Heard at Sundance: 'Black lives matter'

Netflix-funded documentary opens Sundance
Netflix-funded documentary opens Sundance

The cry came from the balcony at the end of Thursday's premiere of a documentary about Nina Simone: "Black lives matter!"

The Sundance Film Festival always tries to reflect the times, and this year that means featuring several films that relate to the ongoing anti-police brutality protest movement in the country.

Some draw from the past, like Netflix's "What Happened, Miss Simone?," while others are firmly in the present, like "3 1/2 Minutes," which is about the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida.

"What Happened, Miss Simone?" was the first to premiere here, on opening night at the acclaimed film festival. The film recounts the life of musician and activist Nina Simone, whose anger about civil rights era injustices flowed forth in songs like "Mississippi Goddam" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free."

On stage right after the screening, director Liz Garbus was asked why the film was especially relevant today.

She paused for a while, then said, "If we had voices like Nina Simone today, speaking the pain and passion of the movement that's been building, I think, on the streets in the past 6 months..."

Garbus didn't complete the thought, but she referred back to a scene late in the documentary, when Simone is interviewed in 1985 and asked about the civil rights movement.

"There is no reason to sing those songs" now, Simone said. "Nothing is happening. There is no civil rights movement."

Garbus said, "I think that's one of the saddest moments for me in the film."

Then she asserted there is ample reason to sing the songs now, in an era of protests against the deaths of minorities at the hands of police and public discussion about persistent inequalities.

"I ask artists today to take those songs, to appropriate them... To make the music mean something again," Garbus said.

That's when a woman in the crowd shouted "black lives matter" -- a slogan -- that has emerged from the protest movement.

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After the premiere, John Legend performed three of Simone's songs, including "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and praised her "commitment to justice." Several people shouted the slogan again afterward.

Netflix will stream the Simone documentary sometime later this year.

On Saturday "3 1/2 Minutes" will debut, examining the death of Jordan Davis in what became known nationally as the "loud music case." Davis, 17, was killed after an argument over loud music at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. The documentary includes interviews with Davis's parents.

Like many of the documentaries here, "3 1/2 Minutes" is seeking a distribution deal.

Another film that may resonate, "Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," already has a television deal -- it'll be shown by PBS next year. The documentary, directed by Stanley Nelson, explores the founding of the controversial Black Panther Party in the 1960s.

Nelson and Garbus will both speak on a panel about "Black Lives on Film" at the festival on Monday.

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