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18 Black Films Premiering At Sundance 2021 Everyone Needs To See

sundance 2021 black films to watch
Films Featured: (L-R) Judas and the Black Messiah, First Date and Night of the Kings

I don’t know about you, but January has come and gone in a flash! One minute we were staring at the capital dumbfounded at how easy it is to break in when you’re white, next thing you know we’re saying hello to our new President (and laughing at Bernie Sanders’ memes) and boom it’s the end of the month!

And with the end of the month comes one of the most loved film festivals in the world, Sundance, which I am blessed (and grateful) to be covering this year!

Sundance 2021 has a TON of films to watch, but these 18 Black films are the ones you can’t miss! So if you’ll be attending the Sundance 2021 Film Festival this year, here are …

18 Black Films You Need to Watch

FYI … if you don’t already have tickets for Sundance, you’ll definitely want to hurry before these films are sold out! Sundance starts this Thurs., Jan 28th.

Black Feature Films to Watch At Sundance 2021

AILEY

Ailey
A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jack Mitchell.

Many know the name Alvin Ailey, but how many know the man? Ailey’s commitment to searching for truth in movement resulted in pioneering and enduring choreography that centers on African American experiences.

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Director Jamila Wignot’s resonant biography grants artful access to the elusive visionary who founded one of the world’s most renowned dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Wignot’s approach shares Ailey’s love of poetry. Where Ailey conveyed poetry through movement, Wignot crafts a visual poetry to evoke Ailey’s memories. Archival footage, layered with audio recordings, expounds on Ailey’s upbringing and establishes the language of his inspiration.

Interviews with celebrated company dancers and distinguished choreographers give insight into Ailey’s process and legacy, while the current company of dancers work to bring a tribute to life. Wignot’s portrait is complex, capturing the talent and confidence of a man in the spotlight while also carving out space for Ailey’s vulnerability. Wignot moves between the interior and exterior, the inhale and exhale, to capture Ailey’s reverberating impact.

FIRST DATE

First Date
Tyson Brown and Shelby Duclos appear in First Date by Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Mike, a high school kid with a crush, finally summons the courage to ask Kelsey out on a date. With a date but no wheels, Mike borrows money and gets duped into buying a clunker ’65 Chrysler. Although many a first date goes awry, Mike’s swiftly descends into a surreal misadventure that finds him inexplicably targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady—with all roads leading to a showdown.

First Date is a purely entertaining throwback, billed by newcomer directing duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp as a dark comedy and coming-of-age thriller (Superbad meets True Romance).

As an ode to the bygone movies of the directors’ youth, the film takes unexpected turns through a mishmash of genres without losing its way, deftly balancing tone and playfully reimagining the collision of teenage incorruptibility and real-world cynicism. Propelled by its fantastic lead, Tyson Brown, and the impressive cinematic instincts of Crosby and Knapp, First Date is an outstanding first feature.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Judas and the Black Messiah
Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party.

Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances.

Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.

MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY

MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY sundance films to watch 2021
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival 2021

It’s not often we’re introduced to a true luminary, and Pauli Murray was just that—as well as a lawyer, Black activist, feminist, poet, and priest. Murray questioned systems of oppression and conformity throughout the mid-twentieth century, with a radical vision consistently ahead of the times. Murray’s trailblazing legal foresight influenced landmark civil rights decisions and gender equality legislation that transformed our world.

Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen (RBG, 2018 Sundance Film Festival) return to Sundance with an illuminating portrait of an inspiring leader. Murray’s writings, photographs, and audio recordings, along with newly discovered footage and interviews, interlace to tell the story of a pioneer with a tenacious spirit.

West and Cohen balance numerous professional accomplishments with a window into Murray’s full and complex private life. Murray’s personal letters reveal years of grappling with and resisting gender categories, affectionate exchanges with loved ones, and confident and resolute demands for justice. Pauli Murray has a legacy far-reaching and deep. This is a name you won’t soon forget.

NIGHT OF THE KINGS

Night of the Kings
Koné Bakary and Anzian Marcel appear in Night of the Kings by Philippe Lacôte, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Philippe Lacôte’s gripping second feature, Night of the Kings, has won acclaim at major festivals since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival.

A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s “Roman”—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard.

Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos.

Night of the Kings is a bold, imaginative ode to the power of storytelling and a layered, compelling portrait of the complexities of life within the prison walls.

Roman’s desperately woven tales cleverly embody the turmoil surrounding him, and Lacôte enhances their fantastical and dramatic effect by interjecting glorious cinematic depictions of the boy’s imaginings. The horde of listening prisoners transforms into a makeshift chorus, translating the tales into song and dance, intensifying the film’s enthralling effect.

PASSING

Passing
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.

Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel.

Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.

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Passing is an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.

In her debut feature, Rebecca Hall uses creamy, mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography and a deft directorial restraint to adapt Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel into an affecting experiential insight into the pursuit of happiness and authenticity by those navigating the grinding tensions of American racism.

R#J

R#J
Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel appear in R#J by Carey Williams, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Charles Murphy.

In fair Verona, a war as old as time is brewing between rival houses—but it’s being captured in a new way. Montague and Capulet Gen Zers are using their cell phones to document the eruptions of violence plaguing their communities. In the middle of it all, Romeo discovers Juliet’s artwork at a party, and the two inevitably fall in love. As tensions between their families escalate, the two plead for peace and desperately search for a way to escape their star-crossed destiny.

Told entirely through social media and smartphone screens, this bold adaptation of Romeo and Juliet reinvents the world’s most enduring love story with style and lyricism, with black and brown youth at the heart of it all.

Blending text messages and Shakespearean dialogue, R#J takes us into the subversive love language of the moment, where GIFs, Spotify playlist exchanges, and Instagram profiles kindle romance and unexpected windows of vulnerability. Sundance shorts alum Carey Williams (Emergency) launches us into the impressive vision of his debut feature, where technology powerfully unveils timelessness.

SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
A still from Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mass Distraction Media.

In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival.

It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.

Summer Of Soul is a stunning unearthed treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history. In his striking debut as a filmmaker, the legendary musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents this transporting documentary—part concert film, part historical record—about an epic event that radiated the wholesale reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion, and music.

This rich tapestry deftly incorporates an unforgettable musical revue that includes many rare gems, such as a Stevie Wonder drum solo and a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Summer Of Soul shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music.

Black Short Films to Watch At Sundance 2021

BLACK BODIES

Black Bodies
Komi Olaf appears in Black Bodies by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Yvonne Stanley.

A Black man comes face-to-face with the realities of being Black in the twenty-first century.

BRUISER

Bruiser
Noble B. Whitted appears in Bruiser by Miles Warren, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.

A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION

A Concerto is a Conversation
A still from A Concerto is a Conversation by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

DEAR PHILADELPHIA

Dear Philadelphia
A still from Dear Philadelphia by Renee Osubu, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Luis Lopez.

With the help of their family, friends, and faith, three fathers unravel the incomparable partnership of forgiveness and community in North Philadelphia.

DON’T GO TELLIN’ YOUR MOMMA

sundance 2021 films to watch Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma
A still from Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma by Topaz Jones and rubberband., an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In 1970, Black educators in Chicago developed alphabet flash cards to provide Black-centered teaching materials to the vastly white educational landscape, and the Black ABCs were born. Fifty years later, 26 scenes provide an update to their meanings.

FIVE TIGER

sundance 2021 films to watch Five Tiger
Ayanda Seoka appears in Five Tiger by Nomawonga Khumalo, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Rick Joaquim.

A God-fearing woman in present-day South Africa finds herself in a transactional relationship as she tries to support her sick husband and daughter.

I RAN FROM IT AND WAS STILL IN IT

sundance 2021 films to watch I Ran From It and Was Still In It
Miale Assata Kay, Malakhi Justice Kay and Darol Olu Kae appear in I Ran From It and Was Still In It by Darol Olu Kae, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

A poetic meditation on familial loss and separation, as well as the love that endures against dispersion.

LIZARD

sundance 2021 films to watch Lizard
Hamilat Olanrewaju and Pamilerin Ayodeji appear Lizard by Akinola Davies Jr., an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by British Broadcasting Corporation and Potboiler Productions Ltd.

Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.

UP AT NIGHT

sundance 2021 films to watch Up at Night
A still from Up at Night by Nelson Makengo, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by twentyninestudioproduction.

As dusk fades and another night without electricity falls, Kinshasa’s neighborhoods reveal an environment of violence, political conflict, and uncertainty over the building of the Grand Inga 3 hydroelectric dam, which promises a permanent source of energy to the Congo.

WHITE WEDDING

WHITE WEDDING sundance films to watch 2021
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival 2021

Amidst a racially tense Southern wedding, a biracial bride has the chance to confront her estranged Black father after accidentally hiring his wedding band to perform.

What films are you excited to watch at the Sundance 2021 Film Festival?

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Written by Shaye Wyllie

Shaye is an Entertainment Writer from Brooklyn, NY and a big fan of anything and everything superpowers related (especially if kids/teens are involved), cooking + baking shows (like MasterChef Junior and Cupcake Wars), teen dramas, sitcoms, comedies, and legal dramas. When she's not binging the latest series on Netflix or writing, you can find her spilling her thoughts on the Brown Side of Disney Chat or creating YouTube videos with her daughter for their new family site, Popcorn and Tater Tots.

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