2021 Sundance Film Festival: choice picks to look out for

YouTube/Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival Daniel Kahluyya in “Judas and The Black Messiah”

The Sundance Film Festival, essentially a marketplace where filmmakers try to pick up distributors for their work, is one of the most esteemed film festivals around the globe. Many of the films that premiere at Sundance, such as “Hoop Dreams,” “Get Out,” and “When We Were Kings,” go on to be cultural touchstones.

In the past few years, Sundance has made efforts to increase representation of Black filmmakers and the crop of films unveiled in January during (the virtual) Sundance 2021, indicate the efforts are paying off, exhibiting vast diversity on gender and race of filmmakers.

Below are the list of some of the most exciting films to look out for as they come to theaters, TV, and streaming in the coming year.

Passing

Based on the classic novel by Afro-descended, biracial Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, “Passing” stars Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Tessa Thompson (“Creed”), Andre Holland (“Moonlight”), and Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”). Vivacious, White-passing Clare Kramer transgresses the so-called color line putting her and those around her in danger. It also explores her tortured friendship with light-skinned, non-passing Irene Redfield. A reserved period piece sensationally shot in Black and White, with terrific performances.

Judas and The Black Messiah

This biopic, already airing on HBO Max, reminds us of just how many stories there are that still need to be told. The film chronicles the final days of Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kahluyya, “Get Out”) and his betrayer, the tortured, self-hating, opportunist informant Willian O’Neal (Laketh Stanfield, “Insecure”), a tool of Hoover’s FBI.

In an era rife with puzzling queries about what leaders in Chicago and other urban areas are doing to improve the lot of Black people, this story, though imperfect, testifies that Black Americans have long strove with blood, sweat, tears and anything else at hand, to improve their condition. The story is executed a bit unevenly but it’s gripping just the same. The always dazzling young ingenue Dominique Fishback, as Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson, provides all the heart for this intriguing account.

On The Count of Three

Directed by and starring comedian Jerrod Carmichael, “On The Count of Three” studies suicidal ideation between two 30-something best friends, with thoughtfulness, verve, and tasteful humor. Also stars Tiffany Haddish, Lavell Crawford, and J.B. Smoove.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival Screen shot from “Ailey”

Ailey

One of the fastest selling films from this year’s festival, Jamila Wignot’s study of dance pioneer Alvin Ailey is a gorgeous meditation on a man possessed by the gods of dance. Driven by the need to bring a different image of Black America to the world’s imagination, he single-handedly founded the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1958. Copious use of archival videos of Ailey’s dancers, at once ethereal and powerful, heighten the pleasure.

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Produced by musician Questlove, this colorful celebration of Civil Rights era Black culture and spirit, nabbed both Sundance’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize, and Audience Awards. A rollicking look at the 1969 Harlem Music Festival or “Black Woodstock,” it features footage, 50 years lost, of legends Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, and many more!

R#J

A pretty, multi-ethnic, Gen-Z take on the classic Shakespeare romance “Romeo and Juliet” that uses social media platforms to subvert the conventions of storytelling and comment on the creation of intimacy in the 21st Century.

President

This documentary isn’t meant to be scary, but it is. Tracing the first supposedly free and fair presidential election in Zimbabwe, after the end of the despotic, 37-year dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. It’s another illustration of how difficult it is to implement democracy when a significant swath of the populace believes primarily in taking power at any cost. In 2021, it sadly rings all too familiar to Americans in a way that it would not have just 10 years ago.

My Name Is Pauli Murray

This insightful documentary is about Pauli Murray, a too-little-known, towering intellect and the first person of African descent to receive a law degree from Yale. It was the multiracial Murray, who was non-heterosexual, non-cis gender person who pressed Thurgood Marshall to fight not for separate but equal, but equality period. A fascinating look at a woman who would probably have been ahead of her time no matter when she was born.

About Nadine Matthews

Nadine Matthews is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at nmatthews@spokesman-recorder.com or on Twitter at @deeniemedia.

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