Sundance is the most prominent film festival in North America with thousands of films screening each year. This year, Black representation in the programming slate has been explosive. From projects like Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, Hale County: This Morning, This Evening, Two Dope Queens, Francesca and many others, there are so many projects to screen and write about — effectively putting them on the world’s radar before many of them even receive distribution.
However, as I stood in the press lines each day, or in waiting rooms before my interviews, I was one of the only people color. Aside from Black Girls Nerds Editor-in-Chief Jamie Broadnax, and her crew, Sundance seemed void of writers from Black publications covering the various films and events. But why is that this case?
On Sunday, the fourth day of Sundance 2018, I sat in a packed theater having just screened the forthcoming Netflix film, Come Sunday. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Condola Rashad, Danny Glover and Lakeith Stanfield and tells the true story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, an evangelical megastar whose life-altering epiphany shifts his entire theology. The film stemmed from an episode of NPR’s This American Life. Though the film boasts almost an entirely Black cast, the director, writers and producers were all white. Both the cast and crew were on stage for a Q&A after the screening, when someone from the majority white audience blurted out, “We want to hear the people of color speak on stage, no more white people!” The crowd immediately quieted until Stanfield took the mic and jokingly broke the awkward silence. Up until that point, none of the actors of color has spoken. As I chuckled to myself, I realized, that however uncomfortable that moment may have been, it raised several questions about Black stories and who gets to present and speak about them to the world.
From what I can determine, the Black press simply isn’t as valued in the entertainment space. Though we are constantly writing about and trying to get through the door to speak with artists of color, our phone calls and emails often go unanswered. At Sundance, it’s up to us to network with one another. Each year, the legendary Bevy Smith, for example, makes it a point to host a cocktail hour for people of color attending Sundance to meet and greet each other connecting on various project and opportunities.
There are many fantastic publicists who do their due diligence and always have us on their list for the films and series that they are working on. However, when certain projects arise mainly when they are more mainstream-leaning, the Black press hears crickets and are forced to try and bang down doors just to get a response. Unfortunately, when these projects have a diverse cast, actresses and actors of colors are often overlooked in mainstream publications or worse, the projects are ignored overall.
Black newcomers and veterans alike are affected by this. Most recently, Taraji P. Henson’s SONY vehicle, Proud Mary suffered as a result. Though there was much talk about the film when it was announced in the earlier part of 2017, the studio locked the press out as a whole, and after seeing the film, it really had nothing to do with its quality. Though Proud Mary deserved a larger budget, Henson and her co-stars, Danny Glover, Billy Brown and relative newcomer Jahi Di’Allo Winston were stellar. Locking the Black press out of a film that really could have done well in Black communities, in particular, meant SONY buried the film before it had a chance to breathe.
Though Black actors, directors, publicists, and screenwriters are at and have been attending events like Sundance in full force, the representation of the Black press is abysmal. This speaks of a continuing disconnect in Hollywood which is not just about a lack of representation, but a reluctance to bridge the gap with Black audiences as a whole. Black film criticism in particular is so important and yet so undervalued. Who better to analyze stories about us and present them to our audiences than those who can relate to them on a more intimate level. At a Sundance panel for her new film Sorry to Bother You, actress Tessa Thompson discussed access, and the lack thereof. “Who are the film critics?” she challenged. “Those people become gatekeepers, particularly if you’re talking about a film where there’s people of color or black and brown faces, and they don’t understand that work, and suddenly they say it’s not of value. That means it doesn’t get to travel (and) it doesn’t get distributed. The gatekeepers cannot be white cis males, that frankly are not gonna understand some of that work and that’s okay. ‘Cause it’s not necessarily for them.”
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami