Every January, 40,000+ people including notable celebrities such as Gabrielle Union, Megan Good, Common, Jesse Williams descend on Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. Last year, Nate Parker’s drama Birth of a Nation about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion in antebellum Virginia swept the festival’s awards, clenching the grand jury prize and audience award as well as evoking a standing ovation from the crowd in attendance.
This year, eyes are on Jay Z’s six-part docuseries TIME: The Kalief Browder Story (airing on Spike TV) about Kalief Browder’s wrongful imprisonment as a teenager at Riker’s Island that precipitated his suicide in June 2015. The first two episodes are set to premiere at the fest, and rumor is that Jay Z, who had a hand in the film’s inception and production, might be on-hand for the Q&A portion. Plus, there are a slew of other provocative, melanated films worth seeing at the 33rd annual festival.
Here are 13 must-see melanated films at the Sundance Film Festival 2017. Public tix go on sale on January 17 at 10 a.m. MST. And while you’re at it, consider scheduling in some skiing at Canyons Village, doing extreme tubing at the Olympic Park, or hitting up the High West Distillery for a whiskey tour.
Insider tip: Warm up and browse one-of-a-kind jewelry (i.e. red emerald and dinosaur bone native to Utah) inside Park City Jewelers. Ask for Ken, he’s the owner, and before you leave grab a ginger cookie, it’ll be the best you’ve tasted in your life!
TIME: The Kalief Browder Story
At 16, Kalief Browder was charged with stealing a backpack, then arrested in the Bronx. He proclaimed his innocence, fought the system, and in the face of torture and unthinkable circumstances, he prevailed. For this, Kalief became an American hero—but he paid with his life. In a groundbreaking six part docuseries, executive produced by Jay Z, TIME: The Kalief Browder Story is an in-depth look at this harrowing story. Using illuminating interviews with world-renowned experts, celebrities, politicians, local officials, and survivors creates eye-opening nonfiction and humanizes the mechanical levers of justice while forcing Americans to reexamine the broken system. Utilizing multiple film-making techniques to create a unique and disruptive style, the series takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the perfect storm of the institutional failure that conspired to destroy Kalief Browder.
The Festival presents the world premiere of the first two episodes, followed by an extended Q&A with the creators of the series, set to air on Spike TV in 2017.
TIME & DATE 5:30 PM, WED 1/25
RUN TIME 87 min
In the wake of his big brother’s violent death, 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) struggles to find his way in an economically depressed Arkansas town. With no parents and few role models around, Dayveon is soon torn between the lure of a local gang and the friendship of his sister’s boyfriend, who reluctantly acts as a father figure.
Amman Abbasi’s remarkable debut feature is a lyrical slice of Southern life, with an uncanny feeling for the rhythms of rural existence. Abbasi, the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Arkansas, developed the script (co-written by Steven Reneau) with input from local gang members. First-time actor Blackmon anchors the film with a poignant performance, complementing Abbasi’s introspective approach. In its unusually sensitive focus on small-town African American youth, Dayveon contains echoes of George Washington (2000), the debut film by fellow Arkansan David Gordon Green, who is one of the film’s many executive producers.
TIME & DATE 5:30 PM, THU 1/19 (premiere)
RUN TIME 75 min
Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri. Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy.
Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters. As the national guard descends on Ferguson with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new resistance.
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis know this story because they are the story. Whose Streets? is a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live.
TIME & DATE 9:15 PM, THU 1/19 (premiere)
RUN TIME 103 min
In 1984, Lolita Shanté Gooden was just another 14-year-old living in New York’s Queensbridge projects. When she famously laid down the lyrics to “Roxanne’s Revenge”—an underground answer rap to U.T.F.O.’s popular single “Roxanne, Roxanne”—she sparked one of the earliest and most significant beefs in hip-hop history, establishing herself as a feared battle emcee in a genre on the verge of worldwide recognition. With fame firmly in her grasp, Roxanne Shanté was still just a teenager with the weight of the world on her shoulders, hustling to provide for her family while defending herself from the perils of life in the projects.
In director Michael Larnell’s follow-up to his debut feature, Cronies (2015 Sundance Film Festival), newcomer Chanté Adams delivers a mic-dropping performance as the embodiment of the legendary Roxanne Shanté, backed by a stellar supporting cast featuring Nia Long and Mahershala Ali. Larnell’s passion for the story shines through in this honest and emotional portrayal of a young girl grappling with the pitfalls of fame in the face of overwhelming adversity.
TIME & DATE 9:15 PM, MON 1/23 (premiere)
RUN TIME 98 min
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women opened in 2009 with a mandate to send every student to college, despite the barriers that their home lives and community might present. Now, as the first class enters its senior year, the stakes are high to achieve that purpose. The film follows three irrepressible seniors and their “Lethal Ladies” step dance team as they navigate a nerve-wracking college application process and strive to elevate the creative outlet that keeps them united and fighting to reach their goals.
STEP hones in on the trials and triumphs of these tenacious young women, as well as their relationships with the women who champion and challenge them: their mothers, an unstoppable college counselor, and a no-nonsense step coach. These mentors are never far, doing all that they can to enable achievement, often with the odds stacked against them. This founding class is wrestling with life at the brink of their independence, always to a contagious beat that is haunting and universal.
TIME & DATE 5:30 PM, SAT 1/21 (premiere)
RUN TIME 83 min
This dramatic new event series examines the dangerous aftermath of racially charged shootings in a small North Carolina town. An expert investigator digs into the cases alongside a special prosecutor, and together they navigate the media attention, public debate, and social unrest that comes with such volatile cases—seeking justice before the divided town erupts. As they pull back the layers of both cases, they suspect a cover-up that may involve some of the state’s most powerful people, and learn that the truth is rarely black and white.
Shots Fired is both a “why done it”’ and a “who done it?” From Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, The Secret Life of Bees, and Love & Basketball—2000 Sundance Film Festival) and Reggie Rock Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, Notorious), the 10-hour event series is an explosive look at the criminal justice system created by two incisive and unflinching storytellers.
***The Festival presents two episodes of the series, which is scheduled to air on Fox in 2017. An extended conversation with the creators and actors will follow.
TIME & DATE 8:30 PM, WED 1/25 (premiere)
RUN TIME 95 min
Filmed with vérité intimacy over the course of a decade, the documentary feature debut of director Jonathan Olshefski is a portrait of a family living in North Philadelphia. Set against the backdrop of a country engulfed in turmoil, and a neighborhood assaulted by inequality and neglect, it follows Christopher “Quest” Rainey, and his wife Christine’a, “Ma Quest,” as they raise their children and nurture the creative sanctuary offered by their home music studio. The family evolves before our eyes, and what began as a tender depiction of an American family develops into a stunning illumination of race, class, and community.
Quest begs viewers to take notice. The Rainey clan will have audiences clutching their hearts in a visceral display of admiration. Ultimately, Quest reflects the profound beauty of one family whose journey is a testament to love and healing and whose resilience provides hope for a nation torn apart.
TIME & DATE 9:00 PM, SAT 1/21 (premiere)
RUN TIME 105 min
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story Of Black Colleges And Universities
Veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders, 2010; The Black Panthers, 2015) returns to the Festival to deliver yet another essential chapter of American history with his latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising, the first-ever project of its kind on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
African Americans who would not be denied a higher education played an enormous part in propelling the epic journey toward liberation for Black people in the United States. Though much of their history was eclipsed by the explosiveness of the 1960s, HBCUs played a central role in the shaping of Black life, creating a Black middle class and dismantling segregation. Through this rich tapestry of archival photos, letters, diaries, home movies, a variety of never before seen or heard media, and memorable testimonials with key students, staff, faculty, and alumni, Nelson brings into sharp focus the pivotal role the 150-year history of HBCUs has played in American history, culture, and national identity.
TIME & DATE 9:00 PM, WED 1/25 (premiere)
RUN TIME 85 min
The Incredible Jessica James
Jessica James (Jessica Williams), an aspiring playwright in New York City, is trying hard to get over a recent breakup with her boyfriend. She sees light at the end of the tunnel when she meets Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who’s also recovering from a recent break-up. Together, they figure out a way to make it through the tough times, while also realizing they like each other—a lot.
Writer/director Jim Strouse’s three previous films all played at the Sundance Film Festival. The most recent of these, People Places Things (2015), featured Jessica Williams in a supporting role, and it proved to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Williams broke onto the scene as a correspondent on The Daily Show and followed that up with her hilarious podcast, 2 Dope Queens. With The Incredible Jessica James, she proves what has always been self-evident—that she is destined to be a star. With charisma, charm, and humor to burn, Williams crushes it as a leading lady in this vivacious romantic comedy with teeth.
TIME & DATE 6:15 PM, FRI 1/27 (premiere)
RUN TIME 85 min
On April 10, 1980, a shot rang out on the streets of Crown Heights, igniting a decades-long quest for justice in this harrowing true story. Colin Warner, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Lakeith Stanfield, is arrested and tried for a crime he did not commit, a victim of a deeply broken system that refuses to listen. Quick to throw him away, the court wrongfully convicts him. But as Colin loses hope to reclaim an innocence that has been cast aside, his best friend, Carl King, devotes his life to restoring Colin’s freedom, doggedly pursuing every lead for years.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin, who worked closely to earn the trust of the real Colin Warner, imbues this film with a gifted touch and emotional authenticity to shed light on a painful personal story—and on a horrifying systemic issue. Anchored by Stanfield, an indie film secret weapon, Crown Heights unfolds as a powerful ode to those we leave behind.
TIME & DATE 9:00 PM, MON 1/23 (premiere)
RUN TIME 96 min
In his freshman year of college, it seems Zurich has everything going for him; he has the respect of his teachers and university administration, the love and devotion of a wonderful girlfriend, and he’s been selected for admission to a prestigious black fraternity on campus. But as Zurich embarks on the Hell Week of pledging his fraternity, the harsh trials of entry into brotherhood begin to test the limits of his self-worth. As the intensifying abuse begins to become untenable, Zurich struggles to honor the fraternity’s code of silence, and the scaffolding of his life outside the frat begins to dismantle.
Gerrard McMurray’s Burning Sands constructs a deeply complex cross section of the fabled fraternity hazing culture and the vicious power of the desire for acceptance. McMurray’s grounded filmmaking builds a textured world populated with an exceptional young cast, resulting in a deeply profound exploration of being a young black man in America.
TIME & DATE 9:30 PM, THU 1/26
RUN TIME 105 min
Supremely controversial, Winnie Mandela has been labeled a woman condemned for her radical role in the liberation of her South African people under apartheid. While her husband, Nelson Mandela, remained securely jailed for 27 years, Winnie brushed the patriarchy aside to fight on the front line and take uncompromising steps to inspire an uprising. While Nelson was remembered as a hero, Winnie was demonized in the global media.
Filmmaker Pascale Lamche paints a complex portrait of Winnie Mandela: the woman, the paradox, both exalted and villainized in the eyes of history. Using rich, unseen archival footage and interviews with intimate comrades, Lamche unravels the tale of cause and effect by which Winnie was taken down.
Loved by South African people for her grace and unflinching leadership, Winnie Mandela is situated at the center of her own narrative by Lamche in this groundbreaking film which asks us to question how—and why—history has intimidated and silenced women because of their political power.
TIME & DATE 6:30 PM, WED 1/25
RUN TIME 98 min
In 1992, filmmaker Yance Ford’s brother William was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white mechanic after a common complaint about a car repair spiraled violently out of control. The mechanic claimed he fired in self-defense, and though William was unarmed, he quickly became the prime suspect in his own death. When an all-white grand jury set the shooter free, Yance’s family retreated into a silent fury. Twenty years later, Strong Island invents a startling cinematic language to penetrate this devastating collision of paralysis, grief, fear, racism, and injustice.
As much as it is an outward-facing investigation of William’s case, this film is a radically intimate, lovingly layered inquiry into the emotional valences and internal geometries of the Ford family and their loss. Exacting aesthetic choices transport us directly into Yance and his mother’s subjective experience, acknowledging the painful reality that some things will always be elusive and unknowable. Strong Island dismantles and reimagines the wreckage left in the wake of William’s murder, bringing us as close as art can come to the blistering truth.
TIME & DATE 10:00 PM, THU 1/26
RUN TIME 107 min
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