Sundance 2020 Will Host One of the Film Festival’s Most Diverse Lineups Yet

December 5, 2019, 7:50 PM UTC
Sundance The Glorias
Julianne Moore appears in "The Glorias" by Julie Taymor, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel McFadden.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel McFadden

On Wednesday, when Sundance unveiled the ambitious slate for next year’s staging of its annual indie film festival, one name naturally stood out and dominated early headlines: Taylor Swift.

The world premiere of Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, a buzzy Netflix documentary about the pop star, is set to open the 2020 festival, which is again turning Park City into a film-industry hotspot from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2.

Directed by Lana Wilson (After Tiller, The Departure), the film—as per a Netflix synopsis – will offer a “raw and revealing look at one of the most iconic artists of our time during a transformational period in her life as she learns to embrace her role not only as a songwriter and performer, but as a woman harnessing the full power of her voice.”

An instantaneously buzzy booking on the level of Beyoncé: Homecoming (another Netflix music doc that emerged as one of this year’s very best films), the Swift documentary is also a fitting figurehead for this specific Sundance. Wilson’s film—which explores not only the ceiling-shattering success of Swift’s music but her pop-feminist heroics in the public arena— arrives at the head of an especially diverse year for the festival, which has come impressively close to achieving gender parity in the wake of the intersectional “50/50 by 2020” pledge circulated widely last year (it’s done so before, back in 2013, when half the filmmakers competing for a top jury prize were female).

The 2020 festival—the last for fest director John Cooper, who’s to step down after 11 years—will include 118 feature films from 27 countries. Out of those narrative and documentary film selections, 44 are from first-time directors. Fifty-two of the films announced Wednesday were directed by one or more women, while 40 were helmed by people of color. Looking at all four competition categories, 46% of those filmmakers (65 across 56 films) are women, while 38% are people of color.

“This year’s festival is full of films that showcase myriad ways for stories to drive change, across hearts, minds, and societies,” actor Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, said in a release announcing the lineup.

The biggest premieres in Park City next year include a host of award-tipped projects from formidable female filmmakers. Madeline’s Madeline filmmaker Josephine Decker will reveal Shirley, a psychodrama starring Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg as The Lottery author Shirley Jackson and her husband. Dee Rees (Mudbound) is directing Anne Hathaway in Joan Didion adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted, about a D.C. journalist ensnared by her terminally ill father’s gravest mistakes.

Miranda July’s bringing Kajillionaire​, which stars Evan Rachel Wood, while Margot Robbie produced the Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman. Perhaps buzziest of all is Julie Taymor (The Tempest), who’s unveiling The Glorias, an experimental Gloria Steinem biopic in which Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, and Lulu Wilson play the feminist trailblazer at different ages. (The Hollywood Reporter notes that Steinem, who’s expected to attend the Sundance premiere, also has a role in the film.) ‘

Sundance has worked in recent years to undo its reputation as a snobbish enclave for Hollywood’s most privileged. “It can get pretty white up here,” WBUR critic Sean Burns memorably wrote in a dispatch from this past February’s fest, discussing its attempts at representational progress. “The first year I came to Sundance, I joked that the only black people I saw for two weeks were Wesley Morris and Spike Lee,” added Burns. “While introducing the cast and crew at the premiere of of his Red Hook Summer, Spike announced, ‘We have just doubled the black population of Utah.'”

Sundance, now 35 years old, has long reflected and, in doing so, helped to perpetuate Hollywood’s racial and gender inequity. Though it launched Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (one of the year’s zeitgeist-harnessing hits, and a milestone for Chinese-American representation on the indie circuit) and the Mindy Kaling vehicle Late Night (bought by Amazon for a massive sum) this past year, Sundance has long signified a kind of lily-white, socially blinkered dramedy, starring and usually made by quirky white guys in suspenders (Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl… the list continues). While typically inoffensive when taken on their own terms, such movies premiering en masse speak to the exclusion of diverse voices from the independent film circuit. Though Sundance has perhaps always been about discoveries from outside the mainstream, even the fringier films being premiered there throughout the past couple decades have been overwhelming made by white men.

It’s worth noting that Harvey Weinstein, whose toppling came at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, was a lion of Park City for years; it’s where he spotted Sex, Lies and Videotape, from a then-26-year-old Steven Soderbergh, and jump-started both of their careers. It’s also where, it’s alleged, he assaulted at least two of his several dozen victims: actress and activist Rose McGowan, and actress Louisette Geiss .

But it’s clear Sundance wants to shed this reputation, and this previous year’s slate, which included the Weinstein-exposé documentary Untouchable, spoke to a festival eager to shake off its entrenched biases. This coming year, too, will feature Kitty Green’s #MeToo-era drama The Assistant, starring Julia Garner as an aide to a Weinstein type, playing in the Spotlight section; Bleecker Street is distributing it in late January, before things get going in Park City.

The festival has been active, more than others of its size, in improving racial and gender diversity across the board, taking to heart the gender parity pledge of “50/50 by 2020” and working to populate its slate with stories that focus on telling socially conscious stories from a new, progressive perspective. Among those dramatic features playing in competition are The Evening Hour, Braden King’s drama about painkiller addicts in rural Appalachia; Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, about two teenage girls, one pregnant, who hop their rural Pennsylvania town for New York City; and Zola, an edgy and modern look at female friendship gone wrong from director Janicza Bravo.

The documentaries seem especially fiery this year, from a look at the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi (The Dissident, by Icarus Oscar winner Bryan Fogel) to an untitled doc from The Hunting Ground co-directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering that centers on a hip-hop executive struggling to maintain his livelihood after accusing a music mogul (said to be Russell Simons) of rape. Natalie Wood, Ren & Stimpy, and the 2018 Sierra Nevada wildfires all anchor other docs. The Fight, about the ACLU’s efforts to combat the Trump administration’s dismantling of human rights protections for undocumented immigrants, seems particularly poised to break out in Park City as a politically charged crowdpleaser.

Latinx representation was a particular focus at this coming Sundance, following an eye-opening USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report that outlined just how dismally filmmakers from that underserved demographic are represented in Hollywood and along the festival circuit. Angel Manuel Soto’s Charm City Kings focuses on a boy joining a gang of Baltimore dirt bike riders. Blindspotting director Carlos Lopez Estrada is back with Summertime, an ode to Los Angeles artists that continues his thrilling use of spoken-word to heighten the reality of hot-button social issues. Esteban Arango’s Blast Beat, a feature expansion of his short about two teen brothers protecting their father from possible deportation back to Colombia, features an all-star cast, including Disney Channel veteran Moises Arias and his real-life brother Mateo, model/actor Wilmer Valderrama, and singer Kali Uchis. And Rodrigo Garcia’s Four Good Days stars Glenn Close as a mother whose daughter descends into opioid addiction.

The full Sundance slate can be viewed here.

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