 years at Sundance), and Charles D. King’s Macro (which is hosting its 5th Annual Macro Lodge at the festival)—offer to the Sundance, particularly as they build community and amplify awareness around Black and other creatives of color.
This year both organizations continue their virtual programming pushes which the general public can also access. Sponsored by Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), Blackhouse in the Filmmaker Lodge features several conversations, including one with Tina Knowles-Lawson, who hosts her own Facebook Watch show Talks with Mama Tina, as well as produces several others. Macro, which offers other programming like its annual HBCU Summit, nurturing and championing creatives of color has an even more robust, star-studded slate for its Macro Lodge at Sundance Film Festival Presented by Chase Sapphire festivities. Some of the most anticipated include a conversation between Warner Bros. Television Group chair Channing Dungey and King himself. Women of the Movement showrunner and executive producer Marissa Jo Cerar and stars Cedric Joe, Tonya Pinkins, Glynn Turman, and Ray Fisher are also on hand to chat and share. Then there are featured discussions with those who have films in Sundance this year, including Alice star Keke Palmer, as well as Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, among others.
Jackson is particularly elated by the films, which she describes as “socially engaged work” from female directors of color. Brooklyn-based Senegalese-American filmmaker Mariama Diallo, for instance, makes her directorial debut with Master, a supernatural thriller following two Black women as they encounter disturbing experiences at a college near Salem, Massachusetts, town which was made infamous for its witch trials. The film’s stars are Zoe Renee, perhaps best known for the BET series The Quad, double NAACP nominee Regina Hall for Black Monday and Nine Perfect Strangers, and Amber Gray, most recently seen on Prime Video’s The Underground Railroad. Meanwhile Sierra Leonean-American Nikyatu Jusu’s film Nanny stars Titans’ Anna Diop as Aisha as a nanny working on New York’s Upper East Side whose American dream is threatened; Power’s Sinqua Walls, and Leslie Uggams also star.
And let's not forget the great boon the festival has been to Black women directors these past few years. In the early stages of her career, Ava DuVernay memorably won the best director prize for her film Middle of Nowhere in 2012, a first for a Black woman there. And two years ago, three Black women—Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Garrett Bradley (Time), and Maïmouna Doucouré (Cuties)—took top directing prizes in all categories.
“When I think about Sundance, I think about Black filmmakers who have come through, especially in the 90s, Sundance was a place where Daughters of the Dust, House Party, Chameleon Street, Just Another Girl on the IRT (which is featured in the festival this year) [were first seen]. So the importance for Black folks, in coming to the festival and watching the films,” says Duncan, “is being a part of that first audience who helps build awareness around these films.”
“Not everybody has to like independent cinema, not every Black person has to like Sundance, but it's there,” adds Jackson. “And we want to make it as strong and powerful as we can. And that takes people who look like us.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs until January 30. To find out more information about programming and how to attend, visit https://festival.sundance.org/.