Each year, programmers at the Sundance Film Festival discover common threads among the films submitted and screened. So it’s apt that this year, with all the talk of race in prominent media and political circles, programmers noticed and selected a number of documentary and narrative features presenting various aspects of the African-American experience.
Two standout examples at this year’s festival were Elvis Mitchell’s interview-based documentary, “The Black List,” and a film starring Nick Cannon, “American Son,” which each addressed the current and changing role of race in American society.
These issues were underscored and discussed at a panel event, “Black in America,” that was moderated by “The Black List” producer Elvis Mitchell and featured Nick Cannon from “American Son”; Melody Barnes from the Center for American Progress; actor, activist, and producer Danny Glover; filmmaker Katrina Browne; and filmmaker and Ford Foundation executive Orlando Bagwell.
The panel focus primarily on questions of heritage and legacy, and was certainly a nod to the themes tackled in “The Blacklist,” which shows the rich diversity within a part of the American experience that is uniquely and expressly “black.”
“The Black List” allows us to hear from familiar figures in the black community like the Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as more unexpected voices, such as Slash, the former lead guitarist from Guns n’ Roses. Slash discusses the psychology of assumption and explains that because people never assumed he is black, he would find himself in uncomfortable situations where, for example, his lead singer’s lyrics would include the “N-word.” Many of the stories describe a struggle, and the ones that stay with you long after the screening ends are those like Louis Gossett Jr.’s humorous and heartbreaking anecdote about filming a love scene and being directed, along with his co-star, to purse his lips because the director felt “the lips” were “overwhelming” the shot.
Films like “The Black List” remind us of film’s important role in connecting broader audiences with the important issues of our time, said CAP’s Melody Barnes. “People come to film with their defenses down” she says. As a result, she argues that it’s easier to “sneak in” meaningful, often controversial content that can serve as a conduit to open and thoughtful public discourse. “Black film continues to be an important avenue through which to introduce ‘hot-button’ issues into the national conversation, as well as within the black community itself.”
“American Son,” also discussed during the panel, explores an America where the characters are not defined by race, but by a desperate desire to wrest themselves away from economic disenfranchisement. This movie shows a generational movement away from identity politics and toward a more racially integrated but economically stratified America.
The most cringe-inducing moment of the panel came when an audience member asked whether the level of success African Americans achieve within the film industry, and in society writ large, wasn’t a simple matter of them needing more “confidence.” After some muffled gasps, Nick Cannon reflected that the question isn’t about confidence. He cited how at festival time the top grossing film in America was Will Smith’s “I Am Legend.” Cannon remarked that when folks in the industry talk about that film, it isn’t about Will Smith’s blackness but about his box office draw and his ability to connect to audiences.
It was a graceful point and an interesting message with which to conclude the panel. While a great deal of emphasis was placed on what came before, the youngest panelist was able to honor that and anticipate what is hopefully to be.
To learn more about Reel Progress, the progressive film series sponsored by the Center for American Progress, please visit www.reelprogress.org.