Ever since it morphed from granola and grassroots to Pilates and Prada, Sundance has been defined by conflicting impulses and agendas. The schizo dynamic is in full effect this year, nowhere more than with regard to black American film. To its credit, the festival is committed to creating a level playing field for its films and filmmakers, a place where the quality of work supersedes issues of race, gender or sexuality. And most filmmakers, even those who deal explicitly with those issues, don’t want their films, or themselves, to be narrowly cast and sold. But the market is crowded almost beyond capacity, and any press or marketing hook that gives a movie a leg up and over its peers is by necessity embraced. Both grudgingly and desperately, folks who make movies get stuffed into boxes marked women’s film, Latin film, queer film, black film, etc.
Still, the real problem with this year’s programming of African-American film hasn’t been Sundance’s conscious and laudable effort to diversify its lineup, or its inevitable attempts to pigeonhole that diversity. The main, and perennial, difficulty is the filter of Trader Joe liberalism that’s applied to the selection of anything that might be construed as “identity film” — particularly when those identities are racialized. One result of this tendency has been way too much Medicinal Negro Cinema: films filled less with characters than with mouthpieces o’ color; films whose dialogue is padded with sociological data and statistics; films populated with archetypes and stereotypes who travel well-worn paths of ’hood dysfunction, class pathology and victim narrative that lead either to facile, one-world “uplift” or to heavy-handed moralizing, or both. It may not be good, but it’s good for you.
Take Vondie Curtis Hall’s visually tricked-up Redemption, based on the life of Stan “Tookie” Williams, who founded the Crips and whose stint in jail turned him into a social activist. The film almost drowns in self-important atmosphere, with lots of clenched-jaw acting by Jamie Foxx, as Tookie, and noble-anguish posturing by Lynn Whitfield, as the writer who wants to tell his tale. Meanwhile, Chris Eyre’s Edge of America, also based on a true story — about a black teacher who coaches a Native American girls’ high school basketball team — isn’t remotely human on any level, so concerned is it with tracing its predictable arc of culture clashes, tortured enlightenment and third-act group hugs. And it’s not just the fictional efforts that disappoint. In the end, David Petersen’s documentary Let the Church Say Amen undermines the inherent power of its subject matter — a poor black neighborhood’s storefront church, headed by an ex-junkie and populated with textbook examples of inner-city denizens choking on their own lives — with hoary clichés, endless montages of homeless folk rifling through the trash, overweight black women in their Sunday best, Negro cherubs running down the street, all to the mournful strains of Negro spirituals. Gag.
On occasion, though, the films do rise above their antidotal mandate. In Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans and his astonishingly beautiful cast make convincing drama of the story of a young, openly gay black college student who, as he battles racism and homophobia on and off campus, finds an ally in an unexpected mentor, a figure from the Harlem Renaissance who transports him back to the days of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and Bruce Nugent. And in the documentary — make that mockumentary — vein comes what is undoubtedly one of the festival’s best offerings, the ambitious CSA: The Confederate States of America, in which writer-director Kevin Willmott imagines what this country might look like if the South had won the Civil War and managed to extend the slave economy north of the Mason-Dixon Line. A biting, densely researched and meticulously crafted parody of the American Experience style pioneered by Ken Burns (as segmented for commercial television, with genially racist 30-second spots lifted straight from the junk heap of real-life American advertising), CSA, while holding on to the reins of its thesis, also succeeds in spinning out an overall critique of U.S. imperialism and global white supremacy. By not reducing the complexities of race, identity, politics and culture to pedantic dialogue or rote poses, Willmott and Evans have helped Sundance make good on its aspiration to present exciting and provocative Negro cinema.