Reviewing while Black at Sundance | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

Reviewing while Black at Sundance 

On criticism, inclusion—and exclusion—at one of the most diverse Sundance festivals in history.

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click to enlarge Sheri (center) walks the red carpet at the Black Entertainment Critics Luncheon. - COURTESY SHERI FLANDERS
  • Sheri (center) walks the red carpet at the Black Entertainment Critics Luncheon.
  • courtesy sheri flanders

I was fortunate enough to be one of the 51 critics selected for the Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative, a program that provided free tickets to the ten-day Sundance Film Festival and cash for lodging and airfare to, as the festival notes, "critics, freelancers, and journalists from backgrounds underrepresented in the critical mainstream, with an emphasis on people of color, women, and people with disabilities."

When a friend wondered how the program had come about, the comedian in me cynically responded: "I guess like most businesses they are moving towards increased diversity—or they got in trouble for something." Jokes aside, no win in the diversity space is ever "clean." It's not a value judgment, it's a fact. And I was completely jazzed that somehow this fact included me.

Sundance says it created the Press Inclusion Initiative in 2018 "to address an imbalance in the critical landscape." According to Critic's Choice 2, a study by USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative, of the critics reviewing the top 300 films from 2015 to 2017, 65.6 percent were white males.

I have always loved film—as a teen in the heart of Indiana, I grew up reading Roger Ebert's reviews, falling in love with films that would never bother to screen in the heartland. Ebert's descriptive powers took me a world away from the decidedly unexciting cornfields surrounding Indianapolis. Sure, the idea of going to Sundance was on my bucket list, in the same way that traveling to space or visiting the Obama White House were; it was a beautiful and unlikely dream for a middle-aged Black woman from humble beginnings and modest present. As a recovering fashion designer, I knew how expensive and elite Park City, Utah, was and immediately bought an impractical all-white coat in a fit of insecurity.

Fifty-one participants in an inclusion program is extraordinary. Usually there can be only one person from a marginalized background in any program, creating an intense fight to the death to be considered the "best" among a roster of excellent choices. This time it seemed that at least some of us were chosen to give experience specifically to newer artists, which helped relieve scrutiny and create a relaxed atmosphere. Sitting in a room watching Janicza Bravo, the Black director of Zola, be interviewed by Jacqueline Coley, a Black journalist from Rotten Tomatoes, felt revolutionary. A recent New York Times article noted that this Sundance was one of the most diverse ever, with women directing 44 percent of the 118 films, minorities directing 34 percent, and those identifying as LGBTQ directing 15 percent. There was an overwhelming feeling in the air that perhaps finally, after years of pushing that boulder of diversity up the hill, changes were beginning to stick.

I was grateful that the application for the Sundance program was short. Usually for diversity programs, I spin my experience depending on what I think the auditors want to hear: a narrative of pain and poverty porn, or an inspirational triumph story against all odds. Both stories are true. I am a multihyphenate artist because I am a Renaissance woman who has done it all and can do it all out of sheer necessity. I try not to think about how much further along in my career I would be if I had never faced any barriers. I try not to think of the salary I might have now. I try not to think of the salary of the person 20 years younger than me with half of the experience. I try not to think of how I am being touted as an expert with two years of experience to show that our community has "progressed." But marginalized years are like dog years in that the lessons are uncompromisingly brutal, forcing growth and adaptation at a staggering pace, so perhaps it is true that I am already an "expert" in some ways.

I came to the world of criticism on a whim. Two years ago, the Chicago theater community came to a rolling boil, fueled by a seemingly endless parade of tone-deaf reviews written by predominantly white and male critics. In response to a particularly egregious review, a group of artists came together to form the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition and put out a call for diverse voices willing to give criticism a try. After answering that call and writing my first review, for Little Fish, I quickly began writing for several local publications, and eventually started being paid for it.

Jacqueline Coley from Rotten Tomatoes interviewing Zola director Janicza Bravo - SHERI FLANDERS
  • Jacqueline Coley from Rotten Tomatoes interviewing Zola director Janicza Bravo
  • sheri flanders

Like most competitive arts programs, Sundance Press Inclusion participants were instructed to not share the good news until it had been publicly announced. A few days before Sundance I went online and came across a few tweets from recipients of the initiative from the year before who were disappointed that they hadn't been chosen again this year. As I hurriedly prepared for the trip, I didn't have time to give it further thought, and I turned my focus to the Sundance Press Inclusion video chat and connected just in time to hear the indomitable Chaz Ebert remind us to bring extra socks. Park City is in the middle of Utah's gorgeous white-capped mountains, an elite ski destination and frankly a snowy heaven on earth. Within hours of landing, this midwesterner was struck by a mild queasiness from altitude sickness that could only be quelled by a constant diet of Gatorade.

The Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative was created out of the knowledge that one of the biggest barriers to attending Sundance is the price. All-access for the entire festival can cost up to $4,000. Mainstream journalists on assignment from major news outlets have their tickets, lodging, airfare, and daily per-diem covered. Freelancers for smaller outlets go on our own dime or don't go at all. The Initiative provided a very generous and rare unrestricted cash grant to go towards food and lodging, in addition to access to films. But by the time the Inclusion Initiative grants were awarded a month out, the only lodging left in the area were ritzy lodges with hot tubs and fireplaces for $3,000 or more a night or hostels for $100 a night or less in nearby Salt Lake City. On the surface, this seems like a great deal. But the key to doing Sundance successfully is staying in Park City proper, as everything is within walking distance or just a short shuttle ride away. The drive from Salt Lake City is mountainous terrain, and snowfall can turn the 30-minute ride into hours of traffic. One last search found a modest Airbnb in Park City for $300 a night; a mother-in-law suite attached to a ranch house, with reviews that warned that the walls were so thin that you could hear any conversation on the other side. I conferred with my husband (a fellow journalist who would be damned if he stayed home while I went on such a cool adventure), and after adding our own cash to the grant money, booked it immediately. The festival has announced plans to avoid this lodging situation for grantees in the future after some applicants committed to cover Sundance, only to learn too late that they didn't get the grant. Many resorted to crowdfunding and less-than-ideal living arrangements.

I got to the press lodge, checked in, and immediately struck up a conversation with another journalist. When I mentioned that I was part of the Press Inclusion Initiative, he said that "some of the people who received it last year felt entitled to it this year." It was clear that there was more to be said, but that I wasn't going to hear it from him. Even without knowing any of the backstory, one thing I know for sure is that writing off marginalized folks as bitter or angry is often a way to shut down tough conversations in the arts and beyond. "You should be grateful just to be here," he told me. "Do you know how many people would kill for this opportunity?"

I wasn't able to fully articulate my thoughts on this matter until the end of my first screening at Sundance for Crip Camp, a documentary that tells the story of a summer camp for disabled kids in the 60s. Out of this bunch of hippies and kids with disabilities who didn't fit in anywhere else rose a group of activists that changed America and put their lives on the line to fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the center of these hard-won battles was the eternally optimistic activist Judy Heumann, who in a sober moment reflected on the aftermath of the ADA's passage and the expectation that people with disabilities would have some kind of neverending gratitude. She said something to the effect of (I'm paraphrasing), "I'm not going to spend the rest of my life grateful for accessible bathrooms."

That comment hit my soul the same way crabs hit that summer camp of horny kids. (Seriously, you need to see this movie.) I would never in a million years compare attending a film festival to achieving one's bare-minimum civil rights. However, I think her words crystallize the misunderstanding in our culture in hearing people who express frustration at the slow pace of equality. Diversity initiatives unwittingly create a hierarchy where there can be only one—or 51, or 1,000. The number of folks included isn't the point. The point is that there will always be those shut out of Eden.

No, we shouldn't need outside validation. But it is a lie to pretend that outside validation on a resume doesn't secure better jobs to pay the rent.

Sundance is informally divided into two parts—the first half when most of the hot premieres happen, the stars visit, and the press descends, and the relaxed second half, which tends to draw more Park City locals and film buffs who want to skip the hustle and bustle. There is no seat saving for your friends. Get there on time or not at all. In Park City, every business plays the greatest easy-listening hits of the 80s and 90s. Trigger warning: if you're a huge animal rights activist, there is SO. MUCH. FUR. A walk on a two-block stretch of the central shopping district of Main Street took me past four fur shops alone. If you ever wanted one of those Russian fur hats, this is your chance. Everyone is really nice. When you get on a festival shuttle, you have the best conversations with townspeople and fellow Sundance attendees. When you get off the shuttle the drivers ominously say, "Be safe." From what? After coming from Chicago, other than an avalanche or a ski accident, there do not seem to be any actual threats in this picturesque ski town dappled in fluffy snowflakes, which makes me wonder if it has some sort of Stephen King-like curse haunting it. Sleep with one eye open, my friends.

The whole experience is an exercise in FOMO. The schedule stacks dozens of must-attend events one on top of each other, making it impossible to attend everything you want to. Yet even the programs you miss at Sundance pique your imagination to new modes of thinking. And one event I missed made me think about what diversity initiatives are and are not.

Diversity initiatives are: an acknowledgment that there aren't pathways into an industry; an opportunity to gain a view into an otherwise inaccessible sphere; a networking opportunity that might lead to something wonderful.

Diversity initiatives are not: a mechanism for changing the institutional forces that make an industry inaccessible.

For example, even the Sundance Diversity Initiative could not force the PR agents to grant a lowly newbie critic press access.

In short: diversity initiatives can lead a horse to water, but it can't make it drink.

I flew back to Chicago and was greeted with an excellent op-ed in the Reader written by Chicago theater artist and activist Coya Paz lamenting the lack of diversity in awards shows and theater criticism in Chicago. The next day, one of the most prominent theater critics in Chicago—who happens to be a white male—posted a screed on Facebook attacking Paz for expressing a rather basic sentiment backed up by data, attacked her for asking for more from our community, and the implication of his feelings was clear: she had been ungrateful.

And just like that, the movie magic of Sundance faded away, and it was back to stark reality. Back to the intractable, disgusting dynamic that no diversity initiative could ever change. The comments in the critic's Facebook post were full of largely white and male theater artists—some of whom I respect—piling on and crudely denouncing Paz's call for diversity and expressing their gratitude at him for being on top. Gratitude for keeping them on top.

No diversity program could trump nepotism or any "isms." No inclusion program can ever mend what is broken in Chicago.

I will definitely apply for the Sundance initiative next year, and secretly in my heart optimistically hope to receive it again. I am so grateful to have been chosen. To be at the festival at the Press Inclusion Welcome Reception with the encouraging Sundance staff and the 51 other newcomers from marginalized backgrounds, preparing to walk through one of the most exclusive cities in the world during one of the most vibrant artistic happenings in the world, with the opportunity to amplify the voices of those who often are silenced—there's nothing more powerful. In that moment, I got to look over to see someone else who normally might not belong, and feel for a second that yes, we do belong. And yes, one day in the future we might always belong.

On the last day of my visit to Park City I went skiing for the first time in my life. Surprisingly not terrified, I confidently zipped over the powdery snow and felt like I was sailing on a cloud. As I fell asleep that night, I felt the sensation of my body gliding on a sea of possibility. My all-white coat is now filthy and filled with happiness.   v

click to enlarge Hitting the slopes in Park City - COURTESY SHERI FLANDERS
  • Hitting the slopes in Park City
  • courtesy sheri flanders

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