Betye Saar in the short documentary “Taking Care of Business,” directed by Christine Turner


BLACK FILMMAKERS and black stories are an increasing presence at the Sundance Film Festival. This year a number of projects garnered attention, including documentaries about artist Betye Saar and philanthropist and art collector Agnes Gund, and three films by black women that won top directing awards. The awards ceremony also included the announcement that Tabitha Jackson is the festival’s incoming director. The appointment is historic. Jackson is the first woman and first person of color to hold the position.

A broad selection of films premiered at Sundance 2020 (Jan. 23-Feb. 3). Significant buzz surrounded Angel Manuel Soto‘s “Charm City Kings,” a feature film about Baltimore dirt bike riders co-written by Barry Jenkins. In “Miss Juneteenth,” written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, a former beauty queen tries to help her rebellious daughter avoid the pitfalls of the pageant world. From director Remi Weekes “His House” follows a married Sudanese couple seeking asylum in the UK. The project blends the tropes of the horror genre with a storyline that reflects the reality of the global refugee crisis.

Janicza Bravo is director and co-writer with Jeremy O. Harris of “Zola,” a film about a pole dancer on a road trip from Detroit to Tampa, Fla. “Bad Hair” was written and directed by Justin Simien and premiered on Day One of the festival, with a cast including Lena Waithe. Dee Rees directed, co-wrote, and co-produced “The Last Thing He Wanted” starring Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Rose Perez. The film was adapted from a novel by Joan Didion. Previous films by Rees include “Mudbound” and “Pariah.”

Over the course of the festival, 128 feature-length and 74 short films were screened in Park City, Salt Lake City and Sundance, Utah. Awards were announced Feb. 1, with 28 prizes recognizing 25 films. The awarded films represented the work of 29 filmmakers, a diverse group broken down by Sundance as follows: 12 films (48 percent) were directed by one or more women; 10 films (40 percent) were directed by one or more people of color; and two films (8 percent) were directed by a person who identifies as LGBTQ+.


Tabitha Jackson is the incoming director of the Sundance Film Festival. The first woman and first person of color to head the festival, she previously served as director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program. | Courtesy Sundance


Radha Blank accepts directing award in the U.S. Dramatic category for her film “The 40-Year-Old Version.” | Courtesy Sundance


BLACK FEMALE DIRECTORS nearly swept the directing categories. Three of the four awards went to Radha Blank, Garrett Bradley, and Maïmouna Doucouré.

Blank wrote, directed, and starred in “The 40-Year-Old Version,” for which she received the directing award in the U.S. Dramatic category. The black-and-white feature explores the life of a struggling playwright nearing 40. Rediscovering her love of rap sparks her creativity and a reinvention, forcing her to make hard choices about her theater career. Waithe is a producer on the film.

Bradley was recognized with the directing award in the U.S. Documentary category for “Time,” her feature about a mother of six whose endured 21 years with her husband in prison. (The film is shot over this two-decade period.) He’s sentenced to 60 years for an offense in which they were both involved. An author and entrepreneur, she is fighting for his release.

In previous years, Bradley screened “America” (2019) and “Alone” (2017) at Sundance. “Alone” won the 2017 Short Film Jury Award: Nonfiction. “America” was borne out of a years-long project researching gaps in the early history of black cinema. She embarked on the effort after footage for “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” (1913), an black cast film made by white producers, was discovered in 2014, unlabeled, in the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Cuties” was directed and written by Doucouré. She won the director award in the World Cinema Dramatic category. The film explores the hyper-sexualization of preteens. The main protagonist is an 11-year old Senegalese girl whose family is living in a poor neighborhood in Paris.

Black female directors nearly swept the directing categories. Three of the four awards went to Radha Blank, Garrett Bradley, and Maïmouna Doucouré.

Also among the award winners, “Charm City Kings” won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. The film’s talented cast includes Will Catlett, Meek Mill, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Teyonah Parris, Donielle Tremaine Hansley, and Kezii Curtis. In the international categories, “This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection” from Lesotho-born, Berlin-based director and screenwriter Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking. Kenyan director and screenwriter Sam Soko nabbed the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing for his film “Softie.”

Some filmmakers struck deals at Sundance. Netflix bought “Cuties,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and “His House.” “Bad Hair” was acquired by Hulu.


From left, Rio Hope Gund, Agnes Gund and Catherine Gund, with a Stanley Whitney painting above the fireplace, as seen in the film “Aggie,” directed by Catherine Gund. | Courtesy of Aubin Pictures


A feature length documentary film, “Aggie” profiles Gund, the art collector, philanthropist and former chair of the Museum of Modern Art. The film by Catherine Gund, her daughter, exlores the “nexus of art, race, and justice” and highlights her mother’s longstanding commitment to the visual arts and what has become her life’s work—harnessing the arts to address mass incarceration.

Gund sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting and used part of the proceeds—$100 million—to establish the Art for Justice Fund in partnership with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Ford Foundation. Established in 2017, the fund provides grants to artists and advocates whose work is focused on safely reducing prison populations and justice reinvestment.

“Aggie” features many artworks and conversations with Gund’s grandchildren, who are African American; artists Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, and Xaviera Simmons; and arts leaders Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem and Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation, among others. (“Aggie” is screening at MoMA on Feb. 18, part of the museum’s DocFortnight 2020 program.)

“I am basically a recycler. I find other people’s stuff and junk and recycle it into my stuff and junk. I can’t pass a yard sale.” — Betye Saar

A documentary short, “Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business” captures 93-year-old Saar in her studio, where she’s collected all manner of objects and finds that serve as material and inspiration for her collage and assemblage works.

“I am basically a recycler,” she says in the documentary. “I find other people’s stuff and junk and recycle it into my stuff and junk. I can’t pass a yard sale.”

Directed by Christine Turner, the eight-minute film was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its 2019 Art + Film Gala (Nov. 2) honoring Saar. (Her exhibition “Betye Saar: Call and Response,” is currently on view at LACMA through April 5.) In addition to getting into Sundance, the documentary was selected as a New York Times Op-Doc (watch the film below).

In the documentary, Saar recounts turning her attention to civil rights and women’s rights issues. “In the 60s I became more interested in what was happening about feminism and racism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his murder was something that was really horrific for me and shocking,” Saar says.

“I remember how I felt physically just really angry and upset. But I was a mother with children. I couldn’t walk in protest. But I did have a weapon, and that was art.” CT


TOP IMAGE: Betye Saar, Still from Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business. | Courtesy Sundance


(There is a 15 second ad before the documentary begins.)


FIND MORE about “Aggie” on the film’s website

READ MORE A conversation between Agnes Gund and Mark Bradford was published recently in Ursula magazine


FIND MORE about black female directors supported by Sundance Institute

FIND MORE about black talent featured at 2020 Sundance Film Festival


“Betye Saar: Call and Response” accompanies her current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Betye Saar: Black Girl’s Window” provides a focused look at one work which was the centerpiece of her recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Uneasy Dancer” complements her first exhibition in Italy, at the Prada Foundation in Milan. The volume features a comprehensive timeline of Saar’s life and practice with essays from the curators and contributors Richard Powell, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. “Still Tickin’” accompanies a major retrospective presented in the Netherlands and Scottsdale, Ariz. Also consider “Drawing Modern: Works from the Agnes Gund Collection.”


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.