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5 Must-Watch Sundance Films Directed by Women of Color

Mindy Kaling as a plant worker. Awkwafina grappling with loss. Alfre Woodard as tormented prison warden. These five films had everyone talking at Sundance.

by Joi Childs
Jan 31 2019, 5:41pm

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Film Festival has made a concentrated effort to give female directors a platform. This year, the Sundance Institute reported that 53 percent of entries for the U.S. Dramatic Competition are women directors and 41 percent are people of color. The result is a variety of stories, genres, and experiences told by a diverse group of people.

While the pipeline is getting stronger, there is still work to be done to have equal visibility in major films debuts as white men. While women directors are increasingly submitting and being accepted to the festival, in a study of popular films over the past decade, only three were directed by Black women, two by Asian women, and one by a Latina.

“This study shows us where the pipeline for women and people of color is robust and where more support is needed,” Professor Stacy L. Smith told Variety about the Sundance entry study. “The gains we saw for women over the past decade reveal that change is possible and where more support is needed.”

One commitment focusing on women of color was announced at Sundance’s “Making the (In)visible: Radical Transparency in the Data-Driven Age” panel. Known as the “4% Challenge,” Times Up and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have one simple call to action: Commit to working with one female director, especially a female director of color, within the next 18 months. The name of the challenge comes from USC Annenberg’s findings that between 2007-2017 only 4.3 percent of the directors of 1,100 popular films were women.

Change-makers in the industry such as Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, Paul Feig, and Jordan Peele have already committed to the challenge. Even Universal Pictures—yes, the whole studio—has accepted the 4% Challenge as well.

In the spirit of that sentiment, here are five films directed by women of color to check out coming out of Sundance.

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Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Late Night

Dir: Nisha Ganatra

This Mindy Kaling written and starred comedy takes a biting look at being the only woman of color in an all-white and male staff room. Emma Thompson plays the biting late night talk show host Katherine Newbury who's trying to keep her show, despite falling ratings. Desperate, she enlists her head writer to find a woman to hire, which ends up being Molly Patel (Kaling), a formal chemical plant worker with a lot of enthusiasm but no comedy writing experience. Hilarious and with a message, Kaling’s writing coupled with Ganatra’s sharp directing make for a great time.

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Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Selah And The Spades

Dir: Tayarisha Poe

At Haldwell Prep School, the student body is run by five factions: The Prefects, The Sea, The Skins, The Bobbies, and The Spades. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) leads The Spades, which is the most powerful faction due to their distribution of drugs and alcohol. Struggling with losing control of her reign after senior year, Selah becomes crueler to those closest to her. A film in the spirit of Heathers and Cruel Intentions, writer and director Poe immerses us into the dark underbelly of teenage politics—an ambitious feat for her feature debut.

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Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Farewell

Dir: Lulu Wang

A headstrong Chinese-American woman returns to China when her beloved grandmother is given a terminal diagnosis. Billi, played by Awkwafina, struggles with her family’s decision to keep her grandmother in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see her one last time. Awkwafina delivers a serious performance in this film—a departure from her breakout role in Ocean’s Eight. Wang, as writer and director, tells a heartbreaking story about familial relationships that can touch everyone.

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Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Clemency

Dir: Chinonye Chukwu

Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill. Woodard’s performance is both captivating and emotionally draining as you see her unravel throughout the film. Chukwu has crafted an intense but personal film that’s one of the best of the fest.

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Photo by Parrish Lewis/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Hala

Dir: Minhal Baig

Seventeen-year-old Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) navigates her senior year of high school while being at odds with her conservative Muslim upbringing. Juggling hormones, betrayal, and frustration, we see Hala trying to use her voice to express herself. Writer/director Baig expands her 2016 short film of the same name into a feature coming-of-age film starring a cultural perspective we don’t see enough of on our big screens.