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Black films emerge in Sundance

A new crop of directors hope to show there's more to black film than comedy
/ Source: The Associated Press

Black filmmakers are gaining influence in big-money Hollywood. It only follows that they would make inroads in low-budget independent cinema, too.

Past years at the Sundance Film Festival typically had a handful of movies by and about blacks, but the current indie-film showcase has a dozen or more.

The schedule was so strong Sundance organizers held a panel discussion — “The New ‘New Black Film”’ — featuring black filmmakers Mario Van Peebles, Kasi Lemmons and Ernest Dickerson.

Big-name talent such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes and Martin Lawrence have helped break down color barriers in Hollywood. Yet many black stars and directors tend to get stuck in action and comedy tales, while weightier black stories remain a tough sell.

“It’s opening up,” said Spike Lee, who recently signed on as executive producer of Sundance entry “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” a faux documentary examining the racist nation that might have resulted had the South won the Civil War. “We can get jobs, but what kind of jobs? We’re relegated to the ghetto of these broad, broad, broad comedies.

“I think what you’re seeing at Sundance is something that’s realistic for any independent filmmaker. If you want to tell stories Hollywood won’t tell, you have to do it yourself, whether you’re a woman or African-American or a Latino filmmaker. I think that’s why you’re seeing more of them now.”

Four films to watch
Four of the 16 films competing in Sundance’s documentary category have blacks as their central figures or touch heavily on black subjects:

  • “A Place of Our Own,” examining the resort enclave of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, where educated, well-to-do blacks found a haven from racism decades ago.
  • “The Fight,” a look back at black boxer Joe Louis’ triumph over white challenger Max Schmeling to retain the heavyweight title in their 1938 rematch.
  • “Deadline,” which chronicles the commutation of death sentences for 167 inmates — most of them black — by Illinois Gov. George Ryan as a last act before leaving office.
  • “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” a portrait of the black congresswoman’s bold and brassy campaign for the White House in 1972.

Shola Lynch, director of “Chisholm,” said most films about blacks perpetuate stereotypes, while a rich range of stories remain untold.

“Not all black folks grew up in the projects,” said Lynch. “Hollywood picks up on one little piece of it and calls it the black experience. I don’t walk around just as a black person, or just as a woman, or just as a former athlete or a filmmaker. We are multidimensional, and the films we can make need to reflect that.”

Other festival highlightsThis year’s eclectic Sundance slate is a promising move in that direction. Other festival highlights include:

“Citizen King,” a documentary tracing the last five years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life from his “I Have a Dream” speech to his assassination; “Redemption,” director Vondie Curtis Hall’s dramatization of the jailhouse transformation of “Tookie” Williams (Jamie Foxx), a real-life gang leader who became a patron for inner-city youth; rapper DMX as a criminal reflecting on his life in Dickerson’s “Never Die Alone”; “Let the Church Say Amen,” a documentary about a black church’s efforts to spread faith and joy on the mean streets.

Also, “Edge of America,” by American Indian filmmaker Chris Eyre, about a black teacher coaching a girls basketball team on an Indian reservation; “Brother to Brother,” about a black gay artist and his mentor, a writer who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; and “Baadasssss!” directed and co-written by Van Peebles, who stars as his father, Melvin, in his uproarious quest to make the seminal 1970s black-power flick “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song.” Sundance also is screening “Sweet Sweetback” with the new film.

Sharp satire
“There’s still this wealth of subject matter from the black experience that’s simply not being addressed,” said “CSA” writer-director Kevin Willmott. “And that’s really where we as independent filmmakers come in. We’ve got to a find a way to tell those stories, get them out there and be seen by a large audience.”

A sharp-witted satire, “CSA” applies a blend of whimsy and reality — the moon landing with the Confederate flag on the lunar surface, D.W. Griffith making his greatest film about the capture of “Dishonest Abe” Lincoln, who fled to Canada in blackface via Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad after the Union fell.

By hypothesizing about what might have happened, the film becomes a disturbing reflection of racial strife that lingers today.

Hollywood will not touch such issues meaningfully, leaving it to black indie filmmakers to fill in the gaps, Willmott said.

“Without that true mix of a wealth of images, people just start to think that we’re real funny. And we are funny, but we’re also very serious, too,” Willmott said. “In terms of drama from the black experience, that’s the bar that hasn’t been crossed, stories involving aspects of the black experience that are not as fun and not as convenient. If we can break into that arena, then we’ll really be getting somewhere.”