“I got so many no’s for so long, I thought no was my middle name,” Nikyatu Jusu, the director of last year’s U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize winner “Nanny” told a crowd while accepting an honorary Vanguard Award from the Sundance Film Festival. “Sundance is the reason the industry could no longer ignore me.”
Jusu was one of four Sundance alums honored Thursday night at a fundraiser and awards gala called “Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance.” And in the case of each of them, Sundance offered a launching pad to the point that Hollywood needed to know their name. But it was also a time to celebrate now that Sundance was back in person for the first time since 2020. The festival marked the occasion by trotting out people who have stuck with Sundance and everything it stands for even as their careers have taken them to new heights.
Jusu in particular said she fell into a “deep depression” when she learned that 2022’s Sundance would be virtual, but she described the people in the room Thursday night as the survivors of the pandemic who now have to “chip away” at making a better world for everyone.
Among the other honorees on Thursday were Luca Guadagnino, who won the Sundance Institute International Icon Award, W. Kamau Bell, who won the Vanguard Award for Nonfiction, and Ryan Coogler, who won the Variety Visionary Award. And Thursday’s event from the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse in Park City boasted several hundred festival goers, donors, industry professionals, and talent all eager to kick off Sundance 2023 and see what a return to an in-person environment had in store. They were additionally treated to a brief acoustic performance by the Indigo Girls and a plated meal.
Jusu was introduced by “Sorry to Bother You” filmmaker Boots Riley, who in true character pulled his introductory speech out of a massive red hat. Lena Waithe introduced Coogler, describing him as “quiet royalty” who “refuses to speak the King’s English.” Bell was introduced by Roger Ross Williams, who has the film “Cassandro” in the festival this year. And Guadagnino was introduced by Dakota Johnson, who had the joke of the evening when she said that she originally tried out for the part of the peach in “Call Me By Your Name.” But had she gotten the role, she “would’ve been another woman Armie Hammer tried to eat.”
Each of the honorees discussed what Sundance has meant to them and their careers. For Coogler, who made his breakout with “Fruitvale Station” nearly a decade ago to the day, he recalled being in the Sundance Institute lab with filmmakers like David Lowery, Chloe Zhao, and Marielle Heller and being struck by the ambition around him.
“I remember sitting there listening to these filmmakers talk about the passion they had for their first feature film and watching their short, I had this strange feeling that the whole industry was about to change if ever these people got the chance to get their vision out. And boy was I right,” Coogler said. “Whenever these filmmakers win, I feel like I win. It’s an incredible gift to an ex-football player who was trying to find his way in this medium. To have a team around me.”
Bell first introduced himself not as Questlove, as he said one white attendee confused him for, but as a “weirdo.” Not one of those “cool Donald Glover” type weirdos but the type of guy who “is like bringing sushi to the barbecue.” It’s good, but you don’t want to eat it with ribs. His debut documentary film from last year “We Need to Talk About Cosby” was a constant reminder that this film was his own idea, and if things went wrong, “I could only blame myself.” But Sundance gave him the confidence to realize that he was not just a niche comedian but a “Filmmaker/Niche Comedian,” and that if he could do it, so could others.
“Our weirdness is our superpower,” Bell said.