Sundance, Ice-T, and Shades of the American Race in Cinema

Sundance, for me, begins and ends with Ice-T. Attending for the first time this year, I landed Saturday amidst a disastrous snowstorm, and, due to time constrictions, was forced to schlep my suitcase around in the blizzard. Plus, I forgot my hat (I live in California!). Nevertheless, I remained calm in the face of meteorological adversity, knowing my reward was the premiere of Something From Nothing, Ice-T's documentary on the craft of hip hop. The film, as expected, was worth the vexing hustle. At any given moment, I was rapping with Grandmaster Caz and B Real; smiling to hear Dre talk Pac; looking over my shoulder where Ice sat with his son and Coco. It was magnetic.

The next day, sun shining and hair straight, I sat down with the prolific artist as he ate pancakes and eggs benedict, and ruminated over hip hop legacy in the American cultural paradigm. Among our discussion of media, talent, and the questionable acumen of a song like, "Moves Like Jagger," Ice described his greatest criticism on the state of rap. For him, we are "caught in a paradox," where voices that once led a revolution have been silenced by hegemonic demands.

"The movement I was a part of got a black president elected," Ice remarked. "Hip hop is still doing its thing, they're just not using it at full power."

Photo by Jeremy Hewson

Yet it only takes one to start a wave, and despite the white snow glistening over Park City, I felt the resurgence. This year at Sundance, an array of colors and themes splashed the screen, portraying world identity in vast magnitude. While Red Tails, the "first all-black action movie," opened strong in Hollywood, its star, David Oyelowo, strolled the independent carpet for director Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere, a film about a black woman's struggle to maintain marriage with her husband in prison. Spike Lee returned with Brooklyn ferocity, premiering his latest project, Red Hook Summer, an effort he self-funded due to distrust of studio executives. Hip hop made its presence known beyond Ice T, with the narrative feature, Filly Brown, depicting a Latina rapper challenged by circumstance, as well as the short film, The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a fictional tale about the controversial artist-activist. And the Asian community was there too, most notably with China Heavyweight, a documentary covering the influence of boxing on Chinese youth.

The scene was a consortium of nuanced character, a refreshing gamut of perspective, and, paradoxically, what may be the result of longstanding rhetorical compression.

"Any time you are put under pressure, eventually that pressure gives birth to something beautiful," observed Oyelowo. "The talent born out of that pressure has a voracious appetite to do good work on the basis of an acquired first... to be the center of your own story, to work with good material, to tell stories on a big campus with a complexity that is not patronizing... I recognize this as a spike in the trajectory of what is known as 'black film.' Our challenge now is to sustain it."

The reform wasn't merely a tangential shift in casting, but a larger development in dramatic tenets. Brought to light were societal misconceptions, the irony of pattern, and multi-dimensional roles all people embody. In his documentary feature, Slavery By Another Name, director Sam Pollard examined how oppression continued post-abolition through laws indirectly driving black people to prison. A modern extension of such entrapment was tackled in LUV, the narrative debut by filmmaker, Sheldon Candis, about drug trade in Baltimore. Featuring actors Common and Michael Rainey Jr., Candis' work dissected a cyclical pattern of doom, where slavery persists in the snare of a nearly inescapable system, devastating the lives of forgotten people. LUV ended with hope, nevertheless, displayed by a resilient youth with light inside him.

Commented Common, "Freedom comes in the mind first. It's about finding your purpose, and loving yourself... Right now, being black, we have examples of people in different forms of life that are successful. People in the highest positions of the world and everything in between..."

Representation of the collective diaspora has always been thwarted by our need to classify films according to races other than white. Still, while labels can be debilitating, they can also be manipulated. Oyelowo's co-star, Omari Hardwick, noted, the "propensity to box people in" is overcome by films illustrating common ground. The drug trade is as much about whites as it is blacks or browns, as relevant to the powerful as the powerless, and a stain on both the government and inner city streets. Love and separation, likewise, are universal experiences. Furthermore, racial labels have become nearly irrelevant. As Candis pointed out, blackness is "not monolithic." For this reason, he set LUV to an original score by Portuguese composer, Nuno Malo, rather than a soundtrack compilation of rap.

Added Candis, "This is the greatest time in the history of our people to be our people. Especially now, at this festival, you're beginning to see a semblance of us that is a new us."

This cinematic renaissance abandons futile archetype. Today in Hollywood, we can watch Oyelowo play a World War II pilot, while in Park City, we see him as a bus driver carousing in dive bars in Leimert Park. Such is life. We are people -- tall, strong, disabled, enslaved, happy, magical and all that is the world. Soon, I hope it won't be necessary to define a "black film" because that day it will be everyone's film, but for now, I'm happy we progress. Thank you Sundance, for that.

As I return to the sunny coastline, I remember most what Ice told me he aims to be his legacy -- not as a rapper, actor, or director, but a "groundbreaker" at the forefront of change. Mission accomplished.

On the future of American cinema, I'm holding out for Red Tails 3D in 2013.