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In an uneven year, Sundance evened a score

In an uneven year, Sundance evened a score
Markees Christmas in the Sundance film "Morris from America." (Sundance Film Festival)

The Sundance Film Festival was designed as an alternative to Hollywood, not a rival to it.  It was not intended to challenge Big Entertainment and prod it to a better self, as a rival might. It simply, for most of its existence, has offered another path for those who might need one.

Yet this year's festival carved out a different role‎. On the critical and depressingly perpetual question of race in entertainment, the Utah gathering — which ended Sunday after 11 days of screenings, meetings and puffy-coated schmoozing — actively celebrated movies featuring African American personalities. The festival threw down a gauntlet. It sent a message to an industry that, to the eyes of many, had failed to uphold with its work the values its members espoused with their politics (or, at least, their campaign donations).

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That was evident during the annual awards Saturday night, in which the big winner was Nate Parker's Nat Turner slave-rebellion movie "The Birth of A Nation."  But the focus began long before that.

Sundance — co-founded by Robert Redford but given shape these days by the trio of forward-thinking creative executives Keri Putnam, John Cooper and Trevor Groth —‎ had already decided to mix and match race in ways that were, if not post-racial, then certainly race-transcendent.

The festival this year featured actors of color ‎in movies directed by whites ("Morris from America," "White Girl"); white subjects in films directed by African Americans ("Life, Animated," ‎ Trapped"); and a complicated racial symbol in a movie directed by a man of mixed racial heritage ("O.J.: Made In America").

Then, of course, there were the black actors in a movie directed by an American black man, about the crucibles long faced by black men in America ("Birth").

This was far from the first time such stories were on display in Park City. Sundance is the festival that gave the world "Hoop Dreams," after all, and "Birth's" triumph on Saturday night marked the fourth time in five years the U.S. grand jury winner featured a major black character.

Yet the mix of tales and personalities this year felt like a more pointed statement.  What Sundance demonstrated with all these choices, in a sense, is where we've been going wrong — and where we might go right — in the debate about diversity that of course kicked off when the Motion Picture Academy announced its white-as-Elmer's-Glue choices in mid-January.

The absence of a more diverse group of nominees is problematic. But the voting itself it not the problem — not really, anyway. Most academy members I've spoken to since the nominations were announced — understandably troubled and defensive about being labeled racist — say that they simply reacted to the movies in front of them and the entreaties of those working on the films' behalf.

They're correct — sort of. Netflix's ideological unwillingness to take "'Beasts of No Nation" broadly to theaters and thus deprive co-star Idris Elba of the stature needed for Oscar votes is not the academy's fault. Neither, for that matter, is Warner Bros' awards campaign for "Creed," rocky in more ways than one. The dearth of a large number of nominees from those movies shouldn't be taken as a referendum on how Oscar voters feel about race. Defenders of mainstream Hollywood are indeed right about this.

What they are not right about is their exemption from a scenario that created this reality in the first place. The academy is as representative a group of the Hollywood power structure as there is.  And a Hollywood that claims, as it implicitly does every box-office weekend, to reach or speak for all of America, shouldn't be in this position. The margin should not be so thin, the available choices so shallow, that a couple of wobbly campaigns means no black actors or African American stories are among its nominees.

In other words, the issue is not that no such movie was nominated. It's that the loose consortium of people in charge of making movies didn't cast a wide enough net to make such nominations inevitable. To solve a nominee problem does not mean elevating a "Concussion" or a "Straight Outta Compton" beyond what quality merits, as some academy members, turning up their palms, wonder if they're being asked to do. It's to create a group of movies from which "Concussion" and "Compton" can be passed over for more awards-worthy choices.

And that's where Sundance comes in. What became clear over the last 11 days is that the festival has intuitively grasped what mainstream Hollywood either can't or won't — that to ensure there will be some great award-worthy films, there have to be some decent and not-so-decent films too. Not all of the black-oriented Sundance movies were great, and a couple weren't very good at all. But when you have such a wide array of choices, some almost certainly will also be good.

The question around the Oscars has been "is the quality there?" But Sundance realized that quality comes at least in part from quantity. Until a broad number of these movies are backed — in Hollywood, that means not just greenlighting ready-to-bake projects but stepping in at earlier grassroots stages of script development and talent mentorship — there won't consistently be the kinds of movies that are awards-worthy. Academy demographics are a part of the solution, sure. But they're far from the only part. Because by the time the choices get to them it's often too late.

This was a somewhat uneven Sundance year across the slate generally, with plenty of solid choices but very few bold standouts. One of the few movies outside of "Birth" that made a case for greatness was "Manchester by the Sea,"‎ Kenneth Lonergan's story about a janitor named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) given a chance at redemption several years after an unspeakable accident destroys his life.

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The worlds of these two films were vastly different — working-class whites in modern New England versus disenfranchised blacks in antebellum Virginia. Yet the movies ran in parallel — in quality, but also in the despondency of their circumstances‎.

And yet it was telling to see how the protagonists responded to these circumstances. Turner bravely fought for the cause of freedom even though it meant near-certain death. Lee shrunk away.

"I'm ready," Turner says at a critical moment, a psychological contrast to Lee's defining moment, when he cries out "There's nothing [inside]." Those two films show two paths in the face of adversity — a fighting spirit versus a cowering cowardice, hunger versus hollowness, an interest in changing the status quo versus buckling under it.

As I watched both movies, my mind went to the parallels to the current Hollywood diversity debate. There is a way to give up. And there is a way to keep fighting. Sundance had funded and supported a number of the African American projects at this year's festival. Then it showcased them. And then it handed them awards. It has done nearly everything an organization could to bring these movies into the world.

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Across the aisle, mainstream Hollywood hasn't done much of this at all. But thanks to this year's festival, it has a pretty good model for how it might.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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