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Where Are They Now? Looking Back At Last Year's (2013) Class Of Black Films At Sundance

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by Tambay A. Obenson
January 14, 2014 3:38 PM
1 Comment
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The 2014 Sundance Film Festival is upon us folks - it kicks off in 2 days, running January 16-26; the first film festival of each year that thousands of filmmakers work diligently to get their films into annually. 

Most don't make the final cut, and for those that do, it could mean the beginning of an extra special year, as we've seen recently with films like Beasts Of The Southern Wild, and Fruitvale Station, to name 2.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that for most filmmakers with feature films that are selected to screen at the festival, the goal, or at least, the hope, is that their entry makes enough of a splash at the festival, gets picked up by a distribution company (preferably sometime during the festival, or soon thereafter), and eventually opens in theaters (whether limited or wide, depending on the film), meets or exceeds expectations at the box office, en route to acclaim, and maybe even awards.

Ok, so maybe that's not necessarily the dream for every filmmaker - but I'd say that, at the very least, most hope that their film attracts a distributor (the right distributor) - and maybe even eventually enjoys a theatrical release - even if it's very limited. 

Unless, of course, you're one of those with plans to self-distribute your film, and already know that, going into the festival.

Obviously, the dream doesn't come true for everyone. And while some are acquired for distribution almost immediately, while still at the festival, others wait months, and, in some case, even a year or more, before finding a home somewhere.

And with at least a dozen diasporic films (shorts, features, docs) screening at this year's (2014's) Sundance Film festival - films that tell stories that center primarily around characters of African descent - how many of the features will eventually see whatever the filmmaker's dream for their film is?

We will know more a year from now, when I publish an entry taking a look at where each film from this year's lineup ends up.

Today, however, I'm doing just that for last year's class (2013), which was a good year, relatively-speaking, for black films at Sundance; A total of 14 features were up for grabs last year, and a majority of them, were picked up by distributors AND released, or will soon be released in theaters (or TV, DVD, Digital, etc depending on what the end goal was). 

Here's a look at last year's class, including what companies acquired each of them (if they were picked up), and when they were released (or, if available, when they will be released). If anything, it should prove useful for those who aren't aware of, and/or haven't seen all these films, and would like to. Now you know where they are and how to find them:

FEATURES DOCS

American Promise / U.S.A. (Directors: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson) — This intimate documentary follows the 12-year journey of two African-American families pursuing the promise of opportunity through the education of their sons.

- The filmmakers have been traveling with it since its Sundance premiere a year ago, although its official theatrical debut was on October 18, 2013. It's scheduled to air on PBS' prestigious POV program eventually (although no exact date yet), so it should be accessible to most of us at that time, especially if it doesn't screen at a theater near you. No ETA on a home video/digital release yet.

ANITA / U.S.A. (Director: Freida Mock) — Anita Hill, an African-American woman, charges Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment in explosive Senate hearings in 1991 – bringing sexual politics into the national consciousness and fueling 20 years of international debate on the issues.

- It continues to travel the film festival circuit, a year later. Last August, Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired U.S. rights to the film, which was expected to hit theaters in the fall, but that didn't happen No exact date is available at the moment. The company's website lists the film under "Coming Soon." 

Fire in the Blood / India (Director: Dylan Mohan Gray) — In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western governments and pharmaceutical companies blocked low-cost antiretroviral drugs from reaching AIDS-stricken Africa, causing 10 million or more unnecessary deaths. An improbable group of people decided to fight back. 

International Film Circuit picked up the film over the summer last year, and eventually opened in theatrically, starting on September 6, in a limited release. No ETA on a home video/digital release yet.

God Loves Uganda / U.S.A. (Director: Roger Ross Williams) — A powerful exploration of the evangelical campaign to infuse African culture with values imported from America’s Christian Right. The film follows American and Ugandan religious leaders fighting “sexual immorality” and missionaries trying to convince Ugandans to follow biblical law.

Variance Films eventually picked it up and, opened it theatrically, starting on October 11, 2013, in a limited release, followed by an expansion to theaters across the US and Canada throughout the fall and into early 2014. No ETA on a home video/digital release yet.

Gideon’s Army / U.S.A. (Director: Dawn Porter) — Gideon’s Army follows three young, committed Public Defenders who are dedicated to working for the people society would rather forget. Long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads are so common that even the most committed often give up.

- It toured the film festival and screening series circuit nationwide, after its Sundance debut, and eventually aired on HBO over the summer. No ETA on a home video/digital release yet.

Muscle Shoals / U.S.A. (Director: Greg "Freddy" Camalier) In a tiny Alabama town with the curious name of Muscle Shoals, something miraculous sprang from the mud of the Tennessee River. A group of unassuming, yet incredibly talented, locals came together and spawned some of the greatest music of all time: “Mustang Sally,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Wild Horses,” and many more. During the most incendiary periods of racial hostility, white folks and black folks came together to create music that would last for generations and gave birth to the incomparable “Muscle Shoals sound.”

- Magnolia Pictures picked up and released the film, starting in September 2014. It has a DVD/Blu-ray date of February 25, 2014.

The Square (Al Midan) / Egypt, U.S.A. (Director: Jehane Noujaim) — What does it mean to risk your life for your ideals? How far will five revolutionaries go in defending their beliefs in the fight for their nation?

- After successful screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film FestivalThe Square (Al Midan) opened theatrically at the Film Forum theaters here in NYC, and in LA (a self-financed Oscar-qualifying run), and was soon after picked up by Netflix, with plans to crash the Oscars. And it's well on its way, given that it was recently shortlisted by the Academy. The final nominees will be announced right around the time Netflix plans to release it via its streaming platform, on January 17.

The Stuart Hall Project / United Kingdom (Director: John Akomfrah) — Antinuclear campaigner, New Left activist and founding father of Cultural Studies, this documentary interweaves 70 years of Stuart Hall’s film, radio and television appearances, and material from his private archive to document a memorable life and construct a portrait of Britain’s foremost radical intellectual.

- It continues to travel the film festival and film screening series around the world. It opened in UK cinemas last fall. No USA pick-up I'm aware of. And no ETA on a home video release.

Twenty Feet from Stardom / U.S.A. (Director: Morgan Neville) — Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead – until now.

- After much success on the festival circuit, RADiUS-TWC released 20 Feet From Stardom in theaters on June 14, 2013.  The film earned about $5 million at the box office. If you missed its theatrical run, look for it on DVD and Blu-Ray today, as it's just been released to the home video market. By the way, it's also a contender for the 2014 Best Documentary Oscar.

FEATURE NARRATIVE

Blue Caprice / U.S.A. (Director: Alexandre Moors, Screenwriters: R.F.I Porto, Alexandre Moors) — An abandoned boy is lured to America and drawn into the shadow of a dangerous father figure in this film inspired by the real life events that led to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Cast: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson, Cassandra Freeman, Leo Fitzpatrick.

Sundance Selects acquired North American and Latin American rights to Alexandre Moors’ debut feature, and released it in a limited theatrical release, starting on September 20, 2013. It's also available on home video, and digital/VOD. 

Fruitvale / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ryan Coogler) — The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family and strangers on the last day of 2008. Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O'Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray.

- The title was eventually changed to Fruitvale Station, after The Weinstein Company (TWC) acquired distribution rights to the film at Sundance last year, which is based on the 2009 murder of 22-year old Oscar Grant (played by Jordan). It was released in theaters over the summer, and is now on home video (DVD, Blu-ray, digital, VOD), and could be an Oscar contender.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete / U.S.A. (Director: George Tillman Jr., Screenwriter: Michael Starrbury) — Separated from their mothers and facing a summer in the Brooklyn projects alone, two boys hide from police and forage for food, with only each other to trust. A story of salvation through friendship and two boys against the world. Cast: Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright.

Codeblack Films/Lionsgate picked up and releases George Tillman Jr.'s The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete in theaters, in a limited release, starting on October 11. Look for it on the home video market on February 4, 2014

Mother of George / U.S.A. (Director: Andrew Dosunmu, Screenwriter: Darci Picoult) — A story about a woman willing to do anything and risk everything for her marriage. Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Danai Gurira, Anthony Okungbowa, Yaya Alafia, Bukky Ajayi.

Oscilloscope Laboratories acquired and opened Andrew Dosunmu's lauded Sundance competition drama entry in theaters, on September 13, 2013, in a limited release, and gradually expanded it to other cities over the following few months. It too will hit the home entertainment market on February 4, 2014.

Newlyweeds / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Shaka King) — A Brooklyn repo man and his globetrotting girlfriend forge an unlikely romance. But what should be a match made in stoner heaven turns into a love triangle gone awry in this dark coming-of-age comedy about dependency. Cast: Amari Cheatom, Trae Harris, Tone Tank, Colman Domingo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Adrian Martinez.

Phase 4 Films opened the crowd-pleasing stoner dramedy on September 182013, at Film Forum theaters in New York City, and gradually expanded its reach to other cities nationwide, albeit still in a limited release. The film is now streaming on Netflix (the only one of this list), and can also be purchased or rented on DVD and digital currently.

That's it!

For the upcoming 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off in a couple of days, 118 feature-length films will be screened selected, representing 37 countries and 54 first-time filmmakers, including 34 in competition. These films were selected from 12,218 submissions (72 more than for 2013), including 4,057 feature-length films and 8,161 short films. Of the feature film submissions, 2,014 were from the U.S. and 2,043 were international. 97 feature films at the Festival will be world premieres.

Look for a post highlighting all of this year's diaspora films in the next couple of days - films that, a year from now, I'll be updating you on their post-Sundance travels. 

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1 Comment

  • James | January 14, 2014 5:59 PMReply

    Isn't "God Loves Uganda" also shortlisted for the Oscar, in addition to "The Square" and "20 Feet..."?

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