Black Filmmakers Honored During Sundance Opening Night Celebration

After two years of a digital-only film festival, on Thursday Night the Sundance Film Festival made its official return to its regular in-person programming to the delight and perhaps relief of independent filmmakers, media personnel, and audiences from all over the world. On a snowy evening, the aforementioned gathered to celebrate the opening of this year’s festival at Park City’s Basin Recreation Fieldhouse.

This intimate ceremony, titled “A Taste of Sundance,” included more than 150 people and was hosted by actor Dakota Fanning. In her opening remarks, Fanning honored director Luca Guadagnino with whom she worked with in 2018’s Suspiria, a horror/thriller film about a satanic dance company. Guadagnino was receiving the Sundance Institute International Icon Award alongside to Ryan Coogler, Nikyatu Jusu, and W. Kamau Bell, who were each honored respectively.

Black Filmmakers Honored During Sundance Opening Night Celebration
PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: (L-R) W. Kamau Bell, Ryan Coogler, Nikyatu Jusu, and Luca Guadagnino attend Sundance Institute’s ‘Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance Presented by IMDbPro’ at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival at The Basin Recreation Fieldhouse on January 19, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for IMDb)

Bell, whose four-part documentary, We Need to Talk About Cosby, premiered last January in 2022, received the Vanguard Award for Nonfiction. Prior to his speech at the ceremony he told ESSENCE that he was feeling “overwhelmed,” joking that he thought that they may have meant the award for someone else when he first got the call.

“It’s such a surreal path to be on as a kid who just wanted to be a stand-up comedian,” he said. “To end up here as a filmmaker especially with the series that I made, I couldn’t have predicated it, I just had to follow my nose here.”

In his speech later in the night, Bell paid homage to the many Black women who were apart of his film and especially thanked all the survivors who agreed to speak with him on this very delicate subject matter. Meanwhile Jusu, who directed last year’s Nanny which won the festivals’ Grand Jury Prize — becoming only the second Black woman to do so — received the Vanguard Award for Fiction. Amongst other reflections, the director/writer pointed out that the Sundance festival allowed her to be seen and no longer ignored as a person from a historically underrepresented community.

Black Filmmakers Honored During Sundance Opening Night Celebration
PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: Nikyatu Jusu speaks onstage at Sundance Institute’s Inaugural Opening Night: A Taste Of Sundance Presented By IMDbPro at The Basin Recreation Fieldhouse on January 19, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Earlier in the evening, Jusu told ESSENCE that the reception to Nanny, a truly cinematic treat that blends West African mythology with a migrant story and even a black diaspora love story, has left her feeling like her work was truly recognized in an industry in which telling stories especially those stories from her community can be challenging.

“We didn’t make a film in vain…it’s really treacherous and difficult to make even a bad film…I always tell people this, the worst things you’ve ever seen are a miracle,” she said. “With everything we went through with Nanny, it just reaffirms that I have to continue to say yes to the projects that really resonate with my spirit.

Last but certainly not least, Coogler was the inaugural recipient of the first ever Variety Visionary Award, recognizing the institute’s alumni who remain connected to it.

Speaking to ESSENCE prior to receiving the award, Coogler emphasized his appreciation for Sundance and everybody he has met along the way that supported his career.

“I still feel like I’m just getting started so it’s strange [to be receiving this], but the biggest thing is gratitude,” he shared. “I have a lot of gratitude to the festival, to be thought of for anything is always moving.”

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