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It’s That Time of the Year Again! 15 Black Films That Might Premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

It's That Time of the Year Again! 15 Black Films That Might Premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

How fast time flies! The 2015 Sundance Film Festival is almost upon us – less than 2 months away actually. It’s the first film festival of each year that many filmmakers work to get their films into; most don’t make the short list, and for those that do, it could mean the beginning of an extra special year. See films like “Dear White People” and “Difret” for example – both debuting at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and each attracting acclaim and plenty of support.

What film might be next year’s “Dear White People”? What director might make history like Ava DuVernay did 2 years ago, becoming the first black woman director to win the coveted Best Director award? What trippy, experimental features will challenge and astonish us like Terence Nance’s “An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty?” Might there be any great documentaries on the *black experience* globally (historical, present, or future) that will enlighten us – like “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” “The Black Power Mixtape,” or “Slavery By Another Name”?

If past years are any indication, the festival usually starts to unveil its lineup during the first week of December, and I’ll assume that those filmmakers who submitted their films for selection consideration likely already know whether they’re in or not, at this point. Although no one’s telling…

Not that I’ve heard anything directly, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that there are likely lots of excited filmmakers booking their January trips right now (or who have already booked their January trips); although there are likely also lots (a LOT more actually) who might be moping about, feeling dejected from the rejection. And to those folks I say, there are other festivals!! In film history, there have been films that were rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, that went onto premiere at other prominent festivals, did very well, were picked up for traditional theatrical distribution, and the filmmakers went on to have illustrious careers – or, at least, they were able to continue working as filmmakers.

I’m singing that old Frank Sinatra tune in my head right now, that goes something like this… “I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem, Some people get their kicks, Stompin’ on a dream; But I don’t let it, let it get me down, ‘Cause this fine ol’ world it keeps spinning around…”

In anticipation of the festival’s upcoming 2015 lineup announcement, likely this week, as I’ve done every year for the last 3, I thought I’d take a look at films by black filmmakers, or films with stories that center on the lives of black people (whether made by black filmmakers or not), that might, MIGHT be included on that official selection list, when it drops likely by the end of this week.

Again, this is mostly speculation; I don’t have any insider info. I’m not clairvoyant; but what I do have is Shadow And Act’s extensive database of films and filmmakers we’ve written about in the last 5 years, as well as IMDB, Google search, email, and social networking sites to help compile the list that starts below.

In absolutely no specific order, here they are:

1 – Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Nigeria author Uzodinma Iweala’s bestselling debut novel “Beasts of No Nation,”  which follows the journey of a young boy,
who is forced to join a group of soldiers in an unnamed West African
country. His fledgling childhood brutally shattered by war, the boy finds himself
simultaneously fascinated and revolted by the mechanics of war. The
novel is quite explicit, complex, not shying away from the harsh
stuff – a confrontational, immersive first-person narrative. Idris Elba stars as the
Commander under whom the boy fights. He’s producing as well. According to director Fukunaga: “This
project has been seven years in the making, so to say I’m excited to
start shooting this — and with Idris Elba as lead — would be me trying
to play it cool.” Focus
Features will release the film sometime in 2015; it’s been rumored that a
Cannes Film Festival premiere is planned, but Fukunaga’s history with Sundance may be of some influence.

2 – Dee Rees’ Bessie Smith biopic, which Queen Latifah stars in. She’s joined in front of the camera by Mo’Nique and Khandi Alexander, playing Ma Rainey “Mother Of The Blues.” and Bessie Smith’s older sister, Viola, respectively. Charles S. Dutton plays William “Pa” Rainey, husband to Ma Rainey; Mike Epps is Richard Morgan, a Bessie Smith romantic interest; Tika Sumpter plays Lucille, Bessie’s longtime lover and a dancer in her troupe. And Michael K. Williams is Bessie Smith’s husband, who you may recall as the Jack Gee character detailed in Jai’s script review here. To be titled “Blue Goose Hollow” (the area in Chattanooga, Tennessee
where she was born and raised), the film will be a biography of Bessie
Smith, considered by many to be the greatest blues singer of all time.
It will debunk many of the myths that have circulated about her since
her untimely death in 1937. HBO, The Zanuck Company, Shelby Stone Productions and Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment are all backers of the project.

3 – Cyntia Mort’s Nina Simone project, starring Zoe Saldana in the title role. The film tells the story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist, Nina Simone, including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson, played by David Oyelowo. Mike Epps plays Richard Pryor. The film was shot in the fall of 2012, and has completed post-production, but its release has seemingly been held up by some disagreement between the filmmaker and producer – news reported earlier this year. So it’s really a toss-up here. I’m uncertain about its future. But I’m sure it will premiere somewhere eventually, even if it’s not Sundance 2015. I won’t be surprised if a Cannes 2015 debut (whether in or out of competition) happens. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the French loved/love Nina, and she did die in that country, her adopted homeland, in 2003.

4 – Spike Lee’s feature documentary “Go Brazil, Go!,” which will focus on the rise of that country (on the move, particularly politically and economically) on the international scene, as one of the so-called BRICS countries, an acronym that refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, gradually shifting global economic power away from the so-called long-dominating developed G7 economies. To be included in the documentary are interviews Spike will have with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and artists like Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor, Chico Buarque and soccer icon Pele. Spike also visited the headquarters of the Afro-Reggae NGO known for offering opportunities through music to favela kids, where he held interviews as well; Also included are Brazilian actors, as well as community leaders in São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro, and much more. Spike has been vocal with criticism of the lack of black Brazilians in positions of power in the country, and he plans to address the racial discrimination question within the film. It was said that his plan was to have the documentary ready in time for the 2014 World Cup, which was hosted by Brazil, in May of this year. But that didn’t happen. It may not have been ready. But it could be, in time for Sundance 2015.

5 – And speaking of soccer and Brazil, Exclusive Media’s Pelé biopic, which the company took to the Marché du Film (Cannes Film Market) last year, to sell international rights for. Arguably the greatest footballer of all time, Pelé (born Edison Arantes do Nascimento) is the subject of this scripted feature film (not a documentary) backed by Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist are co-writers and co-directors of the film which, according to Imagine Entertainment, is more of a coming-of-age story that will trace Pele’s childhood until he won his first World Cup in Sweden at the age of 17. Leonardo Lima Carvalho as Pelé at age 10 years old, and Kevin de Paula, who plays Pelé from ages 13 to 17, when he won his first World Cup, in 1958. Principal photography wrapped last fall, after a summer 2013 Brazil shoot, with the goal being to release the film prior to the 2014 World Cup. And just like Spike’s documentary above, it didn’t. Post-production delays pushed its debut date back. Vincent D’Onofrio, Rodrigo Santoro, Diego Boneta, Colm Meaney and Seu Jorge all round out the cast of the film.

6 – An outside shot, is Julien Temple’s Marvin Gaye biopic, “Sexual Healing,” starring Jesse L. Martin (as Gaye), S. Epatha Merkerson (as Marvin’s Gaye’s mother, Alberta Cooper Gay), and Dwight Henry (as Marvin Gaye’s father, Marvin Gay, Sr.). The project ran into some financial challenges last year. In the spring of 2013, production on the film stalled. The suspension was said to be due to an unavailability of certain locations, which led to an unavailability of certain cast members, although we weren’t told where and/or who exactly. At the time, it was reported that some 70% of the shoot had already been completed. Crew members were said to have not been paid fully for their work on the film, with one of the film’s producers, Jimmy De Brabant, stating that there was apparently a cash flow problem with the American investor backing the film; although he added that the funding that was promised by this investor had not yet arrived, and emphasized patience with the film’s cast and crew, suggesting that the money was indeed coming. Skip ahead to the fall of 2013 to reports that foreign buyers showed great interest in the project, which producers took to the American Film Market to sell. No news since then. Might we be in for a Sundance surprise? The film is set in the early 1980s, and focuses on the making of the “Midnight Love” album, while Gaye was living in Belgium – a drug addict, considered something of a has-been at the time.

Number 7 to 15 on the next page…

7 – Jonas Carpignano’s feature film debut “Mediterranea” (formerly known as “A Chjana”),
which follows a young Burkinabe man who leaves his native Burkina Faso
in search of a better life, making the perilous journey to Italy, only
to find he’s unprepared for the intolerance facing immigrants in that
country. Most recently, the project received $60,000 in post-production funds from the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS)/ Kenneth Rainin Foundation (KRF) grant program. This was just last month, so there’s a chance that it may not be ready in time for Sundance 2015 (depending on how deep into the post-production process he was, when he received the SFFS/KRF grant). Jonas has a long history with Sundance (the short film which the feature is based on, premiered at Sundance 2011; and he’s participated in the Sundance Screenwriter/Director Labs, where he workshopped this particular project), so a Sundance debut can be expected. Unless the film is just not ready. Worth noting, director Chris Columbus and Eleanor Columbus, via their Maiden Voyage Pictures production company, are co-producers of “Mediterranea.”

8 – Don Cheadle’s Indiegogo-funded (partly) Miles Davis project, which completed principal photography in August, after a lengthy (many years) financing struggle. Cheadle makes his directorial debut with “Miles Ahead,” which is set in 1979 New York, when Davis was ending his 5-year “quiet period” out of the public eye. In the script, co-written by Cheadle, Davis recruits reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to retrieve a recording stolen from the musician’s home. Emayatzy Corinealdi plays as Davis’ former wife Frances Taylor. Keith Stanfield, Austin Lyon and Morgan Wolk round out the starring cast. Most of the movie is set in 1979, when Davis and journalist Brill track down the stolen recording, with flashbacks to Davis’s affair with Corinealdi’s Frances from 1956 to 1966. With principal photography ending in August, Cheadle may not have enough time to complete post-production, and get the film ready for a Sundance 2015 premiere. But it’s certainly not impossible either. It’s a project with some star power behind it, and so, I’m sure the festival (like any other) would be willing to bend or break its submission deadline rules if the film could indeed be ready for public consumption by mid-January, screening out of competition.

9 – Long-time Spike Lee editor (as well as director and producer in his own right) Sam Pollard, has been working on a John Coltrane documentary for a couple of years now (we first learned about it in the fall of 2012), currently titled “A Love Supreme: A Portrait of John Coltrane in 4 Parts,” which is said to be based on the critically-acclaimed book “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” by music journalist Ashley Kahn. The project will reportedly be structured in the same way as Coltrane’s influential 1964 album of the same name. The album is divided into four parts: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” It will feature interviews with Coltrane’s band-mates and friends, as well as historians and music journalists, artists, and people of faith who were inspired by the album. Also, and interestingly, Pollard has said that he plans to use animation to help tell Coltrane’s story, and I’m very curious as to how he plans to implement/incorporate. It’s worth noting that Pollard’s last documentary, the aforementioned “Slavery by Another Name” also premiered at Sundance, in 2012.

10 – A feature documentary on former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade’s
second term in office, when he saw his popularity take a beating, as many
were upset by the lack of progress in dealing with infrastructure
problems in the country as well as rising inflation. You might recall an item we posted here on S&A, which mentioned
criticism Wade faced for his commissioning of a gigantic and expensive
statue, later unveiled during Senegal’s 50th independence anniversary in
April 2010, which Wade asserted that he’d essentially earned about 1/3
of any revenue generated by visitors to the statue, simply because he
came up with the idea for it. But that was just one matter of contention out of a handful; his
proposals to amend the country’s constitution in his favor, also drew
much criticism; also, Wade announced his intentions to stand for
re-election for a 3rd term, even though the constitution limited
presidential terms to two, which he’d already would have served. However, the country’s Constitutional Council allowed him to go ahead
with his bid for a third term, which of course also drew much criticism,
both in Senegal and abroad, inspiring protests, although neither
criticism nor protest stopped Wade from standing for re-election, in February 2012. He would seemingly receive the most votes – almost 35 percent, in a
field of a dozen other candidates – the closest behind him being former prime minister Macky Sall, who won almost 27 percent of the vote. And because a minimum of 50% is needed in order to avoid a second round
of voting, a run-off election between Wade and Sall was held a month
later, which eventually led to an overwhelming victory for Sall, who won
about 66 percent of the vote. Wade then stepped down in April of that year. That entire fiasco, we could call it, is the subject of director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and will be titled “Incorruptible”(formerly “An African Spring”), promising an unbiased work of investigative cinema that captures the election and pro-democracy movement from both sides. Vasarhelyi (whose last film was the feature documentary also centered on a prominent Senegalese figure – the award-winning “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love”), was 1 of 25 selected to receive a total of $550,000 in grants from the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and Fund (DFP) in 2012.

11 – David Harewood and Edwina Findley star in the indie drama “Free In Deed,” from writer/director Jake Mahaffy, which is based on a true story. In
the film, Harewood plays a man who brings a small congregation
together in order to perform the miraculous healing of an 8-year-old
autistic child. Findley plays the boy’s mother. The filmmaker took to Indiegogo to raise funds to complete post-production on the project, with an eye towards a 2015 festival premiere. Although he doesn’t say which festival that will be. Shooting took place in Memphis, TN, with Mike S. Ryan’s
Greyshack Films, and Brent Stiefel’s Votiv producing, with Michael Bowes. As the filmmaker states, the film explores the relationships and circumstances surrounding a faith healing and the forces that lead the characters to define themselves through beliefs. It highlights the contradictions that can exist between intentions and actions, religion and morality, faith and delusion.

12 – Another crowd-funded project – the feature length documentary “Street Fighting Man,” directed and photographed by Andrew James. The film follows 3 black men – each a
generation apart – as they seek to define their lives in post-industrial
Detroit. Deris Solomon is a young single father who wants to leave
behind a high-risk life on the streets; Luke Williams is a middle-aged
man remodeling a former crack house after being homeless for several
years; and James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson is a retired police officer
struggling to save his neighborhood from crime after the local police
station is dissolved. As the filmmaker states, the film’s goal is to pushe beyond statistics and headlines, by
sharing the lived experiences of the people who call Detroit home. It will provide audiences with an unflinching look at how
hard it can be to build a future when everything seems to be crumbling
around you, as, ultimately, the three individual narratives collapse into one, telling
the tale of one man as he attempts to make it though his youth,
mid-life, and old age in post-industrial America. The project was a 2013 Sundance Institute Documentary Edit and Story Labs selection, so there’s already a history with the festival here.

13 – “Strong Island” from director Yance Ford, a very timely work that traces the impacts of the 1992 shooting death of William Ford, Jr., an
unarmed African American, and the devastation of the Ford family when
his killer goes unpunished. The film chronicles filmmaker Yance
Ford’s attempt to unravel the mystery behind what happened the night her
brother, William Ford, Jr., was shot to death by a white mechanic, when
they argued over the quality of a repair. What will hopefully emerge is an intimate
look at the consequences of gun violence, the criminalization of black
men, and the disparities in how perpetrators of crimes against blacks
are treated in the legal system, and begs the question: what does justice
look like for black victims of crime? Like “Street Fighting Man” above, “Strong Island” was also a 2013 Sundance Institute Documentary Edit and Story Labs selection, so there’s already a history with the festival here. It was also a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient this year.

14 – Once again, also very timely, is a feature documentary titled “3.5 Minutes” from director Marc Silver, which recounts the story of Jordan Davis who was
murdered 3.5 minutes after meeting his killer, Michael Dunn, on Black Friday, 2012. The filmmaker met Jordan’s parents, Ron and Lucy, a few months afterwards, and from the
outset, as he states, was struck by the tangible horror of their experience, but more
importantly, by their ability to carry on parenting their son even
after his death. They talked about what happened to Jordan, and then
about making a film that would have the power to reconnect the public to
the urgent issues at the heart of Jordan’s killing … racial profiling,
the presence of guns in public spaces, and the self defense laws that
give people the confidence – and cover – to use those guns. The film promises to be an intimate observational portrait of parents who have suffered an
unimaginable and irreversible loss. It will also focus on their fight for
justice, cutting in and out of the trial, as the film reveals the human story behind
the headlines, exposing systemic racism and the construction of fear in the US. The project was a 2013 Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program selection, so, like so many others on this list, it has a history with Sundance.

15 – And finally, still another quite timely work – a documentary feature that also has the Sundance stamp on it (selected for the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab 2014, Creative Producing Summit 2013, and was a Sundance Documentary Film grant recipient). Directed by George Amponsah, and described as a hybrid
observational documentary, it’s titled “Down By Law,” and follows the childhood friends of Mark Duggan, a young man who was killed by armed police in London, on August 4, 2011 – an event known as the spark that set off the London riots in motion that year. Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old, was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, North London. The Metropolitan Police stated that officers were attempting to arrest Duggan on suspicion of planning an attack, and that he was in possession of a handgun. Duggan died from a gunshot wound to the chest. The circumstances of Duggan’s killing resulted in public protests in Tottenham which, fueled by poverty and racial tension, led to conflict with police and escalated into riots across London and other English cities. The official story of Duggan’s death has undergone numerous changes, drawing criticism and suspicion from Duggan’s family, residents of Tottenham, and other supporters. These critics accuse police of misconduct and of failing to cooperate with investigating Duggan’s death. Shortcomings in the police response have also been blamed for stoking the riots, and for fueling ongoing discontent. The project is also supported by the BFI Film Fund, following a pitching session last year, held at and in partnership with the UK’s leading documentary festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest.

I would say, “that’s it,” but, there are so many projects we’ve profiled on this site over the last 2+ years that have yet to premiere for one reason or another; but that I can’t be certain of where exactly in the production process each one stands, because of a lack of available information, and just not being able to reach anyone involved with each.

There is always at least one surprise – that one film (or those 2 or 3 films) that I know absolutely nothing about, despite the fact that we seem to get just about everything (the good, the bad and the ugly). But there are those filmmakers who prefer to work in silence, who we’ll eventually learn about whether via their Sundance debuts, or elsewhere. Also, while the S&A database is deep, we do miss a few things here and
there, and I’m always looking forward to finding out what those *unknown*
titles might be – assuming there will be any. It’s always fun
discovering new projects!

Overall, African Diaspora participation at Sundance (like most *major* film festivals around the world) is usually quite low, so, even though I’ve listed several titles here that have the potential to be selected by the selection committee, I’m sadly never expecting to find more than 3 or 4 feature films in the festival’s full lineup – in competition, out of competition, etc – that tell stories about people of African descent. 

And this year probably won’t surprise me. So it goes… But I’ll certainly always embrace being pleasantly surprised!

So now we wait…

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