Shaka King’s “Judah and the Black Messiah”
Jamila Wignot’s portrait of a modern dance visionary who carved out space for Black performers and Black stories in 1950s New York City. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s look back at the legendary 1969 concert events in Harlem that came to be known as Black Woodstock. Jazz musician–turned-filmmaker Chris Bowers’ efforts to track his family’s lineage from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. These are just three of the long-untold true stories that will come to life onscreen during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, documenting the immense cultural legacy of Black Americans throughout our country’s history.
Black directors are also making their mark on the Festival’s narrative feature sections. In U.S. Dramatic, look out for On the Count of Three, the darkly comedic directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael about hopelessness, true friendship, and not always feeling in control. Meanwhile, in NEXT, Carey Williams is ready to introduce audiences to R#J, his modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, told completely through entirely through social media and smartphone screens. In World Dramatic, with Night of the Kings, writer-director Philippe Lacôte brings you a tale about the intricate hierarchy formed by the inmates inside an infamous Ivory Coast prison. And earlier this week, we announced the late addition of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, a drama starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, in the Premieres category.
In 2021’s unique New Frontier section—housed on an interactive platform of its own—you can explore the immersive Secret Garden, a project in which you’ll encounter oral histories spanning generations of African American women. You also won’t want to miss Changing Shape: Episode One, an episodic experience that uses time travel and magical realism to pilgrimage through the evolution of racial violence in the U.S., making vital connections between the past and present, or Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler, inspired by the ideas of the late great science-fiction writer. Dip into this primordial pool and find innovative artists working at the intersection of art, film, science, music, and technology.
At the Sundance Institute, it is our year-round mission to amplify the voices of storytellers and audiences across ethnicities, genders, abilities, sexual orientations, and geographic regions—work we do in part through our Women at Sundance and Outreach & Inclusion programs. It is also work that is important to our curatorial team: For 2021, 57% of all projects have a BIPOC director, and 26% of all projects have a WOC director. Today we’re highlighting the wide range of projects directed by Black artists—scroll down to see all of the titles and learn more about them.
Editor’s note: Tickets to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival are on sale now—start planning your experience by creating a free account on our screening platform and favoriting the films on your must-see list. You can click the individual film links below to go to their respective project pages and see when each film is screening during the Festival. Use our “interest tracks” menu on the program guide to get even more specific in your search—filter projects by categories like “female-centered stories,” “first-time features,” “LGBTQ+ stories,” and “BIPOC stories.”
Director: Jamila Wignot; producer: Lauren DeFilippo
Many know the name Alvin Ailey, but how many know the man? Ailey’s commitment to searching for truth in movement resulted in pioneering and enduring choreography that centers on African American experiences. Director Jamila Wignot’s resonant biography grants artful access to the elusive visionary who founded one of the world’s most renowned dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Writer-director-producer: Jessica Beshir
Khat, a flowering plant with leaves that produce a stimulant effect when chewed, has been harvested in Ethiopia for centuries. With social significance in communities around the world, khat is a cash crop, sustaining so many who have worked in the fields for generations. However familiar the work is, some young people who have grown up in its shadow want more. They consider leaving home and all they have ever known for something new, faraway, and, while perhaps more economically beneficial, lonelier and more isolating.
Writer-directors: Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp; producers: Brandon Kraus, Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp, Lucky McKee, and Charles Horak
Mike, a high school kid with a crush, finally summons the courage to ask Kelsey out on a date. With a date but no wheels, Mike borrows money and gets duped into buying a clunker ’65 Chrysler. Although many a first date goes awry, Mike’s swiftly descends into a surreal misadventure that finds him inexplicably targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady—with all roads leading to a showdown.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Director: Shaka King; screenwriters: Will Berson and Shaka King; producers: Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King, and Shaka King
Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.
NIGHT OF THE KINGS
Writer-director: Philippe Lacôte; producers: Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Létourneau, Ernest Konan, and Yoro Mbaye
A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s “Roman”—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard. Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos.
ON THE COUNT OF THREE
Director: Jarrod Carmichael; screenwriters: Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch; producers: David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Tom Werner, Jake Densen, Ari Katcher, and Jimmy Price
Val (Jerrod Carmichael) has reached a place where he feels the only way out is to end things. But he considers himself a bit of a failure—his effectiveness lacking—so he figures he could use some help. As luck would have it, Val’s best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, so he seems like the perfect partner for executing this double suicide plan. But before they go, they have some unfinished business to attend to.
Director: Carey Williams; screenwriters: Carey Williams, Rickie Castaneda, and Alex Sobolev; producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Igor Tsay, John J. Kelly, Alex Sobolev, and Anna Soboleva
In fair Verona, a war as old as time is brewing between rival houses—but it’s being captured in a new way. Montague and Capulet Gen Zers are using their cell phones to document the eruptions of violence plaguing their communities. In the middle of it all, Romeo discovers Juliet’s artwork at a party, and the two inevitably fall in love. As tensions between their families escalate, the two plead for peace and desperately search for a way to escape their star-crossed destiny.
SUMMER OF SOUL
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; producers: David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, and Joseph Patel
In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.
A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION
Directors: Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers; producers: Lindsay Crouse, Ben Proudfoot, Jeremy Lambert, and Kris Bowers
A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Writer-director: Kelly Fyffe-Marshall; producers: Tamar Bird, Sasha Leigh Henry, Komi Olaf, and Donisha Prendergast
A Black man comes face-to-face with the realities of being Black in the twenty-first century.
Director: Miles Warren; screenwriters: Miles Warren and Ben Medina; producers: Gustavo René, Albert Tholen, and Lauren Goetzman
After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.
Writer-producer: Renee Maria Osubu
With the help of their family, friends, and faith, three fathers unravel the incomparable partnership of forgiveness and community in North Philadelphia.
DON’T GO TELLIN’ YOUR MAMA
Writer-directors: Topaz Jones and rubberband.; producers: Luigi Rossi, Jason Sondock, Simon Davis, Eric McNeal, Kevin Storey
In 1970, Black educators in Chicago developed alphabet flash cards to provide Black-centered teaching materials to the vastly white educational landscape, and the Black ABCs were born. Fifty years later, 26 scenes provide an update to their meanings.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
Director: Renaldho Pelle; screenwriter: Kerry Jade Kolbe; producer: Yanling Wang
Rioting spreads as social inequality causes tempers in a struggling community to flare, but the oppressive environment takes on a life of its own as the shadows of the housing estate close in.
Writer-director: Nomawonga Khumalo; producers: Brett Michael Innes, Paulo Areal, Schalk Willem Burger, Nomawonga Khumalo
A God-fearing woman in present-day South Africa finds herself in a transactional relationship as she tries to support her sick husband and daughter.
I RAN FROM IT AND WAS STILL IN IT
Writer-director: Darol Olu Kae
A poetic meditation on familial loss and separation, as well as the love that endures against dispersion.
Director: Akinola Davies Jr.; screenwriters: the Davies Brothers; producers: Rachel Dargavel and Wale Davies
Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.
Writer-director: Melody C. Roscher; producers: Nadine Lübbeling, Craig Shilowich, Emily Wiedemann, and Christina Garnett
Amidst a racially tense Southern wedding, a biracial bride has the chance to confront her estranged Black father after accidentally hiring his wedding band to perform.
UP AT NIGHT
Writer-director: Nelson Makengo; producer: Rosa Spalivieiro
As dusk fades and another night without electricity falls, Kinshasa’s neighborhoods reveal an environment of violence, political conflict, and uncertainty over the building of the Grand Inga 3 hydroelectric dam, which promises a permanent source of energy to the Congo.
BEYOND THE BREAKDOWN
Lead artists: Tony Patrick, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Grace Lee
We are now spending less time with one another and more time than ever with algorithmic suggestion engines designed to keep us consuming and powerless. In this elegant, world-building browser performance, Festivalgoers engage with an AI + human collaborative team to imagine alternative narratives for our near-future reality. Designed as a renewal center for humanness, this creative browser emphasizes the practice of self-reflection, self-care, and cultivating new ways of building community in online spaces.
CHANGING SAME: EPISODE 1
Lead artists and producers: Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster, and Yasmin Elayat
This immersive, episodic experience uses time travel and magical realism to pilgrimage through the evolution of racial violence in the U.S., making vital connections between the past and present. Episode 1 introduces the time travel portal—the Cracker House—and begins with a police altercation in a quiet suburb of modern-day New Jersey. The police altercation leads to mass incarceration and a slave warehouse, while hurtling toward a glimpse of a radiant post-racial utopia.
Lead artist: Stephanie Dinkins; producers: Stephanie Dinkins, Adaora Udoji, Nokia, Bell Labs NEW INC, and ONX Studio
Step into a garden and encounter oral histories spanning generations of African American women. As you wander this spatialized tract, you will encounter women with stories to tell: surviving a slave boat, growing up on a 1920s Black-owned farm, surviving 9/11, and embodying an AI powered by African American women. Secret Garden reminds us that sharing and receiving stories is an act of resistance.
TRAVELING THE INTERSTITIUM WITH OCTAVIA BUTLER
Lead artists: Sophia Nahli Allison, idris brewster, Stephanie Dinkins, Ari Melenciano, and Terence Nance; producers: Jess Engel, Danielle Oexmann, Kamal Sinclair, and Evan Walsh
The human interstitium is the fluid space between cell walls and organs. In this mesmerizing interactive WebXR experience, the interstitium is the liminal space where reality shifts, challenging us to harness the power of our radical imagination. Dip into this primordial pool and find innovative artists working at the intersection of art, film, science, music, and technology. They are divining inspiration from Octavia Butler and creating portals on your desktop to alternate dimensions—making the invisible visible.