A Diversity Record: Almost Half of Sundance 2020 Competition Films Have Black Leads

December 16, 2019

We track 30 years of black films at Sundance, and this lineup is a record breaker with titles like “Nine Days,” “Sylvie’s Love,” and “Zola.”

Tambay Obenson

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has broken a record weeks before it begins: Of the 16 films in Dramatic Competition, seven tell stories primarily about the lives of black characters: “The 40-Year-Old Version,” “Charm City Kings,” “Farewell Amor,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “Nine Days,” “Sylvie’s Love” and “Zola.”

Surveying the last 30 years of Sundance, there’s usually been at least one in-competition film with black leads. (The exceptions: 2003, 2002, 1999, and 1995.) In 1992 and 1989, there was one black film in competition, while 1993 had two. But prior to 2020, there had never been more than five.

Black filmmakers saw a renaissance in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period that introduced Spike Lee, Wendell B. Harris Jr, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Julie Dash, Matty Rich, the Hudlin Brothers, Leslie Harris, and others. Some of their films premiered and competed at Sundance, but even then they never composed a significant presence.

The 2018 competition lineup had five films that met the criteria with “Blindspotting,” “Monster,” “Monsters and Men,” “Sorry to Bother You,” and “TYREL.” Last year offered four with “Clemency,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Luce,” and “Native Son.” The Grand Jury Prize went to “Clemency,” making director Chinonye Chukwu the first black woman to receive the award.

Here’s a breakdown of the last 30 years of black films in the Dramatic Competition section:

2019: “Clemency,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Luce,” “Native Son”

2018: “Blindspotting,” “Monster,” “Monsters and Men,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “TYREL”

2017: “Burning Sands,” “Crown Heights,” “Roxanne Roxanne”

2016: “The Birth of a Nation,” “Morris from America,” “Southside With You”

2015: “Dope”

2014: “Dear White People,” “Fishing Without Nets”

2013: “Fruitvale,” “Mother of George”

2012: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “LUV,” “Middle Of Nowhere”

2011: “Pariah,” “Gun Hill Road”

2010: “Night Catches Us”

2009: “Push” (Based on the Novel by Sapphire),

2008: “American Son,” “Ballast,” “North Starr,”

2007: “Weapons”

2006: “Somebodies”

2005: “Hustle & Flow”

2004: “Brother to Brother”

2003: None

2002: None

2001: “30 Years to Life,” “Lift”

2000: “Compensation,” “Our Song”

1999: None

1998: “Slam,” “Hav Plenty”

1997: “Black & White & Red All Over,” “Love Jones”

1996: “The Keeper”

1995: None

1994: “Fresh,” “Suture”

1993: “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” “Fly by Night”

1992: “Black and White”

1991: “Daughters of the Dust,” “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” “Hangin’ with the Homeboys”

1990: “Chameleon Street,” “House Party,” “To Sleep with Anger”

1989: “The Big Dis”

And here are complete details on each of the seven black-lead films that will compete during the 2020 edition of the festival:

– The 40-Year-Old Version / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Radha Blank, Producers: Lena Waithe, Radha Blank, Inuka Bacote-Capiga, Jennifer Semler, Rishi Rijani) — A down-on-her-luck New York playwright decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, Imani Lewis, T.J. Atoms.

– Charm City Kings / U.S.A. (Director: Angel Manuel Soto, Screenwriters: Sherman Payne, Chris Boyd & Kirk Sullivan, Barry Jenkins, Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Clarence Hammond, Marc Bienstock) — Mouse desperately wants to join The Midnight Clique, the infamous Baltimore dirt bike riders who rule the summertime streets. When Midnight’s leader, Blax, takes 14-year-old Mouse under his wing, Mouse soon finds himself torn between the straight-and-narrow and a road filled with fast money and violence. Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris, Donielle Tremaine Hansley, Kezii Curtis.

– Farewell Amor / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ekwa Msangi, Producers: Huriyyah Muhammad, Sam Bisbee, Josh Penn) — Reunited after a 17 year separation, Walter, an Angolan immigrant, is joined in the U.S. by his wife and teenage daughter. Now absolute strangers sharing a one-bedroom apartment, they discover a shared love of dance that may help overcome the emotional distance between them. Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner, Nana Mensah.

– Miss Juneteenth / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Channing Godfrey Peoples, Producers: Neil Creque Williams, Jeanie Igoe, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, Theresa Steele, Tim Headington) — Turquoise, a former beauty queen turned hardworking single mother, prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she did. Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus Maudlin.

– Nine Days / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Edson Oda, Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mette Marie Kongsved, Matthew Lindner, Laura Tunstall, Datari Turner) — In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born. Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl.

– Sylvie’s Love / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Eugene Ashe, Producers: Nnamdi Asomugha, Gabrielle Glore, Jonathan Baker, Matthew Thurm) — Years after their summer romance comes to an end, an aspiring television producer and a talented musician cross paths, only to find their feelings for each other never changed. With their careers taking them in different directions, they must choose what matters most. Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Jemima Kirke.

– Zola / U.S.A. (Director: Janicza Bravo, Screenwriters: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, Elizabeth Haggard, Dave Franco, Gia Walsh) 2015: @zolarmoon tweets “wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Two girls bond over their “hoeism” and become fast friends. What’s supposed to be a trip from Detroit to Florida turns into a weekend from hell. Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo.

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 23–February 2, 2020, in Park City, UT.