Sundance: A Welcome Rebuke to Hollywood’s Diversity Woes

The Birth of a Nation Sundance
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

PETER DEBRUGE: At the studio level, American cinema seems to be in the full throes of a diversity crisis, as moviegoers and the media alike are finally taking Hollywood to task for its lopsidedly white-centric worldview. It’s a real problem, and one whose solution I’m happy to see suggested at the Sundance Film Festival, which has long extended a megaphone to so-called “outsider” voices. Judging by the U.S. competition alone, the broad-ranging field of representation includes Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” (which re-creates Nat Turner’s rebellion) and Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” (which re-creates Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date) alongside Andrew Ahn’s gay-Asian identity exploration “Spa Night” and Elizabeth Wood’s wildly over-the-top “White Girl” (Wood is one of five distaff directors in competition, two of whom aren’t white).

The good news is that these movies somehow managed to get made in a system that so seldom entrusts anyone but white guys to tell its stories — though it should be said that even the white guys run into trouble when they try to color outside the lines, making Sundance an important platform for independents of all backgrounds. For the record, Park City, Utah, is one of the whitest places on Earth, but rather than be distressed by that, I’m encouraged to see just how enthusiastically they embrace movies in which the protagonists don’t necessarily look like them.

GUY LODGE: You’re right that Sundance programmers have fortuitously caught the moment in terms of identity politics. One of their opening films, the entertainment activist portrait “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” was presumably chosen with a degree of industry-targeted relevance in mind, though they couldn’t have anticipated just how immediately quotable its views on on-screen representation would seem one week after the #OscarsSoWhite movement was reignited.

But it’s also been gratifying to see evidence of shifting social balance in films that aren’t overtly political. Take Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” — a film that I admit I’m currently keen to bring up at every opportunity, as no film thus far in Park City has moved me more — in which the remarkable Native American actress Lily Gladstone is granted no less sizable or complex a role than her starrier ensemble sisters, and indeed is given the steering perspective of her scenes with Kristen Stewart. (Those scenes amount, not incidentally, to one of recent American cinema’s most aching love stories, though neither its female subjects nor the film itself are quick to label it.) Virtually nothing in Reichardt’s film calls attention to itself, but if Gladstone’s heritage was specifically written into the script, I missed it. The diversity conversation is essential now, but so are the films that act more tacitly on it.

Reichardt, meanwhile, offered one of the tarter quotes of the festival when asked in a Q&A about the heavy female slant of her film: “Wah wah wah, white men being dismissed,” she quipped, to the audience’s delight. Then again, there are enough noodling white-men-in-crisis movies at Sundance — John Krasinski’s “The Hollars,” Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” — to prove the festival doesn’t entirely share her jadedness.

JUSTIN CHANG: Now Guy, some of my favorite movies are white-men-in-crisis movies — and of course, there’s nothing remotely noodling about Kenneth Lonergan’s white-men-in-crisis drama “Manchester by the Sea,” a rich and thorny tour de force of emotional storytelling for which Sundance 2016 will surely be remembered. To all who think they’re weary of movies about dead children and grieving parents and frigid winter landscapes signifying their emotional desolation, I urge you: I feel your pain, but see this one.

But yes, diversity. Or, to use the words of Ava DuVernay, “inclusion” and “belonging,” which underline the fact that this isn’t about imposing an artificial multiculturalism on art; it’s about recognizing those voices that are already among us. I’m thinking about the unqualified hit of the Midnight section, Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow,” a terrific Iranian horror-thriller that deserves to be a major audience hit, subtitles and all. And speaking of films that, like Reichardt’s, don’t call overt attention to themselves, I hope “Lovesong,” an achingly sweet almost-romance from the Korean-American director So Yong Kim, doesn’t go overlooked among the bigger, buzzier films in the U.S. dramatic competition.

Which brings us, of course, to “The Birth of a Nation.” I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say it’ll be a tremendous shock if Nate Parker’s fierce, flawed and indelible portrait of Nat Turner’s life and rebellion doesn’t win the grand jury prize, the audience award or both. It has that same galvanic charge that filled the room when past double winners like “Precious” and “Fruitvale Station” unspooled (or, as they were known then, “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” and “Fruitvale”). Some, of course, were already predicting just such an outcome for “Birth” even before it screened, purely based on its subject matter, its talent makeup and perhaps most of all its timing. All of which, for me, happily melts away in the face of the movie itself. Parker doesn’t diversify; he belongs.

DEBRUGE: Until seeing “The Birth of a Nation,” which belongs on as many screens as possible, I’d been ready to describe this year’s Sundance as a return to its roots — that is, a collection of strong, but relatively marginal men-in-crisis movies with limited commercial potential that enjoy a larger (and far more open-minded) embrace here in the thin Utah air than they ever will in American theaters. Sundance was founded on the notion of providing a venue for such films, and until Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” went on to not only win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but also earn nearly $25 million at the U.S. box office, practically no one saw it as a market.

The deals have been relatively cool this year, with Amazon Studios (where our former colleague Scott Foundas is now in the buyer’s seat) and Netflix leading the charge — until Parker’s film premiered, kicking off a bidding war that ended with Fox Searchlight ponying up a record $17.5 million. “The Birth of a Nation” looks and feels like a studio film, and yet, even after the success of “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave,” no studio was lining up to back a first-time director’s slave rebellion epic. Shame on them, because the result is not only commercially sound but culturally essential, continuing a cinematic dialogue around a subject America has only begun to acknowledge. (Strange how we’ve come so far in terms of Holocaust movies, but resist engaging with our nation’s deepest historical shame.)

The other film that stunned me in terms of its professionalism was Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” (which Bleecker Street had going in). Like “Birth,” it’s the kind of movie you can imagine millions of people embracing, but Ross had a hell of a time convincing anyone to make it. Thanks to a career-best performance from Viggo Mortensen, who plays an anti-establishment dad forced to confront The Man after his wife dies and leaves their wilderness-raised kids in limbo, the film has a real shot at finding its way out into the world — which has long been the challenge for personal projects made on their writer-directors’ own terms.

LODGE: I haven’t even seen “The Birth of a Nation” yet, and I feel confident co-signing Justin’s awards night bet — not only because the ripple effect among Sundance audiences is audible to any casual eavesdropper on Park City’s famously circuitous shuttle buses, but because, prior to its screening, people were antsily beginning to wonder what could conceivably win the U.S. dramatic strand. 

The best film I’ve seen so far in this year’s relatively uncompetitive selection is Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” an artfully measured and finally wrenching biopic of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newsreader who famously committed suicide on live TV. I suspect, however, that it’s a little too reserved to rouse the jury into giving it their greatest endorsement, with Campos too established a talent — and what a talent — to be granted the boost. Still, I hope an enterprising distributor identifies the future trophy-season potential in Rebecca Hall’s stunning lead turn. I wonder if the festival circuit will continue to bind “Christine” to Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine,” a form-defying documentary portrait of the same tragic subject — the most stimulating nonfiction work I’ve seen here, though more on that in my forthcoming review — and whether their unplanned simultaneity bolsters or hinders either film’s distribution prospects.

Another point in Nate Parker’s favor is that, in a festival that tends to be branded as one of discovery, his film is one of the few hits this year that can reasonably be described as revelatory. Sundance 2016 hasn’t wanted for accomplished and well-received films, but they’re largely the premieres that arrived in Park City with already sky-high expectations: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” Kelly Reichardt’s aforementioned “Certain Women,” and so on. John Carney’s infectious “Sing Street” has justly been bringing audiences to their feet — in precisely the same manner that the same director’s “Once” did here nine years ago. Admittedly, as far as festival narratives go, “great directors live up to the hype” is hardly one to complain about, but I’m hoping to be blindsided by something before Sunday.

CHANG: I’m guessing that you didn’t see “Yoga Hosers,” which certainly blindsided me. But as I’ve already had my say about that particular experience, I will merely note for the record that Kevin Smith’s movie also fits into the spirit of inclusion at Sundance 2016: Not only does it feature two spunky and eminently watchable female leads, but it also heroically boosts the severely underrepresented ranks of butt-crawling Manitoban sausage-Nazis in the American cinema. Or is that the Canadian cinema? Where are we again?

Peter, I’m glad you mentioned “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — and I’m sure Guy is, too, since there’s never a wrong moment to bring up the work of Andie MacDowell. You can see a poster for Soderbergh’s film in the background of a scene from Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” when Barack and Michelle (in the movies, we’re all on a first-name basis) go to see “Do the Right Thing” on a hot summer night in Chicago 1989. It’s a fleeting but well-chosen detail, and something about seeing those two indie-cinema milestones referenced in the same scene, almost saluting each other in a sense, put a smile on my face. It’s a reminder that in and out of the festival hothouse, movies are always in conversation, and that conversation doesn’t stop at the box office or, God forbid, the Academy Awards. (Next to “Do the Right Thing” and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Driving Miss Daisy” is but a speck in the rear-view mirror.)

That conversation certainly includes “Southside With You” and “The Birth of a Nation,” both of which offer uniquely stirring, soulful visions of black life in America, and the endless negotiations — moral, economic, political, spiritual — that people of color have had to navigate in order to advance the cause of justice and progress. I’m reminded that Sundance’s spirit of inclusiveness cuts along lines of not only race and gender, but also volume and aesthetics. “The Birth of a Nation” has charged its way to the heart of the conversation, with dramatic intensity, fiery rhetoric and horrific bloodshed. “Southside With You” makes its case more gently, with a kiss, a slice of pie and an ice-cream cone, and rightly so: This is one film that more than earns its place at the table.