“Representation” has become a buzzword over the past few years, often used to excoriate the limited diversity that Hollywood brings to our big screens. But, with the Sundance Film Festival come and gone, and a new year of movies revving up, it’s clear that when it comes to matters of race, popular culture has taken note of our national talking points.
No fewer than seven major Sundance movies tackled race relations in America and the issues related to them ― and that’s not counting documentaries. Storytellers had police brutality (“Blindspotting,” “Monsters and Men”), wrongful imprisonment (“Monster”), the Ku Klux Klan (“Burden”), microaggressions (“Tyrel”), code-switching (“Sorry to Bother You”) and the foster care system (“Night Comes On”) on their minds.
We’re witnessing a phenomenon in which socially-minded artists are processing the topics that make headlines almost daily. More than any other Sundance lineup before it, 2018′s was a heady and searing crop, aptly reflecting our national mood.
One year after Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” raised the bar for veiled social commentary, “Tyrel” presents a similar premise, sending a young black man (Jason Mitchell) into the woods for a weekend getaway with a batch of white dudes. Meanwhile, “Monsters and Men” evokes the real-life killing of Eric Garner and the persecution of NFL iconoclast Colin Kaepernick, and “Burden” (which won the festival’s audience award) portrays tensions among neighbors sharing turf in the South.
“Blindspotting,” a passion project co-written by “Hamilton” breakout Daveed Diggs and performance poet Rafael Casal, is a hip-hop-inflected tour through Oakland, California, where gentrification has tarnished the area’s working-class restaurants, and black residents watch white cops shoot their black neighbors at traffic lights. In “Monster,” racial profiling lands even a college-bound teenager (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) with a bright future behind bars. These movies portray a world, not unlike our own, in which only whiteness gets ahead; just ask the telemarketer Lakeith Stanfield plays in the surreal comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” who is advised to use his “white voice” if we wants to get sales.
For Hollywood, indie filmmaking is a platonic ideal, painting a progressive image that puts Sundance and its ilk one step ahead of the wider industry, in terms of style, content and representation. Still, that hip image doesn’t always prioritize women and filmmakers of color. (Women helmed 37 percent of this year’s lineup ― an above-average figure that still lacks parity.) But with 2018′s movies, the festival claimed a newfound sense of topicality. The conversations unfolding on Twitter, in the media and in many Americans’ homes are resurfacing right before our eyes. Artists are doing their best to sort out the issues plaguing the country.