Minority Report: More Filmmakers of Color, But Is It Just a Fluke?
by Michelle Bryant
This year’s Sundance offers one of the most diverse slates in the history of the festival. With 25 percent of the films (Premiere, Special Screenings, American Spectrum, and Documentary sections) at the festival directed by filmmakers of color, it makes one wonder if the trend is a fluke or if there are now more opportunities for minority filmmakers.
“Why there are so many films by filmmakers of color, particularly Black and Asian filmmakers, is really anybody’s guess,” Sundance Festival Programmer Shari Filet told indieWIRE. “Last year it was not as strong of a year at all, but this year we got a burgeoning number.”
This year’s festival boasts 15 features by Asian Americans, nine from Latino directors, and two features from Native directors. While the number of Latino and Asian projects at the Festival has continually increased over the years, the most notable increase is the amount of films from African American directors. This year, 10 features are directed by African American directors (compared to four directors in 2003 and three directors in 2002). Ranging from independent productions and documentaries to studio-films, this selection of films show new stories and characters very different from the genre-type films often associated with Black cinema. “When a cinema diversifies, it’s always a signal of health,” added Frilot. “The films as a group become our cultural legacy. We are starting to see films with characters we haven’t seen before.”
Among these films are Rodney Evans’ “Brother to Brother,” a film on gay artists from the Harlem Renaissance; Vondie Curtis Hall’s “Redemption,” the inspiring story of Stan “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the Crips; Angela Robinson’s “D.E.B.S.,” a Charlie’s Angels-type film about four secret agent school-girls; and “CSA: Confederate States of America,” Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary that takes a look at what American culture would be like if the South had won the Civil War. “Often when you address the issue of slavery, black people get angry and white people feel guilty,” said writer/director Willmott. “I think people are ready for this and they want the truth. I think we are able to show that slavery is an American issue.”
Another film premiering at the festival is Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!,” which takes a look at the making of his father Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a groundbreaking film for both independent and African American cinema. “The success of ‘Sweet Sweetback’ was the birth of independent cinema on a mega-level because it showed Hollywood and the world there was a sizable black and alternative audience for independent films,” said writer/director Mario Van Peebles. For the younger Van Peebles, “Baadasssss!” not only shines a light on the making of this film, but if offers a different type of black character not often seen on screen. “This is a film about a guy who’s not a basketball player, rapper, singer, or drug user,” stated Van Peebles. “We need to see that.”
Although there are still limited means for financing for diverse projects, several organizations are addressing this need and creating new programs to open doors for filmmakers of color. Recently, the Tribeca Festival announced its new initiative, Tribeca All Access, a program that will provide networking opportunities for filmmakers of color. Another such initiative comes from Positive Impact, a collaborative initiative to promote filmmakers of color by creating a marketplace to facilitate and finance diverse projects, programs, and organizations within the independent media, as well as promote strategic partnerships within the industry. Positive Impact founder Melissa Bradley said, “We hope to provide examples where filmmakers of color were able to achieve critical success as well as financial gain and be able to showcase the fact that these films can make money and that there is a need for them.” Positive Impact is celebrating the launch of this new initiative at the Sundance Festival at a reception this evening.
While these are small steps, they are nonetheless steps in the right direction. It may be a few years until we see the impact of these and similar types of initiatives. As for Sundance, the festival has an ongoing commitment to finding films that represent American cinema. “We are very mindful that our slate becomes a point of conversation within the industry and the popular culture,” said Frilot. “It’s a responsibility, but it also makes it incredibly exciting because we are all very interested in expanding discussion in the public arena.”
[ The Sundance panel on The New “New Black Film” will be held on Tuesday. ]