'Giving Voice': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A rousing ode to theater kids.
1/26/2020

Directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena deliver an inspiring look at playwright August Wilson’s legacy through the eyes of young theater students across the country.

Giving Voice is an invigorating look at African-American playwright August Wilson’s legacy through the eyes of a cohort of hopeful young theater students across the country. This talented group of high school students compete in the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition by performing a monologue of their choice from one of Wilson’s 10 plays — each focuses on one decade of 20th century black life — and the documentary introduces us to six of the students in the competition. Not to mention Viola Davis, who is an executive producer on the film, gives an abbreviated acting master class in her on-camera interviews that lights up the screen.

Directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena make the choice to shoot all of the student sit-downs cross-camera with a sizable helping of extreme close-ups. The talking heads in the film, like Denzel Washington, Davis and Broadway producer Jack Viertel, are filmed this way, too. This acts like a visual shield that protects the young actors as they tell their stories. In the final sequence of the doc, Stern and Fernando include a montage of facing close-ups of each of the six competitors, but this time it’s direct-to-camera. The heart can’t help but swell at the sight of them, recalling each of their personal stories of hardship and triumph and hope for the future.

The authenticity of the teenage stars is undoubtedly the film’s greatest asset. Directors Stern and Villena make sure to not only portray them when they are onstage, but to take us into their daily lives, where we often see a much more vulnerable side. For example, Chicago teenager Nia Sarfo is an absolute beast onstage, but at home in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother, she’s giggly and private. As she sheepishly shows off her computer’s home screen — which says “Juilliard” in big letters — we see that this isn’t just an extracurricular activity for her; it’s a life path she is seriously pursuing.

Wilson’s friends, like noted theater director Kenny Leon and many others, started the monologue competition as a way of coping with Wilson's sudden death at age 60 from liver cancer. Since 2008, the annual competition has auditioned hundreds of young people all over the country, culminating in a final round in the August Wilson Theater on Broadway. Of course, that’s where the film culminates, too, and after zooming into the inner world of these students, it’s satisfying to watch them compete. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Gerardo’s performance in the final round is positively breathtaking. A Mexican-American teenager from Los Angeles, who is himself soft-spoken and wears wire-rimmed glasses, he is the exact opposite onstage.

But winning isn’t everything, they say, and this film actually shows how the adults who coordinate this contest actually do mean that for the majority of kids who don’t get to the final round and aren’t one of the three winners. When the finalists arrive in New York, they get a chance to meet with the lead actress of a current Broadway show who competed in the competition multiple times and never won. The directors also include a Chicago teen with raw acting talent, Cody Merridith, as one of the main characters, even though he doesn’t advance beyond the local round of competition.

Giving Voice is definitely a movie that anyone who enjoys good acting will want to see. Actors for the stage and the screen in particular will emerge from the theater inspired and fired up to get back to work. In today’s saturated media environment, it’s heartening to be reminded that exposure to theater can be a lifeline for the kids who need it most. Giving Voice is the best kind of "feel-good" doc: one that organically moves you in a way you didn’t see coming.

Production companies: Endgame, Impact Partners, Get Lifted, Pilgrim Media Group, Juvee Productions
Principal cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Gerardo Navarro, Nia Sarfo, Freedom Martin, Cody Merridith, Callie Holley, Aaron Guy
Directors: James D. Stern Fernando Villena
Producers: James D. Stern, Karen Bove, Fernando Villena, Schoen Smith, Craig Piligian
Executive producers: Dan Cogan,
Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Gretchen Stockdale, Nicholas Caprio, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, John Legend, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius
Director of photography: Jonathon Narducci
Editors:
 Rose Corr, Wes Lipman, Alexander Hadden
Music: Bryan Senti
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: Endeavor Content, Liesel Copland

87 minutes