Black life was on full view at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Legendary ﬁgures were given their due. Family dramas were showcased. Movies from the motherland added a unique perspective. Black directors, screenwriters, tech crews and actors showcased their talents at America’s biggest indie ﬁlm festival in ﬁlms that mattered.
A Thousand and One (****). In the 1990s, 6-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) thinks his mom lnes (Teyana Taylor) left him on a Harlem street corner when he was a baby. Now that she has done her time at Rikers Island jail, she’s trying to make amends and steals him from foster care. That thoroughly inventive premise spotlights the creative genius of ﬁrst-time feature ﬁlm writer/director A.V. Rockwell. From the jump, she weaves a captivating urban tale eschewing the stereotypes, cliches and tropes too prevalent in the genre and presenting a compassionate mother/child relationship that endures the Giuliani years, stop and frisk, gentriﬁcation…
Watching a ferociously protective and streetwise mother try to beat the system and raise a son who will have more opportunities than she is so compelling. Taylor’s searing portrayal of that women is Oscar-worthy. The supporting cast playing her extended family shines. Rockwell pours more hard living and love into this hour and 57 minute ﬁlm than a dramatic TV series could in an entire season. Wonderful on every level. Food for the soul.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (**½). Relying on subtext and artistry to carry a ﬁlm for 92 minutes is a gamble. It’s a chance that ﬁlmmaker Raven Jackson takes as she spins a southern yarn about a girl becoming a woman in rural Mississippi. The visuals are splendid: Watching a butterfly on a car dashboard. The sounds are true: Crickets at night. The music is wonderful: Gladys Knight and Robert Flack. The emotions are there: Admiring a boy named Wood, all the way through life. But without a sound detailed rom/dra plotline that ﬁlls in the empty spaces, all viewers get is an inkling. Just enough of an essence for a short ﬁlm. Not nearly enough for a feature. It’s never enough.
Girl (**½) For 24-year-old, Grace (Déborah Lukumuena), an African immigrant living in Glasgow, Scotland, the only person that matters is her daughter Ama (Le’shantey Bonsu). Grace: “I was lonely until she came along.” But her overbearing protectiveness isolates and stresses Ama. Beautifully framed scenes look like photos in an art gallery. The sets, production design, lighting, composition and colors are mesmerizing (cinematographer Tasha Back). The costumes too. But none of it makes sense considering the two are supposed to be living in a condemned building on the poor side of town.
The overly sullen and trauma-rattled lead character is too tough to access emotionally. And what’s on view is way too sad for way too long as this small drama is overshadowed by its fancy production elements. Yet, the directing technique exhibited by ﬁlmmaker Adura Onashile, in her ﬁrst ﬁlm, is promising.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (***) “A lot of things I don’t remember, I choose not to remember. I make up the rest. That’s what story-telling is all about,” says poet/writer/activist/educator Nikki Giovanni. In this very enlightening homage, by documentarians Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson, the icon gets the respect she deserves for speaking truths, reflecting on her life and discussing racism, sexism, classism and other social issues with the intelligence of a scholar and the wit of a genius.
Clips and images of her famous conversation with James Baldwin are on view. Stories of her abusive father, estranged son and babysitting an activist’s child with a gun for protection add to her allure. The spotlight shines magniﬁcently on Giovanni as she speaks in the most poetic ways revealing precious and profound thoughts: “I believe the most beautiful poem ever heard is your heart racing.”
Little Richard: I Am Everything (***½) Shut up!!! Richard Penniman, a pioneer rock ‘n roller, was the third of 12 children in 1930s Macon, Ga. His brash personality got him the attention he desired. Banging piano keys like a percussive instrument, wearing flamboyant attire and singing provocative songs (“Tutti Frutti’) arguably made him the music industry’s ﬁrst true glam rock star. Director Lisa Cortes astutely assembles an impressive group of legends who attests to his showmanship and musical prowess: Tom Jones, Nona Hendryx, Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter…
If legends are deﬁned by how they changed the world, blending gospel, blues and boogie woogie music, getting black and white kids to dance together and letting fledgling bands (Beatles, Rolling Stones) share his tours make Penniman’s breakthrough achievements worthy of acclaim.
This perceptive doc also tackles his up and down career and ambivalent feelings regarding his sexuality – proud, ashamed, proud… If you pick the right subject, a documentary sells itself. In that way, Little Richard’s legacy is a magnet and music fans will be drawn to this revealing doc. He always knew he was worthy of the attention: “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced.” Shut up!!!