Sundance: The Best of This Year’s Socially Conscious Docs and Features


Sundance has always been a prime venue for films about social justice, and this year’s festival has featured  a striking number of films about the criminal justice system, policing, and protest. Yes, Park City, with its expensive ski shops and restaurants and well-heeled crowds, often feels a million miles away from the places where these stories tend to take place. But the fest’s programmers have always taken seriously the responsibility to help politically charged, socially relevant work to gain exposure. That these films were premiering in the very first days of a Trump administration added even more urgency.

In 2017 those projects were varied in conception, form, and quality. I’ve already written about Travis Wilkerson’s masterful New Frontier entry Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, an experimental docu-essay-confessional about a race crime in the director’s family history. On the more mainstream front, Wednesday night saw a special presentation of two episodes of Shots Fired, a mini-series that will air on Fox starting March 22nd, created by director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show features Sanaa Lathan (the star of Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 masterpiece Love & Basketball) as an investigator and Stephan Prince (who played John Lewis in Selma and Jesse Owens in Race) as a Justice Department attorney sent down to a tense North Carolina town after a black cop has shot an unarmed white civilian.

The festival screened episode one, directed by Prince-Bythewood, and episode six, directed by Jonathan Demme, with a few select scenes from episodes two through five in between. The somewhat ironic reversal of the cop in this shooting case being black suggests at first that Shots Fired might explore some kind of symbolic, up-is-down world. But what unfolds instead is more like an expansive social melodrama, where that inciting event — and the ever-unfurling responses to it – lay bare fissures in the community, and disturb the long-buried past. There are moments that reminded me of The Wire, but the creators are not afraid to get into the tangled romantic lives of its characters.

Watching just the very beginning and then the middle of a series is an odd way to experience it, but what I saw was absorbing, marked by Prince-Bythewood’s characteristic attention to human details and her ease with intimate moments. The most powerful scene occurred in one of the intervening episodes: A young black teen reads to his mother from a story he’s written for class, an imagined conversation between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till in heaven – a moment inspired, the filmmakers revealed in a post-screening Q&A, by their own son.

Playing in the U.S. Documentary Competition, Yance Ford’s Strong Island, which won a special jury award for storytelling on the festival’s closing night, is an intensely personal documentary about the filmmaker’s brother’s murder in 1992. William, Jr. was 24 years old, an unarmed, aspiring cop when he was shot at a Long Island auto body shop in the middle of the night. An all-white jury decided that no crime had been committed, and the Ford family was left with nothing but the ruin of their lives. The film opens with Ford in the present day trying to investigate the facts of the shooting, making calls to the attorneys and cops who worked the case and getting nowhere. But Strong Island is not a procedural or expose, though Yance’s attempts to learn more about William Jr.’s death does structure the film. What emerges is a very close, tender look at the Ford family. These are people who moved to the suburbs after the city started to get too dangerous, and wound up finding themselves less safe than ever before. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of their devastation after the loss of their eldest son.

Ford is understated in using archival footage or family photographs. Much of the movie consists of direct address to the camera, often by the filmmaker, discussing both the factual and personal details of the case, and of William’s life. Late in the film, Yance, who is transgender (a fact that’s not directly addressed in the film) talks of discovering his own queerness as a teen by reading William’s Penthouse mags. It’s moments like these that make Strong Island truly special, especially as it moves towards its final act, in which Yance begins to wonder about his own actions before William Jr.’s death, and how they might have contributed to the situation.

Another miscarriage of justice is front and center in Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights (Sundance was big on movies named after places this year), a narrative account of the case of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), the Brooklyn teen who was convicted for the 1980 murder of Marvin Grant – even though it was clear that Warner didn’t know the victim abd wasn’t at the scene of the crime. Warner spent more than two decades in jail, constantly asserting his innocence, while his closest friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) struggled to find new lawyers and new witnesses to help reopen the case.

Crown Heights, which won the U.S. dramatic audience award at the fest, has its rough spots: Ruskin has a lot of information to convey, and he often opts to do it with lots of fragments of scenes rather than a few select, dramatically fleshed-out ones. But the movie never loses its sense of outrage: As the film presents it, Colin’s innocence is mostly an open secret, and he’s the victim not just of sleazebag cops but of the shortcuts and inadequacies of the justice system. At one point, Carl spends months raising money to mount a new case for Colin, only to have the lawyer who slick-talked him in an office turn out to be an incompetent in an actual courtroom. I watched all this with my mouth wide open, alternately marveling and wincing at the decades-long nightmare that is unfolding for these men. As Colin, Stanfield is exceptional, his visage a mixture of bewilderment, humiliation, and simmering rage. His performance grounds the film, and keeps it going through its less confident patches.

At the other end of the spectrum is The Force, Peter Nicks’s documentary look at the Oakland Police Department as it wrestles with new leadership and tries to rebuild trust with the public in the wake of some high-profile controversies and 13 years of federal oversight. The filmmakers’ level of access is impressive – it features drive-along scenes following rookie cops on the beat, footage from police academy training, as well as glimpses of high-level meetings between public officials and department heads.

The Force won a well-deserved U.S. documentary directing prize at the fest. Nicks and his crew reportedly spent three years essentially embedded with the OPD, much of it during the reign of Chief Sean Whent, who seems sincere in his attempts to reform the department. The filmmakers had apparently wrapped their shooting when the department was embroiled in a bizarre sex scandal, which led to Whent’s resignation and a period of downright surreal chaos as numerous replacements also stepped down. Scenes depicting this turbulent time essentially form the film’s third act, but we do sense something missing – as a film that was marked by remarkable, steady access now finds itself rushing through a lot of upheaval presented via press conferences and onscreen text.

Still, The Force is hypnotic and eye-opening. Nicks has a style that is both experiential and ethereal: From its ground-level immersion in the minutiae of police work to its sweeping helicopter shots of the city at night, The Force has the texture of a Michael Mann film combined with the clarity of a Frederick Wiseman documentary. I could have watched it for hours more, and I wonder if it would work better at a greater length; it’s so absorbing that I wanted more.

There were other films at Sundance around related topics: I heard good things about Whose Streets?, an account of the Ferguson uprising that stitches together footage shot by protesters and other witnesses – including Instagram and Vine videos, as well as tweets. And as part of its initiative to bring more and more TV work to the festival, Sundance also screened two episodes of the six-part documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which will air on Spike starting March 1st. I haven’t seen that one yet. It will be interesting to see if it manages to have an impact similar to O.J. Made in America, which premiered in full at last year’s fest.