PARK CITY, UTAH – The hot button topic of this year’s racially-exclusive Oscars took center stage at the Sundance Film Festival's opening day media conference Thursday.
"We're pretty proud of how we show diversity in the festival," said Robert Redford, who founded the indie film showcase in 1985. The festival has paid close attention to issues of race and gender throughout its 31 year history since "diversity comes out of the word independence."
The Academy Awards (scheduled for Feb. 28) have taken a battering this week, following the nominations of an all-white field in the four acting categories. Multiple big-name stars, such as Will Smith, have voiced concern – some even calling for an Oscars boycott.
The Sundance program for decades has opened its doors to female and ethnically disparate filmmakers whose stories have gone on to win Oscars following their Sundance premieres. "Searching for Sugar Man," "20 Feet From Stardom," "Hustle and Flow" and "Precious" all earned Academy Awards after opening in Park City. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" made a best picture play following its Sundance screening in 2012. "El Norte" received an original screenplay nomination way back in 1985.
That is the entire list of multiracial U.S. feature films that climbed from Sundance to Oscars' attention.
Countless others hit a glass ceiling. Many will be better remembered by history than the Academy. "Fruitvale Station," the true story of a young man killed by San Francisco transit police, in 2012 introduced the breakout talents of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. The pair reunited for this year's "Creed," which earned a rare supporting Oscar nomination for Sylvester Stallone. But neither Coogler nor Jordan have matched their Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama with Oscar nominations for either film.
The Sundance Institute also provides year-round support for artists in the film industry through fellowships and workshops. At the opening conference, former Miramax studio executive Keri Putnam, tapped this year as executive director of the Sundance Institute, cited alumni such as Coogler and "Selma" director Ava DuVernay as alumni the festival introduced to mainstream opportunities in the industry.
"We do provide a really great pipeline," Putnam said. "We have a seat at that table in terms of providing a constructive voice to the decision-makers to say, 'Hey, take a look at this range of talent.' "
Redford, himself an Oscar winner, made it clear that he's no enemy of the Hollywood establishment, "because I’ve been part of that, happily part of that.” As for the Oscars controversy, "I'm not into that."
The mission for Sundance, he said, is "to broaden the industry" and offer an outlet for "artists (who) are making films about what’s on the public mind.”
This year's slate offers a wide range, many with black leads. "The Birth of a Nation" dramatizes Nat Turner's 1831 freedom-fighting slave rebellion. Spike Lee's documentary "Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall" follows the pop star from his childhood origin to his iconic 1979 solo album. Jazz icon Miles Davis gets a genre-busting biographical drama in Don Cheadle's directorial debut ("Miles Ahead"), focusing on his later, drug-fueled years. And "O.J.: Made in America," a 7 1/2 hour documentary-epic scheduled to show on ESPN, follows the sports star turned murder suspect from his early days to the present.
Whether any of them receives attention in next year's Academy Awards remains to be seen.
(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP and Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA/TNS)