Critic's Notebook: Amid Oscars Debacle, Sundance Diversity Shines

Birth of a Nation, Southside with You, Morris From America, and Spa Night - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

With several of the buzziest titles directed by or starring people of color, or tackling issues of race, this year's festival has emerged as a bracing corrective to the Oscars.

Even in the snow-covered mountains of Park City, Utah, there's no escaping Oscar.

Is PGA winner The Big Short now the frontrunner? Will Casey Affleck, star of the critical favorite here, Manchester by the Sea, be the Best Actor to beat next year? And what the hell was Charlotte Rampling thinking? These are among the questions that have been hot on festival attendees' lips — and their feverishly tweeting fingertips — as they queue up for world premieres of movies from indie luminaries and unknowns alike.

One gets the feeling that Sundance resents its thunder being stolen. "I'm not into Oscars," founder Robert Redford said stonily on opening day, refusing to wade into the #OscarsSoWhite controversy when a reporter asked him to.

Yet wade he did, even if only implicitly: "Something I think we're generally pretty proud of is how we show diversity in the festival, because we think it's important," Redford noted, in what sounded less like a veiled swipe at the Academy than a matter-of-fact, "that's them, this is us" distinction.

Sundance indeed has helped launch the careers of several gifted minority filmmakers (recent examples: Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Ryan Coogler), as festival director John Cooper reminded me via email, adding, "I see much greater diversity reflected in independent film [than in Hollywood]."

That last part is questionable; American independent cinema undeniably has been dominated by white voices and faces (particularly hip ones from Williamsburg or Silver Lake) — often, it seems, to an even greater extent than studio films, with their reliable tokenism. But some of the buzziest selections at this year's Sundance have, it's true, been by or about people of color, or have grappled with issues of race in provocative ways.

The most rapturously received was Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, an uneven but fierce and imaginative portrait of Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), who led a slave rebellion in 1831. A work of furious passion, the film uses bold imagery, quick cuts and very bloody violence to shake off some of the dust that so often chokes historical dramas.

Still, the standing ovation that followed the screening seemed, above all, a visceral response to the unfortunately enduring timeliness of this story of brutality inflicted upon black bodies and revolt against racial oppression. As filmmaking, The Birth of a Nation is impressive but flawed, suffering from erratic pacing and a fair bit of bombast (a conventionally lush score, lots of intense close-ups, etc.). But as a cinematic encapsulation of how many Americans are feeling these days, it could hardly be more apt. The movie's uncompromising anger, its depiction of a brutal physical retaliation that's both disturbing and deeply satisfying to behold, is bracing. In the post-screening Q&A, Parker said that in making the film, he had the "hope of creating change agents" — and judging by the crowd's response, he may succeed.

More will be written about The Birth of a Nation in the months to come, and nearly as much about Southside With You, which weaves anecdotes from interviews and articles into a recreation of the first date between Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. After its first screening here, the Chicago-set walk-and-talk was described by some as a black Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight. That's high praise, and the film, written and directed by Richard Tanne (who is white), doesn't have the heady confidence or nuance of Richard Linklater's trilogy; some of the dialogue is on-the-nose, and at times you can sense the actors, Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, struggling under the pressure of portraying the most recognizable and scrutinized of public figures.

But Southside With You is charming, and you can see why the Obama-friendly crowd thrilled to the sight of a regal, immaculately put-together Michelle rubbing lotion on her legs while waiting to be picked up, and a loose, lanky Barack dragging on a cigarette and blasting Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" as he drives across town to meet her. These are the kind of humanizing details that bring icons down to earth in the most appealing way.

"I wanted to see someone who looks like me fall in love up there," Sumpter said at the Q&A after the screening, explaining why she signed on to the project. It's an understandable sentiment. But if the movie works, it's precisely because the "characters" onscreen aren't like anyone else out there — they're the Obamas, that magnificent power couple, at once familiar and inscrutable. The pleasure of Southside With You is in watching two of the world's most influential people feel their way through the tingly awkwardness of a first date, debating Stevie Wonder albums, disagreeing over dessert, swapping stories about family and the challenges of being black in a white corporate world. The Barack and Michelle we see here may not be aware of who they'll later become, but we are, and that knowledge gives the movie a dishy, confidential kick: Even if what these two say onscreen is speculative, Southside With You brings the Obamas and their sweet-spiky chemistry closer — it's another piece of the puzzle, a newly fleshed-out chapter in the mythology.

The climactic kiss over a chocolate ice cream will give you goosebumps. But the most stirring moment comes when the two watch Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing in a crowded movie theater. During the famous scene in which Radio Raheem is choked to death by the police, Tanne cuts to Michelle grabbing Barack's hand. It's a reminder that despite very different backgrounds, their skin color was something that connected them emotionally — and, with the police abuse of African-Americans ongoing, still does. They may appear invincible to us today, Tanne seems to say, but there are vulnerabilities that no amount of Secret Service protection can erase.

Another enthusiastically received movie about black lives was Morris From America, a likeable comedy about a chubby, hip-hop-loving, 13-year-old African-American (Markees Christmas) and his father (Craig Robinson) adjusting to ex-pat life in Heidelberg, Germany. Written and directed by Chad Hartigan, the film coasts along on the novelty of its story — the filmmaker milks the visual incongruity of a baggy-pants-wearing black kid strolling through quaint, lily-white provincial Europe — before cutesy culture-clash shtick and coming-of-age clichés take over.

At the Q&A, viewers danced right up to and around the question of why this white director chose to make a film about black Americans on the Old Continent (Hartigan mentioned growing up in Europe and feeling like an outsider). One was left wondering if an African-American filmmaker might have been better positioned to give it a bit more sting, or sharper insight into how its characters' experiences abroad relate to, or reflect on, the black experience at home.

Still, it's refreshing to see cinematically underrepresented lives brought to the big screen — even if the results are as prosaic as Spa Night, Andrew Ahn's feature debut about a young Korean-American whose burgeoning homosexual curiosity clashes with his traditional upbringing. Following David (Joe Seo) as he works a janitor job at an L.A. spa, and discovers that some of the men aren't just there for the sauna, the movie presents intertwined portraits of gay and immigrant experiences that never come to life. It feels sincere but sedate.

"Sedate" is not a word anyone would use to describe White Girl, among the fest's most personally charged takes on race, this one revolving around a young Caucasian woman. Playing Leah, a hard-partying New York City college girl who moves to Queens with her best friend, Morgan Saylor leaves Homeland's Dana Brody triumphantly behind in one of those rare performances that actually lives up to the "fearless" hype it's generated. As Leah starts hooking up with the cute Latino drug dealer from down the block (the touching Brian 'Sene' Marc) and the film spirals into darkness and desperation, Saylor puts an infuriating, well-intentioned, frighteningly misguided but always deeply human face on the term "white privilege."

Debuting writer-director Elizabeth Wood shows us how Leah — with her tight clothes, long blonde tresses and winsome smile — is able to glide between worlds (white, Latino, rich, poor), blithely crossing boundaries and misbehaving wildly, but always confident that she will, as she puts it, "figure it out." That is her privilege, and it's one not shared by the young men of color she hangs out with: the freedom to fuck up but still emerge in one piece, back in class on the first day of the new semester — though, as the final shot suggests, not unscathed. After all, no one can remain insulated from matters of race in America — something the Academy is still in the process of realizing but Sundance, happily, seems to have long figured out.