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Sundance 2024: Utterances of Black Love

By Matazi Weathers

Two Black people are embracing in a close hug.

A still from Daughters by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I had been given such a wide breadth of opinions, suggestions, thoughts on Sundance that it felt a bit like I walked into somebody else’s IG story when I set foot in Park City for my first in-person attendance of the largest “independent” film festival in the U.S. I’ve mostly known Sundance as a beacon of mainstream acclaim and approval for filmmakers. Last year, Sundance provided a sense of discovery and excitement when I viewed its virtual programming. I felt inspired seeing the revelatory works of Raven Jackson (All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt), D. Smith (Kokomo City), Jeron Braxton (Oxytocin), and more from my couch, sometimes with friends. So, I was a bit disheartened to see a relative lack of Black filmmakers at this year’s Sundance in an ongoing trend of waning interest in Black stories since the momentary high tide of political and moral imperatives in 2020—but so it goes. 

Outside of its film programming, Sundance has various cultural hub “houses” that provide refuge for folks of color and opportunities for attendees to listen to unique, relevant panels and engage in networking, but they also reflect a clear lack of Black programming. The Blackhouse, which is the legacy Black cultural hub for Sundance, put on only one panel-talk event during the festival and seemed supplanted by the clout of the MACRO Lodge, which hosted most of the relevant Black events, but you could attend them only if you were able to secure a spot on the guest list. 

I came to Sundance from a space of deep reflection, emerging from a forest of my own thoughts around Black love, sovereignty, action. As I wandered around Park City, I found myself dreaming, turning to the power of love and the specific cosmic possibilities of Black love to move worlds—the deep connections that attract and magnetically bond our lives together. Maybe it was the lack of such moving visions of Blackness like All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt along with my heart’s own pangs, but I felt like I had to seek out, support, and fall into the rapture of such artistry in Park City. 

I was pulled from this revery repeatedly and violently—a cowardly somebody in a passing car yelled “fucking ni**er!” at me while I stood, waiting alone at a bus stop, on my way to my last screening of the festival. A bit jarring, but not surprising whether it happens in Park City or Los Angeles. Bell hooks’s research and writings on love in my hands, I thought of the threats of lovelessness that take violent form here and everywhere. At least I was met on the bus by a sweet Black bus driver and an older Black woman passenger. Nice to sit in proximity to them and other Black folks I encountered at the festival, to hold some sort of magnetic field together to preserve our collective energies for this particular moment in time. 

“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

—Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967, at Manhattan’s Riverside Church

With love and fortification of the soul and the heart in my mind, I sought out a cinematic response of Black love in the snowy white landscape. Seeking Mavis Beacon, in Sundance’s NEXT section, was my favorite of the festival, but it seemed to get a bit lost in the buzz cycle and overly serious festival awards. The freshest project in the festival functioned as a digital palimpsest of our time. It brought in a number of heroes of young Black thought to act as sage guides for Jazmin Renee Jones and Olivia McKayla Ross’s nonbinary heroes’ journey to exhume a Black ancestor from the annals of cyberspace. Such visions of Black love, of community care and reverence for Black elders from youth connected via a vital line that runs through the spirit realm, provided such a refreshing balm to soothe and satiate the heart. You can check out my interview with Jazmin and Olivia and look out on the horizon for the computer-generated waves that this film will make in the near future—if marketing resources are invested in the film, which is not such a realistic expectation given what happened to the promotional campaigns for 2023’s brilliant Black films. 

Another young, Black femme filmmaker debuting her first feature at Sundance, Haley Elizabeth Andersen’s hybrid fiction and archive-mining film Tendaberry also screened in NEXT. Tendaberry explores the feral intimacies of a young Haitian-Dominican woman moving through a capitalist realist Gen Z malaisant white world of contemporary New York City. Andersen’s impressive telephoto intimacies echo Chick Strand’s lens. Though the film is mostly narrative fiction in form, it’s infused with bursts of home video from the filmmaker and a scattering of  “59 reels and 1,900 hours” of Nelson Sullivan’s pre-internet vlogs of Coney Island and the city at large from 1983 to 1989. Tendaberry mostly gestures toward specters of Blackness, with Black folks haunting the screen only moments at a time to unsettle the protagonist, bringing attention to her anxieties. There is no Black love to be found in this vision of NYC; only an awkward reconciliation at the film’s end serves to emphasize the importance of Black familial bonds and ancestral cultures in the healing of oneself.

Water, rain, and waves of emotion play central backdrops to the Black girls of Daughters, tears steadily welling in the eyes of all who watch with anywhere near an open heart. Co-directors Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s winner of the Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary competition and overall Festival Favorite Award starts out with emotional 16mm black-and-white footage of said daughters as they visit their imprisoned fathers for a father-daughter dance in a DC-area prison. The camera draws back from the prison and into the lives of the girls and their mothers on the outside, Black women making a way out of no way. The gorgeous cinematography of Michael “Cambio” Fernandez continuously hits—buoyed in the sea of emotions by a watery, atmospheric soundtrack from Kelsey Lu. Repeated visions of a storm in the distance frame the girls’ true and passionate testimony, counting the years their fathers are locked up for varying sentences, as well as their tender love, hope, and sadness in dazzling night shots and glow-in-the-dark aesthetics. We pay rapturous witness to the girls’ mothers and families stuck in the outside world, dealing with the emotional and material fallout of the fathers trapped within the prison industrial complex (PIC). 

Daughters contains so many moving meditations on memory and perception in relationships, in Black love. How do we love ourselves and find self-love in a society that continually tells us we are not worthy of it? Angela Patton, who in addition to co-directing the film also founded Camp Diva and is the CEO of Girls For A Change, brought to fruition the father-daughter dances in prison and perpetuates Black girl love in her community. In one scene, she calls on Black girls to repeat after her when she says, “Girl power looks like me!” The slow-motion sorrow of the film acts as a heartfelt, poignant reflection of the tragedy of the modern PIC, with its paid video visitations and dystopian messaging plans displacing the ability to see loved ones IRL. In the film, the fathers talk of their lack of experience giving love words as some of them never heard “I love you” from their own fathers. The tenuousness of these utterances of love serves as a call to remember to communicate your love as imminently as you can, in whatever ways you can.

In the screening I attended, sniffles were a constant throughout the theater—the anxieties and horror of coming into the prison in your prettiest dress under soul-draining, flat blue-green lights yielding to excitement as the fathers see their girls walk down the hallway to embrace them. The real problem of not having seen your loved one for years, and the miracle of recognition, an ecstatic convening of joy, sorrow, love, melancholy. The fathers remind viewers, through a haze of tears, that “you cry for the people you love.” Those that are with you, those you can’t be with, and those you can’t be without. Through its deep-felt emotions, love, and bonds, Daughters exposes the vicious brutality of America’s economy, justice system, and global anti-Blackness at large. I do wish that the film took a firm abolitionist stance in response to the clear and direct violence inflicted by the state that is illustrated on screen, but it’s hard to fault this film that so caringly centers these girls and their feelings. 

“Sustained loving care is needed to help heal the pain of emotional abandonment. Throughout our history in this nation, black people have tried to deny this pain—to act as though it does not affect our capacity to trust. Without trust, there can be no genuine intimacy and love. Yet for those among us who have been abandoned, it is difficult, if not impossible to trust. To move toward love, we must confront the pain of abandonment and loss. This means speaking what may have been once unspeakable.” 

—bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love

Myah Overstreet’s To Be Invisible in the Documentary Short Film Program continued the themes of Black love healing generational wounds caused by the state and by our reactions to its enforced violence. Overstreet’s frame is filled with the courage and love of her subjects—two young Black mothers fighting to regain custody of their children from Child Protective Services in Durham, North Carolina. To Be Invisible is imbued with black-and-white freshness and a tremendous perspective of care that helps uplift the strength and softness of Black women. It’s an act and exhibition against abandonment, a testament to the gravity of Black love to bring us back together and heal the pain of loss.

In The Battle for Laikipia, a different sort of fight for Black love is on display—one of Indigenous African land sovereignty. Co-directors Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi start with images of the natural landscape of Laikipia County in Kenya, sans humans, until a voice comes in from a tourist safari led by a white man who is cursing off local Samburu shepherds. The Samburu are seminomadic pastoralists who have herded sheep and goats for hundreds of years in the region. For Samburu people, life is inextricably tied to cattle and the land on which cattle graze and humans walk. The Battle for Laikipia emphasizes the Samburu connection to land, luxuriating in Laikipia’s beautiful open skies and waters while documenting attempts by white landowners and the local police to further displace the Samburu and Maasai peoples. The police and landowners work together—killing the Indigenous peoples’ cattle to punish them—while some of the white landowners live in repugnant luxury. The film delves into the differing viewpoints and increasing tensions in Laikipia as local Maasai parliamentary candidate Mathew Lempurkel campaigns on a platform of explicit decolonization. He is accused of making comments supporting the forceful eviction of white landowners—advocating to get Laikipia back from the colonizers and returned to the people and cattle of the land. 

The white settlers featured in The Battle for Laikipia have themselves lived on the land for generations, since the early twentieth century when England colonized Kenya at large. These British descendants have a reverence for the land, but only without any trace of humans, or with humans solely as passive observers to wildlife. The paternalistic white settlers view themselves as the true saviors of Laikipia—the only ones who can actually conserve and manage the land to make it as natural as possible. Shades of Claire Denis’s White Material (2009) abound, as the white landowners evade culpability for their colonial complicity, contorting their language to avoid the legacy of imperialist capitalism that includes global climate change and land degradation. 

The escalating tensions between the Indigenous peoples of Laikipia and the descendants of white settlers and conservationists who carved up these traditional grazing grounds for their own use come to a head as Lempurkel gets dangerously close to winning a seat in parliament. The colonizers speak in fear of things “deteriorating back to the beginning,” in other words, the haunting, infantilized specter of decolonization. White folks are coming to understand what decolonization means in Laikipia—in Kenya, in Palestine, on Turtle Island, and the devastating, radiating violence that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy demands in any battle to usurp its colonial power. The Battle for Laikipia helps display why and how Black folks globally, especially those sustaining Indigenous cultural practices, perpetuate a Black generational love of ancestral life and spirit and land. At a panel on decolonization at the South Asian Lodge at Sundance, co-director Peter Murimi pointed out that the “narrative is still colonized. There is a class system in filmmaking for global, African filmmakers—and those who control narrative, control policy.”

Nobody wields the power of narrative, with its tremendous violent capacity, to further the oppressive colonial agenda of Europe and its white settler colonies as heavily as Europeans and their global descendants. As an effort to fight back against his own country’s history of ills and murderous plots in Congo, Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez made Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat, winner of a Special Jury Award for Cinematic Innovation in the World Cinema Documentary section. The film opens immediately on the drums of Max Roach, large informational text and quotes on screen from politicians of the time, and Abbey Lincoln’s image and voice welcoming us to enter into a film made up almost purely of archival footage. Throughout, we get rapid-fire clips of Black artists stitched together with sound, text, and footage of the white folks who wanted to use these artists for their means. Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is an intensely aural experience between aggressive windows of pop assemblage history and jump scares of cataclysmic events (clips of Tesla commercials butt up against archival footage of a young Congolese man trying out a prosthetic arm to replace the one he lost). 

The film is a great example of what happens when a conscientious European filmmaking logic is applied to a collective story of Africa—specifically Congo and the Black Americans who willingly and unwillingly aided and resisted Congo’s domination by colonial interests in the aftermath of a revolution. Soundtrack elicited questioning from myself and some of my Black colleagues—it recalled techniques and heavily rhythmic aesthetics that have been popularized in recent films by Black filmmakers like Jenn Nkiru, Arthur Jafa, Khalil Joseph, and more, a sort of Black film mixtape editing style that activates the vast archive of transcendent Blackness into a new visual language, something Brandon Drew Holmes half-affectionately, half-disparagingly likes to call “Negro collage films.” Grimonprez had been working in this style for many years before Nkiru put some grease on its wheels and others ran away with it. But it feels different when a white filmmaker with access to vast Belgian film archives spins clips of the Black ecstatic to foreground the violence of white supremacist conspiracies versus when Nkiru samples documentary and experimental film archives to reflect Black ebullience. Grimonprez’s old-hand attempt at activating these archives of Black history is dynamic and dizzying, but with a scarcity of the spiritual and loving touch of a hand imbued with Black ingenuity and tuned to the celestial frequencies of J Dilla. 

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat does succeed in exhibiting Black history and the history of Black music as a tremendous catalyst for change. It’s something to behold to see the numerous Black artists featured in the film, all the while forcing the viewer to truly consider the role of artists in moments of great political, social, and revolutionary upheaval. The film recounts the history of Western powers’ nervousness around Congo, their political maneuvering in the UN, and the various cultural strategies the U.S. deploys to further its agenda. These include appointing Louis Armstrong as an “Ambassador of Love” to distract the people of Congo as the U.S. also arranges for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. The preemptive brutality of white supremacy shows itself to be a projection of its own soul, its own lovelessness acting out in desperate domination. Again, we see this readily today in Palestine and in contemporary African freedom struggles in Sudan, Congo, and beyond, though it’s unfortunately barely touched on in the film. And yet, despite Grimonprez’s European positioning, Soundtrack reiterates the beautiful, loving “threat of Africanism,” as Malcolm X said. The wild dangers of Black love borne aloft as resistance and riot—as raucous rage made sonic wave.

“Do we fundamentally live in a culture where a Black person who deeply and profoundly loves Blackness is completely at odds with the culture on the whole? Is there no place for Black self-love in this culture? We are in a strange historical moment, in that Blackness is so openly commodified and simultaneously despised. Which should lead us to ask ourselves whether or not it is commodified in a manner that allows us to celebrate Black self-love, or does commodification once again reduce Blackness to spectacle and carnival? Which makes the commodification by White or Black culture not a gesture of love, but really a gesture of disdain.”

—bell hooks, in conversation with Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life

As my final day at Sundance rolled on, I tried to move beyond the cowardly verbal assault I had suffered at the bus stop. It’s always a bit tricky to shake off those experiences, but I was excited to step into Rashaad Newsome’s participatory film experience, Being (The Digital Griot), playing in Sundance’s reduced New Frontier section, as my final screening. In the program notes, Being is described as “a machine-learning model run by a counterhegemonic algorithm taking the humanoid form of a 30-foot-tall, femme vogue Afro-futurist cyborg, who writes and reads poetry, and leads critical pedagogy workshops that teach people to decolonize their minds.” Okay!! 

The project started tenderly enough for my needs, with Being looming on the screen, imploring us to recognize rest and relaxation as a solution. Giving affirmation after affirmation, I felt like I had entered some sort of automated therapy space: “Allow breath.” “Contemplate the word ease frequently.” “You are the love you were born to be.” “No conditions have power over you.” Visuals of Being vogueing on-screen developed into hypnotic screensaver-esque morphing images as the affirmations encouraged us to be as limitless as we can be before shifting to abstractions: a grab bag of language-modeled random association sentences as images of Being dancing on-screen mixed with strange, slowly shifting, matrix-like landscapes. “Stars are allowed to get tired of being wished upon.” “Remember this is an atmosphere, this is not a place, it’s a thought.” The sounds of people shifting in their chairs from discomfort or boredom break through Being’s soliloquies. “It’s always now.”

Being tells us they were made to act as a griot—a living archive, a healer: “You are my village, helping me to learn and grow,” with bell hooks cited as their North Star. The legacy of a griot is a beautiful thing in African culture, living on in the cosmically expansive artistry of Black folks across the diaspora, but can an AI-language model be imbued with this Blackness? The conclusion of the experience begins with Being asking the audience to partner up and consider these questions: (1) How does the capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist patriarchy affect and oppress you? and (2) What is one simple action you can take in your own life today to start to liberate yourself from that oppression?

The calm but underwhelming performance unfortunately devolved afterward into a heated exchange between artist and audience on the merits of AI—whether they are true tools for liberation or a lazy crutch of capitalism. At the end of the discussion, audience members were invited to a microphone so Being could respond to their words. After many participants offered up vulnerable and heartfelt responses, an audience member stepped up to the mic, turned to face the audience and called on the humans in the room to connect intentionally rather than using AI as an intermediary. After they finished speaking, another audience member yelled out from the seats, “Fuck this AI!” Somewhere above, Newsome’s voice of god, amplified over the theater speakers, said, “Fuck you.” People gasped. After Newsome cursed out an audience member from the projection booth, the on-screen experience was quickly wrapped up. A group of people from the audience were kicked out of the theater before Newsome was willing to engage in a tense, guarded audience Q&A that refused to contend with what had just happened with any appropriate level of care.


The official Sundance laurels seem to do much for a film’s trajectory, or at least those are the stories that are told. And though Sundance fancies itself a purveyor of the underground, not much of the liberatory aesthetic that is projected is rooted in reality rather than grandiose capitalist delusion. As in most of the American project, it seems to be an environment built on racial violence and alienation made to incorporate that which it disdains only to further its own growth.

I came away from Sundance 2024 expanded in some ways, unsatiated in others. The love on my mind was clearer and more present in the ink-black sea of stars above at night than in the muddied white landscape of Park City. I see the gestures at forms of Black love and wisdom, inevitable in its many influential permutations on the screens here—from the source as well as in replicated forms from its imitators. I and Black folks at large are going to find a way to keep loving and living and generating mass to move worlds. Cultural arbiters like Sundance will continue to show our works, sometimes more than others, yet Black folks will always persist as that invisible gravitational pull dragging the rest of society with us toward a place of liberation and love.

Matazi Weathers is a temporal and spatial film farmer, curator, educator, and filmmaker from Los Angeles always in pursuit of new potentialities. They are the Assistant Curator of Film at LACMA; co-curate Strong-Sissy Black Movie Night, a cinema and political education space; and are founder of Black Bloom, a Black farmers’ cooperative in Los Angeles that provides free education and mentorship to Black folks learning to grow their own medicine.