Diversity Remains High in Sundance 2021 Films, As Is Their Market Appeal

This year's Sundance lineup won't break diversity records, but several intriguing titles are expected to sell big at the festival.
Sundance Institute

Against the backdrop of a pandemic, maybe diversity at Sundance shouldn’t be at the fore. Then again, it’s well documented that COVID-19 has predominantly affected Black and brown people across the country, and it’s been particularly hard on filmmakers from marginalized communities, especially those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

At Sundance 2021, the organization continues to support its mission to be consistently inclusive, especially in its competitive sections. In this year’s slate of 72 feature-length films, 27 are directed by a filmmaker of color and/or tell stories about people of color — about 38 percent. It almost reflects the country’s general population, which, according to the United States Census Bureau, is comprised roughly of 42 percent people of color.

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Among the 40 films in the four main competition categories, 14 titles, or 35 percent, were directed by people of color. That compares to 44 percent last year, which was an all-time high for the festival.

In the U.S. Dramatic Competition, 40 percent of the films are directed by and/or tell stories about people of color, compared to 56 percent last year, another record. It might seem like a significant drop, but the 40 percent beats the 2017 and 2018 festivals, where about 24 percent of the section had a director of color each year.

This year’s highlights include “Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, and produced by Forest Whitaker, which tells the story of two African American women who can “pass” as white and choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York. Based on the novella by Nella Larsen, it stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. A close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities, Larsen’s work has achieved canonical status in many American universities.

Standup comedian and TV star Jerrod Carmichael makes his feature directorial debut with “On the Count of Three,”  in which he also starswith Christopher Abbott and Tiffany Haddish. Sundance’s terse synopsis reads: “Two guns. Two best friends. And a pact to end their lives when the day is done.” Carmichael was last seen on the HBO docuseries “Home Videos,” in which he conducted a series of intimate conversations with the women in his life in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.

Native American filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr., also makes his feature directorial debut with “Wild Indian,” which follows two men forced to confront a violent past that has kept them inextricably linked. The film stars Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer.

The documentary competition lineup is as diverse as ever, with six out of the 10 films selected directed by filmmakers of color. Highlights include the opening-night film, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s feature directorial debut, which tells the story of the seminal 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring footage unseen for more than 50 years. It’s a film that’s perfect for this moment in time.


“Ailey,” Jamila Wignot’s documentary on dance legend and impresario Alvin Ailey, Is also noteworthy. He founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage by infusing it with the African American cultural experience. Sundance calls the documentary an “immersive portrait” of a “visionary artist.”

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, is another documentary portrait of a trailblazer. As a Puerto Rican, Moreno defied discrimination and sexism to become one of the EGOT — the winner of anEmmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony — over a 70-year career that paved the way for Hispanic-American performers.

And director Debbie Lum’s “Try Harder!” follows a group of students at San Francisco’s prestigious and fiercely competitive public school Lowell High School, where Asian students comprise nearly 60 percent of a student body devoted to gain admission to top universities.

In the World Cinema Dramatic section, two films out of the 10 selected meet diversity criteria: “Fire in the Mountains” from Indian director and screenwriter Ajitpal Singh, making his feature debut; and “One for the Road,” directed by Thai filmmaker Baz Poonpiriya and produced by Wong Kar-wai.

Set in a Himalayan village, “Fire in the Mountains” is the story of a mother who works to save money to build a road that will let her wheelchair-bound son travel for physiotherapy, but her husband steals her savings because he believes that an expensive religious ritual is the remedy. Singh’s first script — “Manjhi,” about a troubled soul’s struggle to find love — was one of eight feature projects selected for the Mumbai Mantra|Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab in 2012.


“One for the Road” reunites the director and star of 2017 Thai hit “Bad Genius” in a buddy drama that follows two long-separated old friends who embark on a final road trip as one of them is dying of cancer.

In the World Cinema Documentary Competition section, four out of 10 films check the diversity box. “Faya Dayi” from director, screenwriter, and producer Jessica Beshir, is a highlight. Shot in glorious black-and-white, it’s an atmospheric and spiritual journey into the highlands of Harar, a walled city in eastern Ethiopia that has existed since at least the sixth century. Beshir weaves a tapestry of intimate stories that offer a window into the dreams of youth who live under a repressive regime.

Writer-director Hogir Hirori’s “Sabaya” shines a light on some of the heroic work being done in the Middle East to rescue victims of conflict, and the synopsis suggests a level of access that escapes most filmmakers: “With just a mobile phone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad and their group risk their lives trying to save Yazidi women and girls being held by ISIS as Sabaya (abducted sex slaves) in the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, Al-Hol in Syria.” Hirori was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but fled to Sweden in 1999, and has been based out of Stockholm ever since.

“This Festival is a singular response to a singular year – both in design and curation – and we are excited about the new dimensions of possibility it will reveal. But at its core is something that speaks to our most enduring values,” said Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson in a press statement. “For thousands of years humans have gathered to tell stories and make meaning. In this pandemic year we gather to celebrate a constellation of artists with unique perspectives that express this current moment and who together are saying, ‘We exist. This is who we are. And this is what we see.'”

"One for the Road"
“One for the Road”Sundance

The 2020 edition launched films like “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Mucho Mucho Amor,” and “His House” (all acquired by Netflix), and “Bad Hair” (picked up by Hulu for a reported $8 million), the hot titles in this diversity preview include “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” “Ailey,” and “Homeroom” in the U.S. Documentary Competition section; “Passing” and “On the Count of Three” in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section; and “One for the Road” in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section.

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