Racism at Sundance? Award-Winning Film Said 'Too Black' to Find an Audience

A dirty little secret of the Sundance Film Festival is out over at indieWIRE, where editor Eugene Hernandez relays an anecdote that this year's award-winning (but undistributed) documentary Trouble the Water — about the odyssey of African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina — might be off buyers' radar because its "too black":

"Why aren't more white people in the film?," an exec apparently asked back in Park City. I've heard similar versions of this story from a few different people connected to the movie.
But, those involved with the film have hesitated to say much more about the film's distribution prospects. After Sunday's New Directors/New Films screening [in New York], filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal told me that they are hoping for a late summer release of their film, while another insider specified that an August opening is to be expected.

This is the second time in as many years that a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner has experienced marketplace resistance for issues reportedly related to ethnicity; last year's acclaimed Dramatic champ Padre Nuestro found itself on the outside looking in when its tale of immigrant intrigue was in part designated "too Mexican" for art-house audiences in urban centers. (IFC will release the film — retitled Sangre de mi Sangre — next month.) Its cast of Mexican A-listers, as well as their marquee value among Latino audiences, meant little to domestic buyers.

Nuestro's foreign-language status probably didn't help, but it has something in common with Trouble the Water: With rare exceptions like Tyler Perry-backers Lionsgate or Picturehouse's Bob Berney, a word-of-mouth genius who knew exactly where to target the crossover smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding, supposedly progressive indie distributors have no clue how to market to ethnic viewers.

Sources close to Water tell me that a primary sticking point for buyers is the producers' grassroots marketing plan, which, like Wedding's, could take months to build in African-American communities across the country. (It's worth noting that this is proven experience they have as former associates of Michael Moore.) A similar problem is said to afflict Water's fellow Sundance alum Sugar, the as-yet-undistributed Dominican baseball picture by the makers of the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson. Padre Nuestro's frustrated producers considered self-distribution to build their own word-of-mouth. The general movie glut affecting cinemas, where more than 600 films came and went in 2007, won't allow that kind of timetable, no matter how strong its potential.

We don't know the potentially open-bar-swilling context of the anonymous exec's "white people" comment at Sundance, and we're confident that Water will, if you'll pardon the pun, eventually find its own level. But as far as the festival's safe harbor for tired thinking, we'll take a swag epidemic any day over a gang of rich assholes passing racism off as caution.