The African American Film Critics Association Takes on Sundance

By Guest Writer:  Ronda Penrice

Every year the film industry converges on Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival and AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association) is happy to be among them. “We’re thrilled,” says Gil Robertson, AAFCA president and co-founder.

The organization representing the largest membership of Black film critics in this country and globally participates in a number of signature festivals during the year, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival. AAFCA’s presence at these tentpole events is important, says Robertson, “because they’re important to the industry. It’s where the business gets done. There are only about four or five festivals in the world where films are screened that actually get put into the mix of having a real shot at being acquired by a major studio or distributor.”

Although all of the film festivals are important, Sundance, says Robertson, has been especially beneficial to emerging black filmmakers. “Sundance has a history of being a great springboard for black filmmakers to be introduced to the industry,” he says. “Sundance sort of offers that “first look” moment where a lot of black filmmakers have seen their careers receive a boost. We have seen that with folks like Ryan Coogler with Fruitvale Station and Ava DuVernay with Middle of Nowhere. And, of course, last year, with Jordan Peele and Get Out.”
Those Sundance successes have become an “unofficial” pipeline for the AAFCA Awards, the organization’s own tentpole event that takes place this year on February 7 in Los Angeles. “We’ve been extremely fortunate with Ryan [Coogler] and Ava [DuVernay] who we’ve honored and this year with Jordan [Peele] as well as Spike Lee. AAFCA offers a positive place where black filmmakers and black creators can be acknowledged and we provide them with acceptance and validation of their work.”

But Robertson also shares that AAFCA looks at all films in their awards consideration. “We do celebrate films that aren’t just about African Americans or black people. This year Frances McDormand won our best actress award for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Coco is another film that won our best animation award. So we’re all over the place in terms of types of films we celebrate but, of course, our home and our heart is with black cinema.” Trailblazing Latina film critic Claudia Puig and the iconic Edward James Olmos are also honorees this year, as well as Alcon Entertainment, the independent production company owned by Andrew Kosove, who is Jewish, and Broderick Johnson, who is African American.

Because AAFCA is a year-round organization, Robertson believes their participation at festivals like Sundance is even more crucial. “We work 365 days of the year, all 12 months of the year, creating programming all across America that benefits aspiring film journalists and aspiring filmmakers,” Robertson says.

AAFCA also lends its presence to events that help push diversity in the industry and have three events at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. First up is the DIRECTV and AAFCA Luncheon, a pop-up Craig’s dining experience, on January 19 on Herber Avenue and Main Street, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by the AAFCA Private Reception and Panel Discussion at the Waldorf Astoria, with AT&T and several film partners, early evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The organization closes out its official participation the next day, Saturday, January 20, with Robertson speaking on the panel “Our Image, Our Voice: Transforming the Portrayal of Underrepresented Communities” at the DirecTV Lodge, from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

“We feel our presence is needed at these events so that AAFCA and our membership of film critics can assist in amplifying black filmmakers in spreading the message throughout the community about their films and other quality films.”

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