PARK CITY, UTAH — As the Academy tinkers with its membership to try to address the uproar over #OscarsSoWhite, the Sundance Film Festival offers a glimmer of hope for future awards. Festival founder Robert Redford refused to get into the Oscars controversy during the press kick-off last Thursday, but he did explain how the slate of movies in Utah has remained so diverse, even as Hollywood seems to be getting more narrow-minded.
"Diversity comes out of the word independence," Redford said. "If you are independent minded, you are going to have a more diverse product."
It sounds so simple. And, while the movies at Sundance express an array of perspectives with diverse casts, getting financing for certain movies hasn't been easy.
Just ask Don Cheadle. He's in Park City this year with his movie "Miles Ahead," a warts-and-all account of musician Miles Davis that unfolds at times like a kinetic action movie. The unorthodox biopic is Cheadle's directorial debut, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman ("Get On Up"). Cheadle, who stars as Davis, spoke to the crowd after the movie's sold out premiere about the obstacles he faced in getting the story to the screen. "Miles Ahead" was a decade in the making, and Cheadle had a budget of only $7 million to conjure up the late 1970s. Part of the cost came from crowdfunding.
A supremely talented Oscar nominee struggling to finance the story of one of the world's most prolific musicians is a sad reality. Sadder still, Cheadle told USA Today, "Until there was the white co-lead in the movie, there was nothing that was going to happen." Enter Ewan McGregor, who plays a fictional Rolling Stone reporter as a kind of foil to Davis, giving the movie an occasionally comedic odd couple feel.
Cheadle is brilliant in the role and even learned to play the trumpet for it. So already we know that the Academy shouldn't be lacking for options when it comes to finding nominees of color for next year. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the drama and plans an April premiere.
"Miles Ahead" isn't the only movie that could turn out to be an Oscar contender. One of the festival's most buzzed about films is "The Birth of a Nation," which premiered Monday to rapturous praise. The movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner was a passion project for actor Nate Parker ("Beyond the Lights," "Arbitrage"), who also directed, produced and co-scripted. The film is a powerfully moving example of filmmaking, made all the more awe-inspiring given that it's Parker's writing and directorial debut.
Parker decided to make the movie after becoming disillusioned with the roles he was offered as a black actor.
"So few of them had integrity," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do."
Sundance has a number of other movies with actors and directors of color, though few look like potential Oscar nominees. "Southside With You" tells the story of Barack Obama's first date with future wife Michelle Robinson; the comedy "Morris From America" follows a black teenager living in Germany; D.C. native Tahir Jetter unveiled his comedic feature debut, "How to Tell You're a Douchebag"; and "Mr. Pig," directed by Mexican actor-director-writer Diego Luna, stars Danny Glover as a farmer taking a road trip with a porcine companion.
Still lacking: Stories featuring female leads of color. One exception at Sundance is "The Fits," which is garnering major praise for its 10-year-old lead, Royalty Hightower. She plays a girl who trades a boxing pastime to join a dance team.
So even at Sundance, there's room for improvement. Not that Sundance is the problem. During an interview with Deadline, Cheadle praised changes in the Academy, but explained where the problem really lies.
"People really have to have access to tell the stories they want to tell," he said. "So what we really need is people in positions to greenlight those stories, not a hunk of metal."