Black stories take home top prizes at 2023 Sundance
Sundance Film Festival
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 19–29) marked a triumphant return of the first in-person event since the pandemic hit in March 2020, which pivoted Sundance (and almost every other film festival) online. This year’s festival saw a vigorous representation of Black stories beautifully rendered by Black filmmakers, and some took home the festival’s top prizes.
A.V. Rockwell’s mesmerizing directorial and screenwriting debut, “A Thousand and One,” won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Feature Competition, and deservingly so. Rockwell tells a profoundly American story of a mother and son living for each other in a gentrifying city, often uninterested in the reality of their lives. With a career-defining performance from Teyana Taylor as a mother fiercely committed to making a future for her child, “A Thousand and One” is an elegant ode to the power of family as an anchor in an ever-changing world.
“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Feature Competition. “Going to Mars” is an intimate vérité, visually innovative treatment of poetry, enhanced by archival footage, that take us on a journey through the dreamscape of legendary poet Giovanni as she reflects on her life and legacy.
Winning the Special Jury Award, Verite, World Cinema Documentary Competition was “Against the Tide” by filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur. Continuing the winning streak for the third consecutive year of Documentary films from India at Sundance (“All That Breathes” and “Writing with Fire”), Kaur weaves an acutely humanistic and intimate approach in her profile of two indigenous fishermen, Rakesh and Ganesh, who are at a crossroads in both their friendship and profession. Immersing the viewer in their experiences, where neither man is hero or villain in the choices they make to survive in an imperiled world, she presents a microcosmic, sea-level view of the fragility of humanity’s relationship with the changing environment.
Other stand-out films by artists of color at Sundance this year were:
“Little Richard: I am Everything,” a documentary feature directed by Academy Award-nominee Lisa Cortes, explodes the whitewashed canon of American pop music and shines a clarifying light on the Black, queer origins of rock & roll, and establishes the genre’s big bang: Richard Wayne Penniman. The film is an essential and long overdue re-examination of a rock & roll icon, his queerness and his impact on the music industry as a whole, and what it means to have a legacy.
Academy Award-winner Roger Ross Williams’s feature-directing debut biopic “Cassandro,” starring Gael García Bernal in the title role, tells the real-life story of the gay Latino wrestler Cassandro, the “Liberace of lucha libre.” Ross crafts an engaging and compelling origin story of an outsider turned unlikely superstar.
Spinning outside the intense screening schedule were landmark events and panels hosted by MACRO Lodge, founded by producer Charles D. King. MACRO’s panels included the cast of “Harlem” and a sneak preview of the new season; a conversation with the cast and creatives of “Young. Wild. Free,” including Sanaa Lathan; and of course, their signature star-studded after-parties.
Across the board, Sundance scored well this year in presenting BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and inclusive stories, especially since, after a two-year gap, the industry had all eyes and ears on this pivotal film festival that predominantly defines and shapes the entertainment industry’s awards season later in the calendar year.
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