How Sundance Films About Underrepresented Communities Lead to Awards Success

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While most awards season hits debut in the fall to stay fresh in voters’ minds, there’s a growing group of successful films that doesn’t rely on this strategy: Sundance premieres focusing on underrepresented communities.

After 2009’s inner-city drama “Precious” picked up best adapted screenplay and supporting actress Oscars, several other films have made the year-long journey from Park City to the Academy Awards. Among them, 2010’s lesbian mom comedy “The Kids Are All Right,” 2012’s bayou fantasia “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” 2017’s racism thriller “Get Out” and 2020’s South Korean immigrant drama “Minari.” The fest’s 2021 hearing-impaired family saga “CODA” nabbed a best picture Oscar, and while no comparable hit emerged from last year’s virtual fest, the surprise smash “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is pulling off a similar hat trick. Since its March 11 SXSW premiere, the story of a Chinese-American immigrant family told with sci-fi, action, comedy and drama won a Critics Choice award for best picture and two Golden Globes, positioning it for several Oscar nominations.

“Some of the movies about marginalized people that have done really well package them in a way where they allow the audience to feel good rooting for them. People [like to] get on the train of the little movie that could, and obviously Sundance is designed for little movies that could,” says Michael Schulman, author of the new book “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears.” “’CODA’ is a movie about underdogs, but the movie itself is an underdog.”

Which films from this year’s slate might take a similar path is hard to determine, especially since so many of Sundance’s 110 features showcase BIPOC and other underrepresented communities. One distributor, A24, is unveiling two dramas centered on BIPOC women from female first-time feature writer/directors: Raven Jackson’s U.S. Dramatic Competition contender “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (screening Jan. 22) and Savanah Leaf’s Premieres entry “Earth Mama” (screening Jan. 20). And there are two docs about transgender sex workers: D. Smith’s Next title “Kokomo City” (Jan. 21, sales repped by CAA) and Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “The Stroll” (Jan. 23, HBO Documentary Films).

“Earth Mama” by Savanah Leaf

But its large pool of quality films with underrepresented subjects makes Sundance an attractive launching pad and hunting ground for distribs, especially since April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag in 2015, igniting a movement that led talents like Spike Lee to boycott the 2016 Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its membership.

Roger Ross Williams’ journey parallels the path Sundance films have taken from marginalization to mainstream awards success. After becoming the first African American to win a directing Oscar in 2009 for his doc short “Music for Prudence,” Williams joined the Academy, became a documentary branch governor and played a pivotal role in expanding the number of voters around the world. He’s now making his feature directing debut with the biopic of a gay Latino wrestler, “Cassandro,” debuting in Premieres on Jan. 20 and starring Gael García Bernal in the title role. And if Amazon Prime gives it a qualifying theatrical run before its streaming bow this year, Williams could end up benefiting from his own AMPAS efforts.

Williams based the feature on his 2016 doc short about the wrestler. “The first time I saw Cassandro wrestle was in Juarez, [Mexico], one of the most dangerous cities in the world. He came out in full drag to his song, ‘I Will Survive,’ and the entire audience of families and macho guys were singing it. It was so emotional, I burst into tears,” he recalls. “I watched all these macho wrestlers embrace him backstage. I couldn’t believe my eyes, [or that] no one knows this guy. This is such an inspiring story — about the struggle for acceptance, how people can be brought together and being true to yourself.”

Williams says he first felt “a shift” in the industry during Lee Daniels’ speech after “Precious” won the 2009 Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, a feeling echoed when he and “Cassandro” co-writer David Teague attended the Sundance Screenwriting Intensive for underrepresented voices years later. “It was very emotional to hear all these people who didn’t think they would ever get to tell their stories.” He says the success of films like best picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” is “the result of the how diverse the Academy is becoming, from different types of members in the international community to underrepresented communities. They have a different perspective, especially within the documentary branch, which is one-third international [voters] now.”

Afro-Latina filmmaker Lisa Cortés’ story also mirrors BIPOC projects’ road to success. She was an executive producer of “Precious,” and after winning an Emmy alongside Williams for producing the 2019 doc “The Apollo,” Cortés is returning to Sundance with two films about Black pioneers. She’s making her solo feature directorial debut with CNN Films/HBO Max’s U.S. Documentary Competition entry “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (about the late queer rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, premiering Jan. 19) and producing a biopic of fashion industry pioneer Bethann Hardison, “Invisible Beauty” (debuting Jan. 21 in Premieres, repped by Cinetic/Submarine).

“Invisible Beauty,” from helmers Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng Submarine Entertainment

“I really dug deep into how Little Richard is this transgressive figure who was changing our culture. The irony is that he felt nobody really recognized his voice and what he represented,” she says. “Most importantly, [I had] this discovery about the role Black queer people played in the creation of rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s Richard, Big Mama Thornton or Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” 

On “Invisible Beauty,” Cortés empowered the Black model and modeling agency owner Hardison to co-direct a doc (with Frédéric Tcheng) about her own life. “There are things we take for granted when we see a broad base of representation. Bethann played such an important role in expanding that conversation and advocating for great change.”

Cortés also sees her film “Precious” as a turning point for the film industry. “It took a long time to convince [Sapphire], the author of the book [”Push”], to let us option and develop it into a script,” she recalls. “By the time we got to Sundance, we had no idea if we were gonna fall on our face. But there were testimonials from people, older white women in Salt Lake City, who [said] ‘Guess what? This is my story, too.’ Everyone started seeing the potential that this could connect with many communities internationally. Lionsgate [acquired it and] were fantastic collaborators. There were outreach screenings through organizations, with talk-backs and engagement with a broad range of communities. And of course, having Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry joining the team, not just in name but in spirit, was so important. So many people saw it and said to me, ‘I’m not gonna make the same assumptions that I used to about people.’”

Former film exec and photographer Andrew Durham makes his feature writing and directing debut with an adaptation of Alysia Abbott’s memoir “Fairyland,” about growing up with a gay father in 1970s and 1980s San Francisco. “Sofia Coppola has been a dear friend of mine since the early ‘90s, and we’d been looking for something to collaborate on for many years,” Durham says. “The book was originally sent to her. She knew that I also grew up with a gay father in the Bay Area around the same time that Alysia did. Back then, when you had a gay parent, you believe you’re the only person in the world in that situation. And when the AIDS epidemic hit, it was sort of a stigma on top of a stigma. Her father died the same year my father died, both in San Francisco — the parallels were just incredible. I think [Coppola] felt that that I would probably have a bit more of an honest take on the situation, and bring a human side to it.” His Premieres entry debuts Jan. 20, repped by UTA and Gersh.

And Korean-American actor Randall Park makes his feature directorial debut with the smart Asian-American romcom “Shortcomings,” a U.S. Dramatic Competition entry debuting Jan. 22 (repped by WME/UTA). Park opens his adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel with a parody of “Crazy Rich Asians” (which, in another meta twist, starred his “Fresh Off the Boat” co-star Constance Wu). This leads his characters to argue whether such fluffy commercial fare will allow more nuanced, personal Asian-American films to get made. “I think it was a commentary on the evolution of representation, and how everything is connected to what came before it. And also, in a lot of ways, what a movie like ‘Shortcomings’ was to bigger films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and, going even further back, to ‘Joy Luck Club,’” Park says.

Given this year’s lineup, similar debates may also be heard in Park City. Among the many other narrative features covering underrepresented communities, there’s the Black bodybuilder profile “Magazine Dreams” with Jonathan Majors (Jan. 20; CAA); the LGBT-themed Native American family drama “Fancy Dance” (Jan. 20, WME); the story of an Iranian-American woman in New York City, “The Persian Version” (Jan. 21, UTA); the South Korean romance “Past Lives” (Jan. 21, A24); the genre-blending tale of an aspiring U.K. stunt woman of Pakistani descent, “Polite Society” (Jan. 21, Focus); the Liberian refugee drama “Drift,” with Cynthia Erivo (Jan. 22; UTA/Memento); the Black teen romantic crime drama “Young.Wild.Free” (Jan. 22, UTA); the gay Latinx dark comedy “Rotting in the Sun” (Jan. 22, Range Media Partners); the story of a young trans man in New York, “Mutt” (Jan. 23, CAA); and the London-set Black teen romcom “Rye Lane” (Jan. 23, Searchlight).

Whether their motivation is showing how much they support diversity or just preempting any further #OscarsSoWhite-style campaigns, many Sundance films offer studios and streamers relatively inexpensive ways to provide better representation onscreen, and often reward them for their efforts at year’s end. “It’s one thing for a movie to exist. It’s another for it to do well in award season, which is the industry’s way of sending a message. And the message is, essentially, ‘We care,’” says “Oscar Wars” author Schulman. “Whether you take that message as totally sincere or not depends on how cynical you are about awards season. Often Hollywood rewards things as a way of patting itself on the back for embracing them, and showing their own values. Awards are a way for Hollywood to tell its own story.”

Academy doc branch governor and first-time Sundance feature director Williams is taking a more pragmatic view. He’s encouraged by Oscar best picture winners like 2016’s “Moonlight,” which earned $65.3 million on a reported $1.5 million budget, and 2019’s South Korean smash “Parasite” and its $262.6 million global take as well as likely Oscar nominee “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which has earned $837.4 million around the world since November with a nearly all-Black cast. “There’s a big uphill battle we’re still dealing with: Hollywood and the people still in power are people that don’t look like me,” he says. “But it’s changing, because Hollywood is realizing that there is an audience [for these films]. It’s not such a narrow perspective anymore.”

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