The 2018 Sundance Film Festival has passed, and a quiet year for deals and buzz led some to speculate films focused on people of color and women were the reason for fewer acquisitions. “Who are these movies for?” griped an influential distributor to Variety. On Twitter, “Blindspotting” producer Keith Calder perfectly summed up the fallacy in that question: “White male privilege is thinking a movie that doesn’t appeal to you is a movie that doesn’t appeal to anyone. If you are a film executive attending Sundance… at least have the class and self-respect to not anonymously trash those movies in the press.” (“Blindspotting” eventually sold to Lionsgate at the end of the festival.)
The anonymous buyer’s comments — and Calder’s subsequent rebuke — highlight underlying growing pains for a festival angling for more diverse programming, but lacking sufficient voices to champion such work.
Hollywood is an industry dominated by white men, and so’s the media, but the ethos of this year’s Sundance programming was clear: We are the outsiders, the unsung, the uncelebrated, and the marginalized. “The Tale,” “Damsel,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “Blindspotting,” “Monsters and Men” and “Monster” all centered on socially conscious messages. This year more than any other, I saw films that spoke to me on a deeply personal level. I found characters I recognized and identified with, rather than de facto representations. I did not have to choose between the white female characters or the black male characters that did not fully speak to me as a black woman.
I wasn’t inundated with a host of films that capitalized on black pain. “Precious,” a Sundance 2009 breakout, was a brilliant film — but words cannot express my joy leaving the theater last year after the quirky and carefree “The Incredible Jessica James,” one of the few movies in the 2017 lineup to have that effect. This year, I saw myself equally responsive to the female companionship of “Skate Kitchen,” and the ferocious satire of race relations in “Sorry To Bother You.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Doug Emmett
As I (and other people of color) celebrated this year’s films and reveled in this watershed moment, I found it disquieting to hear industry colleagues and fellow critics complain that they didn’t “get” it. It was comical to hear people who live for Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy remaining lukewarm on “Blindspotting.” Carlos Lopez Estrada‘s stylized buddy comedy clearly draws from Wright’s work; in fact, if Wright were born black and grew up in the Bay Area, he would probably have made something a lot like “Blindspotting.” Furthermore, people who loved Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” or Michel Gondry’s Eternal “Sunshine of The Spotless Mind” dismissed Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” as “scattershot” or “too weird,” even though Riley channeled their surrealist storytelling methods for an all-too-timely story.
I was especially astonished to witness the backlash to “The Tale.” The movie’s central drama revolves around a disturbingly accurate scene of sexual abuse. Fandango journalist Alicia Malone confided that she overheard two men deriding the movie minutes after the premiere, with one admitting, “I didn’t need to see that.” Another added, “Why would you want to put that out there?”
I’m sure any sexual assault survivor — including Jennifer Fox, the film’s director — would argue that such discomfort is precisely why the movie needed to be made. Another column posted midway through the festival lamented, “Where are all the masterpieces?” There are actually several answers.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a satirical masterpiece that addresses our age of racial confusion. In “Sorry to Bother You,” Lakeith Stanfield’s character uses his “white voice” for career advancement, and it’s a laser-focused dagger into the heart of modern-day racial identity politics. And I would dub “Blindspotting” a near-perfect political musical without melody, but with a undeniable beat. When leads Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) break into freestyle rap conversations, they’re woven into the plot as seamlessly as musical numbers, with Collin’s freestyle breakdown of institutionalized racism sustaining the movie’s themes.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Jonathan Hickerson
However, while Sundance can program these breakthroughs, it hasn’t done the same for its audience. The festival’s moviegoers are largely comprised of white, well-to-do industry insiders, critics from major publications, and a few dedicated freelancers and cinephiles who can afford the costly trek to Park City. (Then there are the Utah locals.) I’m blessed to work for a major outlet, and my sisters at BlackGirlNerds.com were supported by private sponsorship to add our voice to the conversation. To be fair, the festival has always worked to promote female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and marginalized voices, but even a casual observer would argue that this year was different.
Behind the numbers lies a hidden truth: Sundance can shake up its programming, but that’s not enough to stimulate broader conversations about a more inclusive film community. The festival made a visible effort to increase the diversity of the lineup; insiders called it “a down year,” “a political statement”, or, worse yet, “boring.” Two of the highest-dollar acquisitions — “Assassination Nation,” which sold to Neon for $10 million, and the brilliantly divisive “Sorry To Bother You,” which was acquired by Annapurna — both featured women and people of color in fresh takes on genre filmmaking.
However, the films had very few critics of color commenting on them, a long-running problem in film criticism. The predominately minority films “Blindspotting” (90%) and “Sorry to Bother You” (83%) are rated fresh on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, but critics of color comprise only 25% of the total reviews submitted. How might the averages of these films shift if the critic demographics reflected the general audience?
This year saw more critics of color in Park City, but as Shadow and Act’s Aramide A. Tinubu pointed out, the turnout was far from sufficient. “The representation of the Black press is abysmal,” she wrote. “Black press simply isn’t as valued in the entertainment space. Though we are constantly writing about and trying to get through the door to speak with artists of color, our phone calls and emails often go unanswered.”
As the festival director for Blackgirlnerds.com, I can confirm that the struggle is real—even more so when a person of color is not featured in the main cast. If Sundance 2018 is the tip of the spear, the follow-through must include gender and racial parity in film criticism and access to match. The conversation around films in the “Park City bubble” is as meaningful as the films themselves. As “Sorry to Bother You” star Tessa Thompson pointed out during the film’s panel at the MACRO lounge: “There is a real responsibility to make sure that the people who get to talk about our work also look like us—the gatekeepers cannot all be white cis males.”
A monolithic voice in film criticism can also negatively impact the box office. Films like “Get Out” and “Wonder Woman” show how representation can drive ticket sales. Conversely, if an audience is not provided new stories that inspire a trip to the theater, box office numbers will continue to decline. Quiet buzz around films at Sundance could depress expectations for distribution, and some of the more visionary films from the festival may fail to gather an audience. Providing racial and gender parity in the conversation can help foster these new filmmakers. Each group provides a unique perspective, and the film community should reflect that if we want to accurately evaluate new storytellers.