Telling Black Stories: Lessons from Sundance 2016

In a world where #OscarsSoWhite is trending, films like Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation come as less of a breath of fresh air and more as a much-needed deep gasp from America. Films at international festivals like Roger Ross William’s Life, Animated and Tahir Jetter’s How To Tell You’re A Douchebag are increasingly necessary in a culture that attempts to devalue Black lives and voices. 

As a 2016 Sundance Ignite Fellow, which provides support and mentorship to emerging filmmakers, I had a chance to attend the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, pitch work to a variety of diverse filmmakers, and have conversations with people that were shaping the culture of cinema as we know it. In photographing and filming the actions at the 4th Precinct here at home with NOC, it has started to become increasingly important to make connections between Black voices in national cinemas and the Black voices that are right here at home.

Adobe1324xSundance64632016 NOC Staffer Brit Fryer with Mentors Sultan Sheriff and Heidi Ewing during an Ignite Event | Taken by Jerm Cohen - @jerm_cohen

The biggest story that came out of the festival was Nate Parker’s film Birth of A Nation about Nathaniel "Nat" Turner who led some of the most powerful slave rebellions in the 1830s. It is a story of resistance and rebellion aptly named after 1915’s Birth of a Nation by KKK propagandist D.W. Griffith. Parker, whose film was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million, stated in various interviews that “few people know that [Griffith’s] Birth of A Nation was the first feature film.” What does that say about American culture that the first theatrical film was one filled with racism and stereotypically brutish Black bodies? Parker’s film in a way is asking for a new birth of cinema, one which celebrates Black stories beyond the capacity of white filmmakers, producers, and editors. 

Birth of  A Nation StillStill from Nate Parker's Birth of A Nation

His film also sparked conversations with activists and media reporters about which Black stories get told. Similarly to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Parker’s film presents Blackness and Black resistance as something historical. When Black characters are presented as strong and positive, it's often within the context of slave dramas or civil rights era biopics. Yes, these are positive messages, are but distanced from present audiences through time. 

After hearing Parker and other filmmakers of color speak about their work at the festival, I thought a lot about the struggles within black storytelling. What does robust and just black filmmaking look like? Does it have to be firmly rooted in our past before we can progress to telling our stories honestly? I would argue not. We don't have to keep making historical Black films exclusively. With the advancement of cameras, including the smartphone you are probably reading this article on, anyone can tell an authentic story themselves. Sure, you may not have a large production budget or the best actors, but you have story. For example, the media makers at the 4th Precinct caught something that was historical, timely, and truthful to their own experiences being agents of change in Minnesota. Work like that needs to be celebrated within Black Storytelling. It should be in Sundance next year.  

How To Tell You're  a Douchbag Still Still from Tahir Jetter's How To Tell You're A Douchebag

After an impromptu conversation with Nate Parker at an event, I asked him what was next for Black Storytelling -- what was beyond Birth of A Nation. He responded that the themes of films like his own and Selma needed to travel and be told in everyday relatable scenes. It made me think of what a feature film about the resistance against police brutality in Minneapolis would look like and how important it would be to the activism. What's North Minneapolis's story of resistance? 

When we fight for racial, economic, and criminal justice, we are also fighting for our voices. We're fighting against mainstream media's version of our stories and putting forth our own lived narratives. This is a form of media activism and organizing. We’re fighting for our narratives to be legitimized as well and their worth. So, grab your cellphones or your friends’ camera and let's get filming. The industry is waiting. 

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