Sundance Film Fest 2016: Diversity Remains the Key Word

Variety Reports

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Film Fest, emphasized Sundance’s devotion to different voices: “Diversity is a word I operate from. If you’re independent-minded, you’re going to do things different than the common form: That’s something we’re genuinely proud of — how we show diversity — because it’s tied to the fundamental word of ‘independent.’”

But, Redford added, it’s up to artists, not the festival, to explore the theme. “We don’t take a position of advocacy.”

While mainstream Hollywood still struggles to hire black writers and directors, and few women helm big-budget films, Sundance has always been diverse. This year’s festival offered a glimpse of the faces the industry could welcome as Hollywood tries to push back against accusations that it’s still the land of white men.

Birth of a Nation: Biggest Deal in Sundance History

A fierce bidding war erupted over The Birth of a Nation, the drama about Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. After a standing ovation, there were offers from Netflix and Sony. Fox Searchlight landed the film in a record-shattering $17.5 million pact, the richest deal in Sundance history.

The Birth of a Nation announced the emergence of a major talent, Nate Parker, the director, writer, and star of the film. Studios would like to work with Parker after his stunning debut. The film’s title evokes, of course, D.W. Griffith’s epic about the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, but in place of that idealized portrait of an old South, it exposes the true brutality.

The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the only feature about sensitive or significant socio-political issues. The subject of race was manifest in other features. Director Richard Tanne received a warm reception for Southside With You, a reimagining of the 1989 first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.

Morris From America

Morris From America, a whimsical coming-of-age story about an African-American teenager (played by newcomer Markees Christmas) who lives in Germany with his widower father (Craig Robinson), landed at A24. Writer-director Chad Hartigan said it was important to him to show a different kind of parental bond in the film. “I hadn’t seen a father-and-son relationship like this all that often, and particularly between an African-American father and son,” he said.

Hot Docus
Spike Lee showed his eagerly-awaited non-fictional feature, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, which will air on Showtime.

There was also the premiere of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a look at the civil rights activist and author.

But Sundance went beyond showcasing black stories. Nearly a third of films in this year’s U.S. drama competition were directed by women, a higher proportion than the roughly 7% of major releases directed by women last year.

Certain Women by Kelly Reichardt

The theme of girl power was evident in Kelly Reichardt’s drama Certain Women, which stars Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. Stewart presented Reichardt with Variety’s indie Impact Award at a Sundance event. “Your perspective is really unique.”


Inevitable comparisons were made between Oscar nominee “The Big Short,” and its all white male cast and Indian-American director Meera Menon debuted Equity, about a group of female investment bankers, which sold to Sony Classics.

Indie actress Clea DuVall premiered her feature directorial debut, “The Intervention.” She felt that the situation was improving for women in film. “I have watched friends — female filmmakers who work their asses off to try to get movies made, and they never get made,” she said. “I feel like that’s changing. They’re making noise about the problem, and that is making a difference.” DuVall employed a female d.p., editor, composer and other women on “The Intervention” in jobs historically dominated by men.

Diversity has been a trademark of Sundance, but it remains challenging to translate success in the festival to viable career in Hollywood.

Some progress is being made. In 2013, Sundance served as a launching pad for the careers of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan with Fruitvale Station, who returned in December with Creed, which has grossed $108 million at the domestic box office.

Some execs and producers at the festival predicted that the commercial success of films such as Creed, along with the popularity of recent female-driven works such as Brooklyn and Sisters–movies that stem from both the studio and the arthouse sides of the business — are breaking down barriers.