Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Always on the Verge

Diversity and representation aren’t just buzzwords at Sundance—they’ve long been a way of life

For Sundance Film Festival veterans, there were few surprises in the 2018 edition. This is not a negative observation. Yes, this is a moment when racial and gender diversity is the entertainment industry’s biggest talking point, but Sundance—the Institute, the Labs, and the festival—has always been ahead of the curve in actively supporting exactly that. Don’t forget that in 1989, the year the festival was transformed overnight into a honeypot for agents and studios by Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, the grand prize went to Nancy Savoca’s True Love. Regarding gender, the question that arose from Sundance’s decades-long showcasing of talented female, or rather, feminist directors—to name just a few, Julie Dash, Mary Harron, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Alison Maclean, Debra Granik, and Ava DuVernay, who came to the festival in 2012 with Middle of Nowhere and became the first black female filmmaker to win the narrative directing award—has been why it took women so much longer to make their next film than their male counterparts. That’s a problem with the industry, not Sundance. The gap may be diminishing: DuVernay went from her Sundance prizewinner to the $100-plus million A Wrinkle in Time (scheduled for release in March), with Selma (2014) and 13th (2016) in between. Dee Rees was at the festival in 2011 with the low-budget emotional powerhouse Pariah. She went on to make Bessie for HBO and was back at Sundance in 2017 with Mudbound.

If there was demonstrable progress this year, it was the increased number of people of color in audiences throughout the festival. They came not only for films they were directly involved with, but also for numerous conferences, panels, and networking opportunities. This was the year, as my colleague Lisa Kennedy observed, that one could no longer refer simply to “black filmmaking” because of the remarkable diversity in genre, aesthetics, and subject matter in movies by people of color from all over the United States, not to mention the world at large.

The wildest and most wildly talent-exuding movie I saw was Boots Riley’s debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, a title so misleading that it’s a universe beyond irony. The first feature by Riley, the Oakland political activist and hip-hop artist (leader of multi-award-winning The Coup, founded in 1991), stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Greene, a failing telemarketer until he discovers his “inner white voice” and is promoted to an elite corps of salesmen who sell franchises worldwide for a slave labor company. His success makes him a traitor in the eyes of his guerrilla-artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and his co-workers, who are risking their lives on the picket line. Not until he discovers what happens to the most valued employees when they’re put out to pasture does he understand the horror to which he’s succumbed. The movie is smart, outrageously funny, deadly serious, buoyantly acted, and it moves to a hip-hop score that’s largely by The Coup. In less dire times, I would have dubbed Riley’s vision lysergic, but that would be to ignore the world we wake to everyday, and I know I haven’t dropped acid in my sleep.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Predictably, Sorry to Bother You proved controversial, and the consensus, even from critics who wrote favorably about it, was that it went off the rails at the end—just like another Oakland hip-hop-inflected movie, Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, which stars and was written by Hamilton Tony winner Daveed Diggs and his writing partner Rafael Casal. I disagree. Both movies earn their genre-busting endings—a necessary break with conventions in order to convey the insane-making anxiety of simply living while black. In Blindspotting, Diggs’s character is coming to the end of his parole and just wants to stay out of trouble, but has the bad luck to witness a cop running over a kid, and days later to wind up alone in a house with the same cop. There’s a tense, quick-paced buddy movie in between these two events, but it’s the ending and Diggs’s ability as an actor to move from prose to hip-hop poetry that destroys any sense of comfort or familiarity the viewer has. There is no readily resolvable three-act narrative possible today.

Place matters. sorry to bother you and Blindspotting are specific to Oakland. Spike Lee’s Pass Over, a film version of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Antoinette Nwandu’s corrosive, heart-wrenching play, a gloss on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot combined with the biblical Exodus story, was shot on the Steppenwolf stage with original cast (Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker are brilliant in the Vladimir and Estragon roles, here named Moses and Kitch) in a production directed by Danya Taymor. Lee doesn’t attempt to take the play off the stage, but his camera does away with the proscenium by giving us a 360-degree theater-in-the-round view. At the fixed center are the two actors, stranded on a street corner, as if it were a life raft from which they dare not move. The particular corner—the intersection of Chicago’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and 64th Street—is the most violent location in America. Lee also particularizes Chicago as a segregated city through a framing story, in which students are bused from the largely black Southside to act as an audience for an African-American production staged in the Northside’s “progressive” Lincoln Park neighborhood. The film closes with a series of close-ups of the students, either looking silently into the camera or talking to unseen friends. Although the concept is strong, I wish that the students’ voices could be heard, rather than only seeing their lips move. It’s possible that some of these adolescents appear in Steve James’s documentary series America to Me, which is set inside a high school in a Chicago suburb, where a “diversity experiment” is less of a success, according to students and teachers of color, than the educational power brokers want to admit. Sundance showed the first five of 10 episodes, and a dedicated documentary audience packed The Ray, the new and now best Sundance theater, with first-rate projection, sound, and sightlines.

In form, nothing could be further from James’s series than RaMell Ross’s impressionistic documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, set in rural Alabama. Ross came to Hale County to teach photography and coach basketball, and over several years he shot what avant-garde filmmakers would call a diary. In the past, Sundance would have slotted Hale County in the New Frontier section, an experimental sidebar that is now devoted to VR and other advanced—i.e., corporate-funded—technologies. Instead this elliptical, intimate, precisely observed movie played in the documentary section, where it opened audiences’ eyes to a depiction of black families, and in particular of young black men, almost never seen in either documentary or fiction. Which is not to say that the doc sections lacked more conventionally shaped, socially conscious movies, the most exciting of which was Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG, a biopic of the Supreme Court Justice that makes me wish I had saved until this moment the word “extraordinary” for Ginsburg alone.

Skate Kitchen

Two documentary/fiction hybrids were captivating in their framing of characters and stories. For Crystal Moselle, a chance encounter with a group of teenage girl skateboarders on a New York subway inspired Skate Kitchen, a movie in which these irrepressible young women play characters much like themselves within a minimally fictive storyline. Unlike their male rivals for skating territory, who have only a minor presence in the film, the teen girls bond across gender and racial lines, and their gab sessions are as quicksilver, risk-defying, and free as their movements on their boards. Fascinated with performance on screen and in daily life, Robert Greene has found his richest subject in Bisbee ’17. The Arizona town just miles from the Mexican border, once a copper mining center but now abandoned by the family of the tycoon that built its only industry, was the scene, one hundred years ago, of a mass atrocity. In 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World came to Bisbee to lead a strike. The mine’s owner, together with local law enforcement, herded into boxcars hundreds of strikers, most of them Native Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Europe, drove them to the New Mexico desert, and dumped them. Many died of thirst and starvation. With the town barely surviving as a tourist attraction, some of its progressive citizens decide to resurrect the grim history by reenacting this murderous deportation. It’s unclear when Greene became involved in filming the discussions, the preparations, and the reenactment itself, but the parallels between then and now, some implied, some openly stated, show that little has changed during the intervening century. Racism still flourishes in Bisbee: today, one woman explains, we would do these things more legally.

Among the many fiction suspense and horror movies, four of the most compelling were Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, which stars Chloë Sevigny as the infamous Lizzie Borden, who probably killed her father and stepmother with an axe, although a jury found her innocent because it was impossible to believe a “gentlewoman” would be capable of such violence; Beast directed by Michael Pearce, with a stunning performance by the rising Irish star Jessie Buckley; Ísold Uggadóttir’s And Breathe Normally; and Aneesh Chaganty’s Search. The last, which plays out entirely on computer screens, is fascinating for the first 30 minutes and then falls apart because there is no way for the characters to develop when they are uniformly placed at such a remove. And it’s their richly nuanced female characters that make me want to see the three other films I’ve grouped here when they are released in theaters. Beautifully controlled, And Breathe Normally depicts the friendship that develops between two women, one an Icelandic single mom training to be an airport immigration official, and the other, a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, whose illegal passport the Icelandic woman flags, much to her regret. Both Beast and Lizzie focus on women whose violence is a product of patriarchal familial oppression. The inciting incidents in both films, and the performances of Buckley and Sevigny, made me realize that but for the luck of not having parents who embraced patriarchy at its most autocratic, I could have done what they did.

It’s a disservice to refer to I Think We’re Alone Now as a calling-card movie, but if its director and cinematographer Reed Morano isn’t allowed to make a $150 million picture of her choice, the system is even more fucked up than we usually think it is. Not that Morano’s postapocalyptic two-hander for Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning will make any money. Despite an Alphaville or Blade Runner epilogue that offers a little bit of hope much too late, the movie is a downer. But from beginning to end, it’s gorgeous filmmaking, and Dinklage is sublime. If I Think We’re Alone Now is an American landscape movie, so too is Eugene Jarecki’s kaleidoscopic Elvis Presley documentary, The King. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Jarecki drove Elvis’s ’63 Rolls around the U.S., tracing the King’s journey from his Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace, to Memphis, then New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and back through points in between. His traveling companions, among them Ethan Hawke, James Carville, and a hitchhiker with a dog, are invited to speculate on the meaning of the polarizing icon. Jarecki gets out of the vehicle to chat with an array of Elvis analysts, from Greil Marcus to Chuck D., who once rapped that Elvis “never meant shit to me,” and more complicatedly explains here that he didn’t mind that Elvis stole from black music—“What moves you, moves you”—only that he never gave back in return, the observation underscored by a 90-year-old unknown bluesman, singing outside a prison and explaining that the blues are about giving back. For Jarecki, Elvis’s rise and fall parallels the rise and fall of America; Elvis’s choice, as Hawke says, to always go for the money Colonel Parker dangled in front of him foreshadows the corruption of an America giving up its soul to grab for Trump gelt. Jarecki goes for broke with a brutal final montage set to Elvis’s rendition of “Unchained Melody” at the end of his 1977 concert—the one where he was blotto on drugs but nevertheless pulled off one last soaring cry from the heart. He was dead two months later. The King suggests that while we are already following Elvis’s road to self-destruction, it is still possible to turn left and pull away.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor to Film Comment and Artforum.