Sundance 2014 and the Reemergence of Black Independent Films

 photo dearwhitepeople.jpg
by Lyndsey Ellis

I’d almost given up on black movies before last year’s premier of some incredibly compelling films. Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave put the spark back into black Hollywood and showed that African-American cinema could still be presented tastefully and accurately. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival took that energy to a new level that’s nothing short of uniquely divine, crafting stories around the crude realities of race relations, musical influence, activism, child abduction, outcasts within communities of outcasts, underserved neighborhoods, disability, and more.

Before this year’s breakout of independent black films like Dear White People, Gregory Go Boom, Difret, Memphis, Finding Fela, White Shadow, and Imperial Dreams, there were only a few movies sprinkled over the big screen that made us examine several differing aspects of black life. Precious, 42, Red Tails, Amistad, Hotel Rwanda, and Pariah, to name a few, were all groundbreaking in their own right, exploring issues of incest, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, discrimination, genocide, and homosexuality—all subjects that revealed different truths faced by those of African descent all over the world. These films helped to interpret blacks’ wider scope of dilemmas rather than pigeon-hole us into the little bubble we’ve been trying to escape for years.

This is not to say that all black films should have the shadow of slavery, racial problems, and modern-day stigmas looming over them. There’s still room for movies with lighthearted and wholesome content that allow us to preserve tradition and our sanity. Let’s be real: part of our peculiar strength as a people lies in the gift of humor, and these kinds of displays serve as a buffer, holding self-righteousness, pretension, and the tendency to wallow in our sorrows at bay.

But, diversify the options. There has to be more than Big Mama caricatures, single-minded scorned black women, male rolling stones, thug life, and unruly clans of misguided children in the ghetto. While these themes are particularly amusing to mainstream culture and hold some truth, they aren’t a representation of black culture in its entirety. They also reinforce stereotypes that keep us from tearing down the harmful structures we claim to want no part of. Frankly, many of them are an insult to our intelligence and stunt the growth of our imagination.

Be wary of films that camouflage comedy with buffoonery and conventional values with distorted popular belief. We deserve masterpieces that root for the underdog. We need bodies of work that challenge covert injustices and conformist mentality. Without these types of motion pictures and the tireless efforts of today’s most under-rated black filmmakers, we fall deeper into the self-hatred that allows our collective image to be manipulated by our oppressors.

The black life illustrated in today’s reinvention of independent black films serve as a platform for those who enjoy thoughtful and daring stories that aren’t afraid to take viewers out of their comfort zone.  Like a good book, the ideas are original, the plots are well-planned, the characters are multidimensional, and the dialogue is fresh but realistic. And, if anything is left open-ended, it’s done cleverly and intentionally.

My eyes remain open and my fingers crossed for more black films that stir controversy for the sake of authenticity and self-actualization. There’s nothing snobbish or ungrateful about that. This generation’s revolution shouldn’t only be televised; it needs to be seen and felt on the big screen in the film industry as well.


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