Sundance Preview: Hip-hop Cultural Influence Shines Through as Sundance Film Festival Celebrates its 40th Anniversary

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In 2023, hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary. This month, the iconic Sundance Film Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary on January 18-28 in Park City, Utah. As evidenced in the films, panels, and other events, hip-hop’s cultural influence is subtly showcased in a variety of ways, from being a global musical influence spanning from Oakland to Ireland to an influence on social and cultural justice and reform. We’ve previewed a few select films and events below. The full program can be found online at https://festival.sundance.org/program/categories

Exhibiting Forgiveness (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Utilizing his paintings to find freedom from his past, a Black artist on the path to success is derailed by an unexpected visit from his estranged father, a recovering addict desperate to reconcile. Together, they learn that forgetting might be a greater challenge than forgiving. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/656a00bafac9f45740c03f37

Freaky Tales (Premieres) In 1987 Oakland, a mysterious force guides The Town’s underdogs in four interconnected tales: Teen punks defend their turf against Nazi skinheads, a rap duo battles for hip-hop immortality, a weary henchman gets a shot at redemption, and an NBA All-Star settles the score. Basically another day in the Bay. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fe3cfac9f47946c03a61

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Iberian (World Cinema Documentary Competition) Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer, died of a degenerative muscular disease at the age of 25. His parents mourned what they thought had been a lonely and isolated life, when they started receiving messages from online friends around the world. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569ffabfac9f4ccfbc03ca6

Kneecap (NEXT) There are 80,000 native Irish speakers in Ireland. 6,000 live in the North of Ireland. Three of them became a rap group called Kneecap. This anarchic Belfast trio become unlikely figureheads of a civil rights movement to save their mother tongue. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569feacfac9f4da10c03b5f

LOLLA: The Story of Lollapalooza (Episodic) In the summer of ’91, the Lollapalooza music festival was born. What started as a farewell tour for the band Jane’s Addiction rose from the underground to launch a cultural movement and change music forever. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fc3cfac9f424f8c037eb

Luther: Never Too Much (Premieres) Luther Vandross started his career supporting David Bowie, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, and more. His undeniable talent earned platinum records and accolades, but he struggled to break out beyond the R&B charts. Intensely driven, he overcame personal and professional challenges to secure his place amongst the greatest vocalists in history. 

If you know, you know — there’s only one Luther. Acclaimed Festival alum Dawn Porter invites audiences on a musical journey into the life of the iconic Luther Vandross, the man with the soulful velvet voice. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/656a0bf3fac9f40a76c04a2a

Rob Peace (Premieres) Robert Peace grew up in an impoverished section of Newark and later graduated from Yale with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry while on scholarship. Peace led a dual life in academia and research while also earning six figures selling marijuana. Based on Jeff Hobbs’ bestselling biography. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fa4dfac9f4390cc032ef

The American Society of Magical Negroes (Premieres) A young man, Aren, is recruited into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people’s lives easier.

If The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith is proclaimed “the greatest picture ever made,” then the “Magical Negro” — a Black supporting character who exists solely to serve a white protagonist’s storyline — has been a stock character trope since the inception of American cinema. The film is a must-see satire about what it means for Black people to protect and care for ourselves and each other. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fd77fac9f43da0c039b1

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story (Premieres) Never-before-seen home movies and extraordinary personal archives reveal how Christopher Reeve went from unknown actor to iconic movie star as the ultimate screen superhero. He learned the true meaning of heroism as an activist after suffering a tragic accident that left him quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator to breathe. The film is a full-fledged portrait that encompasses both the soaring heights and the dark depths of Reeve’s journey More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fbd7fac9f47d1bc036e1

Union (U.S. Documentary Competition) The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) — a group of current and former Amazon workers in New York City’s Staten Island — takes on one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies in the fight to unionize. Chronicling the historic efforts of the ALU, Union is an intimate and surprising story of dogged determination, unorthodox tactics, and speaking up despite David vs. Goliath odds. More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/656a082ffac9f4cdaac04734

War Game (Special Screenings) A bipartisan group of U.S. defense, intelligence, and elected policymakers spanning five presidential administrations participate in an unscripted role-play exercise in which they confront a political coup backed by rogue members of the U.S. military, in the wake of a contested presidential election.

The film brings audiences tableside to a simulation that dramatically escalates the threat posed by January 6, 2021.  More info can be found at https://festival.sundance.org/program/film/6569fa68fac9f4522ac0337c

In addition to over a hundred carefully selected films, Sundance also offers many more panels, discussions, and special events and lounges. The festival’s world-renowned New Frontiers experience will focus on AI including Being, which is an innovative participatory experience with an artificial intelligence digital griot, that asks the audience to engage in unifying and challenging discussions. It features a soundscape and movement informed by a dataset from Black communities, theorists, poets, and activists, including bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Dazié Grego-Sykes, and Cornel West and Eno, an experience featuring visionary musician and artist Brian Eno (known for producing David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, among many others) and how he uses cutting-edge technology to create his innovative sounds. There are also a variety of Sundance panels, discussions, and other events taking place throughout the week. 

There are also a number of Sundance partner events and lounges (many open to the public) taking place throughout the festival. In addition to the expected focus on films and filmmaking, the events will also focus on technology, music, and the business of the entertainment industry. For example, the NFP Inspire Film Loungewill have NFP, a financial company, hosting many parties, celebrity cast interviews, panels, portraits, and film forums as well as their wellness lounge.  Reality star John Gosselin will showcase his DJ skills at media.com’s Impact Lounge as well as serve on its Power of Reputation panel, an important discussion in today’s social media-savvy world. Chase Sapphire Lounge will also host unique experiences for Sapphire Reserve cardmembers and media attendees including talks, panels,andmusical performances including one by Ezinma, violinist, film composer, and educator who has worked with renowned artists including Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, Khalid, Yo-Yo Ma, and more. The Latinx House will host its fifth annual activation celebrating the truth, power and culture of the Latinx creators, writers, showrunners, actors and visionaries who help shape the entertainment industry. White Claw will host a premium lounge experience with live performances from Grammy-Award winning artist Brittany Howard and immersive works from local artists celebrating the next wave of creators.

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