Sexuality, Racial Identity Debut At Sundance Festival

The Sundance Film Festival has drawn big Hollywood stars and aspiring film makers alike to Park City, Utah. Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris talks with host Michel Martin about some of his favorite films from this year's event.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally today, legions of film stars have temporarily ditched the balmy weather out Hollywood to shiver in style in Park City, Utah, at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The event wraps up this weekend. Festival organizers boasted this week that more than a dozen Oscar nominations went to films that received substantial support from the Sundance Institute or the Sundance Festival itself.

Here with us to talk about what's hot in the snow and cold of this year's Sundance is Wesley Morris. He's a film critic for the Boston Globe.

Wesley, welcome back. We'll try to tamp down our rage and envy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film critic, Boston Globe): Please don't. Please...

MARTIN: That you got to hang stars like Jennifer Hudson and Susan Sarandon and Kerry Washington, that you were hanging...

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I got to tell you, I don't know where they were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: I go there and I work. And one of the things about this year is that there's a much greater emphasis on the quality of the films, as opposed to the stars that have come to see them or to, like, promote them. People are talking about the movies. And you just feel like they're trying to get back to something that is very essential about this festival and it feels like they're waking up again and it's very exciting.

MARTIN: So tell us about a couple of the films that excited you at Sundance.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I mean I saw a number of films I really, really liked this year, more than I have in a while. And one of the ones that grabbed me was the opening night movie, it's called "Pariah." It's about a 17-year-old lesbian who's trying to figure out not so much how to tell her parents she is gay, but exactly what kind of lesbian and black woman she wants to be. And it's both refreshing and a bit of a shock to see a woman, a young black woman trying to make her sexuality her own in a way that falls outside of the way it's been defined by the groups that she belongs to.

MARTIN: OK, hold on a second. Let's just play a short clip. And I just want to mention Spike Lee is the executive producer of the film, which is interesting because, you know, some critics have not appreciated the way they feel he has portrayed African-American women and their sexuality.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So here is a short clip from "Pariah."

(Soundbite of movie, "Pariah")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ADEPERO ODUYE (Actor): (as Alike) How I dress has nothing to do with how I feel.

Ms. KIM WAYANS (Comedian, actor): (as Audrey) What?

Ms. ODUYE: (as Alike) Just because I don't bag my jeans and rock beads all the time does that make me fake? Does that make me fake?

Ms. WAYANS: (as Audrey) No, I never told you to dress any kind of way.

Mr. CHARLES PARNELL (Actor): (As Arthur): Now listen, you tell me the truth.

Ms. ODUYE: (as Alike) You already know.

MARTIN: Wow. So there it is. So was there a breakup yeah?

Mr. MORRIS: I just got a little chill remembering that scene in the movie.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. MORRIS: The director is a woman named Dee Rees. She's a newcomer. It's her first feature. This is based on a short that was also at the festival a couple of years ago. And she is just so perceptive about how people relate to each other, how people express themselves. It feels true. It feels like, I mean, I know these people. I've been to this part of Brooklyn.

And Kim Wayans, the comedian, plays her mother, a woman who is very aloof and not wanting to admit the fact that her daughter is gay. And the father is a cop who is very close to the daughter but also doesn't really want to know.

MARTIN: Now another film that got your attention is also a family, kind of centered on the dynamics of a family and it's called "Gun Hill Road," which New Yorkers will recognize is in the Bronx.

Mr. MORRIS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And it's about a family that's trying to readjust after the father returns from prison. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gun Hill Road")

Mr. ESAI MORALES (Actor): (as Enrique) What you doing, Angie?

Ms. JUDY REYES (Actor): (as Angie) I'm getting ready for bed.

Mr. MORALES: (as Enrique) Don't you miss me?

Ms. REYES: (as Angie) Rique, please, not now, I'm tired.

Mr. MORALES: (as Enrique) Yeah? What are you tired from?

Ms. REYES: (as Angie) Life.

Mr. MORALES: (as Enrique) Life. Hmm. I thought you was tired from going with that new boyfriend of yours.

Ms. REYES: (as Angie) What are you talking about? I don't got no boyfriend.

Mr. MORALES: (as Enrique) No?

Ms. REYES: (as Angie) No. What are you deaf?

Mr. MORALES: (as Enrique) Don't lie to me, Angie. I'm (Bleep) stupid.

MARTIN: and that was Esai Morales as Enrique, and Judy Reyes as Angela in "Gun Hill Road."

And the lives of people who are connected to prison, crime, so forth, have been subjects of films before.

Mr. MORRIS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What do you think makes this film distinct?

Mr. MORRIS: What makes this film distinctive is that the son that these two characters have is in the process of changing his gender. He's becoming a woman and the Esai Morales character has come from prison after three years of being there. His son has turned into a his son is becoming a different person. He recognizes that but does not recognize his son.

And so there's this really interesting tension between this very macho guy who I can only imagine what he experienced in prison, his son's becoming this sort of worst-case scenario of his paternity.

You know, one of the things that I was heartened by in both the festival this year and watching these two movies and a handful of others is just that, you know, it reminds you that the world is bigger than what we've often been given in films.

MARTIN: We're talking with Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris about the Sundance Film Festival. But before we let you go Wesley, there's also a documentary that you told us caught your eye. This one is called "The Interrupters." And it follows a group of men in Chicago who literally interrupt crime.

We've actually featured some of the people on this program. There's some strong language, as you would imagine, in the film. We've tried to obscure some of it while trying to keep the flavor of what you're going to hear. But I'm just going to warn people that all of it may not be obscured. I'll just play short clip then we can talk about it.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Interrupters")

Unidentified Man #1: When I let loose god (bleep) they're going to know. Shouldn't have crossed me.

Unidentified Man #2: But still though, man, you got to try to leave that (bleep) alone. (bleep) man.

Unidentified Man #3: What you saying, man?

Unidentified Man #1: Man, I ain't going to (bleep) as long as I get these mother (bleep).

Unidentified Man #2: But you was locked up before for the same (bleep) though.

Unidentified Man #1: Man, I've been locked 15 years of my life. What that mean?

Unidentified Man #3: We just trying to offer you options and solutions to the problem.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Man, (bleep) this (bleep). No problem. (bleep) solution.

Unidentified Man #2: It's a rough one. But any time you got a person who will stay there and talk with you, you got a chance of working it out with him.

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting. What about it? Tell us more, Wesley. What did you think?

MARTIN: It's so interesting listening to those clips. I mean, Steve James made this film. He's the director of "Hoop Dreams." I find his commitment to his subjects slightly problematic because I think it crosses certain ethical boundaries. And I think here his M.O. is to just stand back and observe the way this taskforce, Ceasefire, goes about preventing gang violence.

You know, they don't want to stop the gangs, they just want to stop the murders. And what you realize watching this is that there's a way in which what they're doing is kind of an adequate. I mean, we do see in the film that it stops some things from happening but it raises so many other questions about how you give poor black Americans self-esteem when they've institutionally had it taken away from them. And I think one of the things the movie uncovers is that there needs to be a psychological and emotional and social way of getting at the root of the problem as well.

MARTIN: Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. He's just back from Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival and he joined us from Boston. Wesley, thank you.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Twitter; just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR.

I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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