(Photos by Eric Raddatz/Florida Weekly)
General Lee showed up at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Not the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard or the historical ranking official reincarnated from the Civil War but General Spike Lee, from modern-day Brooklyn, showing for the first time to the world his documentary on pop legend Michael Jackson, while donning a replica Civil War Union Blue hat.
He was among nearly 50,000 people who attended the ten-day event this month in Park City, Utah, arguably the biggest and best film festival in the world. With approximately 200 feature films selected and screened he was a standout though. With his film—and with his hat.
While I heard no other journalists ask him about the headgear in the press line, or in the following Q&A, one thing seemed clear this year—this was war. A war with an intensity of the Civil War. A war against racists. Ok, I may be reading into it.
Anyway, one thing for sure is that with the Oscars right around the corner and the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in full swing, there was one thing came up more often that not everywhere I went. Race.
In conversation in the theaters, press lines, cramped buses, Q&A’s, bedrooms and panels, we could not escape the conversation about the hashtag burning up all other hashtags. While #OscarsSoWhite is still trending, #SundanceSoDiverse has yet to be tweeted. So there, I just started it.
Anyway, every film crew that I saw had to inevitably field a question along these lines.
“I guess we could have done better,” a hesitant Rebecca Miller said after explaining that her movie Maggie’s Plan that just played at the Library theater in Park City, starring very white cast including Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Greta Gerwig and Bil Hader, simply reflected a sliver of a society within the story she was telling that she was being true to. That story, penned by the daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller, was one of the most intelligently written stories of the fest, never mind the hot-button issues that tend to overshadow brilliance amongst the simpleminded.
Think New York romantic comedy, ala Woody Allen— just a bit smarter and with a woman’s touch. “Our unborn children are the real gods, dictating the fates of us poor, clueless mortals.” was a line that hung in the air as scoundrel Ethan Hawke’s character makes his way into co-star Greta Gerwig’s pants, cheating on his bossy wife played by Julianne Moore. Sony Classic pictures has already picked this one up so look to see it at least by summer of this year. Miller, also wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, was excited to hear I couldn’t leave my seat for coffee during the film as it was very fast-paced and I didn’t want to miss anything. “While I was thinking that I heard a woman behind me say that she needed to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to miss anything,” I told her. It elicited a mini hand pump of jubilation.
“I’m not into Oscars,” founder Robert Redford initially retorted at the kickoff when he got tossed the question. “I want to clarify one thing on the Oscars,” he continued a little bit afterwards, “it’s just not something that occupies my thinking.” Redford then detailed a long history of diversity from his founding Sundance, one that most in the audience already were aware of. Still, it was most exciting to see how little the Oscars award ceremony controversy seemed to matter to the continued trajectory of embracing diversity the fest has attached itself to. Truthfully what the Sundance Institute has done in the way of playing diverse films and nurturing diverse talent in labs, grants and programs, has superseded anything the Academy could ever really do anyway.
“The Oscars suck,” Don Cheadle said at a Q&A after the “Miles Apart” world premiere. It punctuated a much more detailed explanation he offered as to why, including specifically how the one time he attended the event with his wife, he paid $1,000 to essentially get pushed off the red carpet by Jack Nicholson’s and Cher’s entourage, then get seated behind the biggest podium he had ever seen. “But it’s really about the conversation leading up to the Oscars. It’s all really totally subjective,” he concluded.
In a more private conversation afterwards he spun it a bit more positively. “It’s not about a symptom of getting or not getting an Oscar. The Academy is addressing it now, and pretty quickly after many of my tweets. But nothing is going to happen unless we address the issues of access and what leads up to the February ceremony.” His performance as legendary jazz musician Miles Davis was so perfectly embodied it could definitely award him an Oscar nom, though, if more diversity is considered next year. Not that he really seems to care, though.
Mr. (and General) Spike Lee, who has publicly reported to be skipping the Oscars this year along with influential black actors such as Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, screened his film “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall” in which a young Michael himself comments years before the Oscars controversy “Music has no color.” Numerous musicians including Pharrell Williams and Questlove who both commented in the doc that it is only because of Michael that they became musicians, as they grew up in an era where there was a pop star who was black. Without Michael, they agreed, they would not have made it to where they are.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe certainly embraced diversity, as shown the the doc “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.” He photographed plenty of black and white penises alike. No discrimination there. But honestly it does seem he tended to focus mostly on black ones.
As far as distribution goes, it appears as if the biggest sale ever seen in Sundance’s history came with Fox Searchlight’s acquisition of this year’s “Birth of a Nation” a story about an African-American slave who leads the most successful slave rebellion in history. The film stars a strong African-American cast including Nate Porter, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union among others. Again, #SundanceSoDiverse.
Also playing this year were “Southside with You” a look at one Chicago afternoon in 1989 where a young future first African-American president of the United States Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson go on a date, “Morris from America” where a 13-year -old African American boy and the relationship he has with his father takes center stage, “Maya Angelou And Still I Rise,” a long look at African-American icon Dr. Maya Angelou’s prolific life as a singer, dancer poet and writer, “United Shades of America,” a CNN original series exploring America’s racial stereotypes and lifestyles are just a few of the hundreds of films that show excellent inclusion, black people and yes—diversity.
There were a few white people there this year too.
One was Norman Lear. The 93 year-old producer of some of the most diverse television series of all time from “All in the Family” to “Good Times” to “The Jeffersons” summed it up pretty well for me at the opening night screening of a doc on him titled “Norman Lear: Another Version of You.” “We are all simply versions of one other,” he said from the stage more than a few times. I guess that makes us all a little diverse—and maybe a little racist.
— Eric Raddatz is the presentation editor of Florida Weekly, co- founder of the Naples International Film Festival and director and founder of the Fort Myers Film Festival, which takes place in April.
During the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photos by Eric Raddatz/FloridaWeekly)