2022 was supposed to be different: The return of the physical component of the Sundance Film Festival, with requirements such as fully boosted attendees and regular testing, was meant to return. But after omicron’s surge, the festival is now entering its second straight year as strictly a virtual affair. Nevertheless, from year to year, there’s always a difference at Sundance. It’s the films. And in this case, films directed by Black creators.
We’ve combed through this year’s lineup to select 10 exciting long-form works directed by Black folks, most making their feature debuts, which compose a diverse assortment of stories that survey academia, policing, systematic bias, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonialist themes from a uniquely Black perspective. Here are the exciting Black-helmed projects, from incisive docuseries to adventurous feature films, to look out for at this year’s Sundance.
Curious about how to re-create the magic of Sundance at home? Public tickets and passes are on sale now, and our handy guide as to how to buy them (and which ones will suit your needs) is available right here. Not sure you’re going to “attend”? Plenty of premieres have already been picked up for wide release, and you get to know them right here, on our updating list of festival acquisitions. The festival kicks off next week and runs January 20 through January 30, 2022.
Everyone knows Spike Lee, but far fewer viewers know about his wife, corporate lawyer-turned-producer (including the Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It”) Tonya Lee Lewis. Even fewer are aware of the physical risks faced by Black mothers-to-be within the American healthcare system. For her debut, “Aftershock,” Lewis teams with fellow filmmaker Paula Eiselt (the critically acclaimed director behind “93Queen”) to track this very issue.
Lewis and Eiselt follow the widowed partners, Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre, of Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, two hopeful mothers who died from preventable childbirth complications. Both Maynard and McIntyre, along with other Black fathers and Black women, work to combat a human rights issue that stretches back centuries: Medical bias against Black folks. The pressing crisis has been waiting for a documentary like “Aftershock” to its heighten awareness.
Writer-director Krystin Ver Linden’s feature debut, “Alice,” stands as one of the more audacious selections within the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Inspired by true accounts of enslaved Southern Blacks kept in servitude nearly 100 years after the Civil War, the film stars Keke Palmer as the titular character, and the rapper Common as the Black activist she befriends following her 1973 escape from a Georgian plantation. While the failure of “Antebellum” looms over this premise, Van Liden’s writing background should provide plenty of room for optimism.
Prior to “Alice,” the director spent seven years assisting Quentin Tarantino on “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” As a screenwriter, she penned “Ashe,” a biopic concerning the tennis great, currently in development, and Black List script “Ride,” about astronaut Sally Ride, which sold to Lionsgate with Joey Soloway (also at this year’s festival to judge the NEXT section) set to direct.
At last year’s Sundance, Florida director Carey Williams debuted his first feature, “R#J,” a modern, digital reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” shot through Instagram Live that displayed his forward-thinking cinematic vision. He returns to the festival this year with a feature expansion of his same-titled Sundance-winning short, “Emergency.”
In this dark comedy mixing fear with vulnerability, three college roommates (two Vlack and one Mexican) arrive home to find a drunk white girl mysteriously passed out on their living room floor. The fear: The police will suspect these young people of color of a grave crime. For the feature, Williams brought in a new cast — RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, and Donald Elise Watkins — to play the same characters as his short. Similar to “Alice,” the daring premise has the sense of a highwire act, where one false step could send the entire exercise tumbling. Having said that, the risk is what makes art like “Emergency” worth seeking out.
“Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul”
In Adamma Ebo’s satirical comedy “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” (produced with her twin sister Adanne Ebo), star Regina Hall returns to what she does best. Adapted by Ebo from her same-titled short, Hall stars as Trinitie Childs, the first lady of the Southern Baptist megachurch, Wander to Greater, with her pastor husband Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). Coming off a scandal involving her husband, Trinitie is trying to revitalize the once-profitable house of worship.
During the course of her 25-year career, Hall, an adept dramatic actress, has often made her biggest mark in comedy, from the “Scary Movie” franchise to her lauded turn in “Support the Girls.” But for Brown, associated with more serious melodramas, Ebo’s script, parsing the hypocrisies within the Southern Baptist landscape, offers him a chance to stretch his satirical muscles. “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” promises two great actors aiming for laughs as two big, theatrical characters.
“Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy”
Any project associated with the rapper Kanye West, now professionally known as Ye, can be many things: controversial, head-scratching, profound, or just plain dubious. But it can never be boring. A docuseries produced by the rapper himself has the capacity to hit every section of that spectrum. Netflix’s “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” is helmed by Coodie & Chike, two music video directors whose partnership began because of West.
In 2002, Chicago native Coodie began shooting a documentary about West’s signing to Rockefeller Records. While making the film, Coodie met Chike at MTV, with West putting the pair together to complete Coodie’s original project. The footage would result in the music video for “Through the Wire.” Aiming to track the best-selling artist’s career from his early days until now, the germs of the docu-series traces back to the same behind-the-scenes footage captured two decades ago during their initial collaboration. “Jeen-yuhs” offers a tantalizing opportunity to observe the journey of one of pop culture’s most polarizing figures.
“Marte Um (Mars One)”
Too few films concerning the Afro-Latinx population of Brazil have been given a platform in America, and “Marte Um (Mars One)” from Gabriel Martins seeks to change that. A family drama and coming-of-age story, the film centers on the Martins, a lower-middle-class household living on the margins of Brazil under a far-right regime. In the deeply political story, every family member dreams of upward mobility: Whether through marriage, sports, or school. It offers a real change: a story about a Afro-Latinx family’s genuine love for each other rather than their deep despair. Magnolia Pictures International recently acquired “Mars One” before the film’s Sundance premiere.
While 2021 comedy series such as “Harlem” and “The Chair” tried to explicate the perils lurking within the privileged world of academia through laughs, writer-director Mariama Diallo’s first feature, “Master,” is expected to take a completely different track. Set in the uneasy halls of higher learning and coated in the lingering air of the Salem witch trials, Diallo’s project centers three women, featuring Regina Hall as a newly installed dean of an elite Northeastern university, Zoe Renee as a frightened freshman, and Amber Gray as a literature professor confronting bigoted colleagues.
Prior to “Master,” Diallo served as a writer-director on Terence Nance’s HBO comedy series “Random Acts of Flyness.” Her picture “Hair Wolf” won the 2018 Sundance Short Film Jury Award, a horror-satire wherein Black women hair stylists must fend off monstrous white women trying to appropriate Black hair. It’s available to stream on Criterion Channel, and demonstrates Diallo’s clear horror bonafides.
An undocumented Senegalese immigrant, Aisha (Anna Diop), becomes a nanny for Rose, the daughter of a privileged white family living in Manhattan. A domestic worker awaiting the arrival of her young son from Senegal to America, she navigates Rose’s manipulative parents and a supernatural force that’s working to destroy all that she’s built. Part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition: Sierra Leonean-American Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut “Nanny,” the result of eight years worth of work, operates as both a character study of Black immigrant mothers such as Aisha, women reaching for the American dream for the betterment of their children, and the horrors awaiting them in a exploitative system that leverages their voicelessness against them.
Similar to Remi Weekes’ terrifying UK-set thriller, “His House,” witnessing a South Sudanese refugee couple grappling with survivor’s guilt and the alarm of a hostile new country, “Nanny” has the potential to add a new complex layer to the African emigrant experience. Except, this time, from an American perspective.
Though it’s not receiving its World Premiere at Sundance, that happened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, I didn’t want to forget the lone African-set feature in this year’s line-up: Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ Afrofuturist musical “Neptune Frost.” Set in a Rwandan village composed of computer parts, the anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist work sees Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), an intersex runaway, falling in love with coltan miner Matalusa (Kaya Free).
The filmmaking in “Neptune Forest” is conceptually, sonically, and visually bold. In their IndieWire review out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jude Dry wrote, “Transmitting a massive download of ideas into one film, there’s no doubt that Williams and Uzeyman have creativity to spare, and they deserve all the support they can get to share it with the world. When you’re this close to the divine, the medium is a pretty-enough message.”
“We Need to Talk About Cosby”
Until 2014, Emmy-winning comedian Bill Cosby was the quintessential television dad. His wholesome stand-up specials concerning family and children catapulted him to stardom. His boundary-breaking run as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the professionally successful but parentally bemused middle-class father of a charming family, on the rating juggernaut “The Cosby Show” cemented him as the paradigm of upward mobility and excellence for Black America.
That all changed in 2014, when the comedian was accused by approximately 60 women of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, child sexual abuse, and sexual misconduct. With his four-part docuseries, “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” W. Kamau Bell talks to associates of Cosby, plus several survivors, to chronicle the disgraced comedian’s career in what could be a docu-series akin to “O.J.: Made in America,” a comprehensive surveying of America through the lens of a tarnished Black pop culture icon’s heinous crimes.