Sundance 2023: Black films dominate the conversation, Ryan Coogler honored on opening night

From visceral and engaging documentaries to thrilling drama features, the festival returned to Park City this year with plenty to enjoy in its slate and events from programs like MACRO Lodge.

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Sundance returned to Park City, Utah, this weekend, showcasing exciting new independent films to the many attendees of the festival this year.

From mesmerizing documentaries like “Kokomo City” and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” to unforgettable dramatic entries like “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and “Magazine Dreams,” this year’s slate consisted of engaging and refreshing content from Black filmmakers, telling Black stories. TheGrio has been at Sundance this year, taking in all of the films, panels and events from Black creatives at the festival and has all of the scoops when it comes to one of this year’s biggest events in film.

An opening night kickoff

2023 Sundance Film Festival – Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance Presented By IMDbPro
Ryan Coogler accepts an award onstage during Sundance Institute’s “Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance Presented by IMDbPro” on Jan. 19, 2023, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival at The Basin Recreation Fieldhouse in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for IMDb)

The Sundance Festival kicked off its first in-person event since 2020 with a star-studded gala titled, “Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance.” With cast and creatives from some of the biggest projects at the festival, the event celebrated all things Sundance, and honored Sundance alumni and legendary filmmakers in their own right like Ryan Coogler, Nikyatu Jusu and W. Kamau Bell.

Coogler, fresh off the box office hit “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” was honored with the Variety Visionary Award. Accepting the honor and reflecting on his relationship with Sundance and his filmmaker colleagues, he shared, “Whenever these filmmakers win, I feel like I win. It’s an incredible gift to an ex-football player who was trying to find his way in this medium. To have a team around me.”

Nikyatu Jusu, whose film “Nanny” was the U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize winner, earned the honorary Vanguard Award for fiction, while W. Kamau Bell, the filmmaker behind the powerful doc “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” took home the Vanguard Award for Nonfiction.

A ‘Magazine Dreams’ walkout

One of the biggest stories of the weekend happened on Friday, when “Magazine Dreams,” the new film starring Jonathan Majors, premiered at the festival. As Variety reported, the members of the festival’s dramatic jury, which includes “Slave Play” writer Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman and Marlee Matlin, walked out of the premiere when the festival did not provide a working captioning device for audience members that were hearing impaired, which included Matlin.

The incident speaks to a larger conversation in Hollywood and around the world when it comes to accessibility in media, something reflected in a signed letter sent to filmmakers from the jury obtained by the outlet. A portion of it reads, “The U.S. independent cinema movement began as a way to make film accessible to everyone, not just those with the most privileges among us. As a jury our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have put into making these films has been disrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of us.”

Black events

2023 Sundance Film Festival - "Magazine Dreams" Premiere
(L-R) Taylour Paige, Elijah Bynum, and Jonathan Majors attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Magazine Dreams” premiere on Jan. 20, 2023, at Eccles Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/2023 Getty Images)

As the landscape of Hollywood and Black representation continues to move forward, so has Sundance. From must-see events and panels at venues like the MACRO Lodge, the Blackhouse and more, Black people were for sure seen and represented at various festival offerings this year, not just the films.

As theGrio previously reported, The MACRO Lodge hosted some must-see panels including the cast of “Harlem” that featured a sneak preview of the new season, a conversation with the cast and creatives of “Young. Wild. Free.” including Sanaa Lathan, and of course some star-studded after-parties celebrating the film as well as “Mutt” and the MACRO Lodge itself.

Black House also hosted exciting events during the opening weekend, pulling together panels with companies like NBCUniversal (featuring Malcolm D. Lee, Tracy Oliver and more), Prime Video (Meagan Good and Boots Riley), to name a few.

Black films get major acquisitions

Many of the biggest films of the weekend, including documentaries like “Little Richard: I Am Everything” and “Kokomo City” and powerful dramas like “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” all got some exciting news coming out of the festival. Both “Little Richard: I Am Everything” and “Kokomo City,” which theGrio was able to catch at the fest, were acquisitions of Magnolia Pictures.

2023 Sundance Film Festival - "KOKOMO CITY" Premiere
Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll, Stacy Barthe, D. Smith, Liyah Mitchell, Daniella Carter, and Lena Waithe attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Kokomo City” premiere one Jan. 21, 2023, at Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

A searing and moving look at the lives of four Black trans sex workers in New York City and Atlanta, ‘Kokomo City,” directed by Grammy-nominated producer, singer and songwriter D. Smith, is an unforgettable journey, while “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is an important and long overdue re-examination of a rock ‘n’ roll icon, his queerness, impact on the music industry as a whole and what it means to have a legacy.

Films like “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” “Young. Wild. Free.,” “A Thousand and One,” and “Magazine Dreams” have also premiered at the festival. TheGrio will keep you up to date this week on the future of these exciting Black stories that have kept Sundance audiences engaged and entertained.

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