Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, one of seven short films to kick off the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is a pleasant surprise, defined by as much as what it is not as what it actually is. 

It’s not quite a documentary, not quite a surreal short film, not quite an extended music video, and not quite a found footage collection, but rather a 38-minute visually bold hybrid of all of those things that serves as a personal history of Topaz Jones, an up-and-coming rapper and singer from Montclair, N.J., who co-directed the film. 

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma has only a tangential connection to Chicago, as it is an update of the Black ABCs, a set of educational flashcards developed by Black educators in Chicago in the 1970s. In the spirit of those flashcards, Jones and his co-directors, the filmmaking duo rubberband., created 26 short vignettes that illustrate different letters and words that go from A to Z.

Those vignettes, threaded together with Jones’ breezy 1970s funk-inspired music, veer between interviews with Jones’ family members, friends, artists and activists; short clips of Jones rapping; and visual flights of fancy, such as a man floating in the middle of an apartment to illustrate “A is for amphetamines” or Jones popping out of a manhole in an homage to Gordon Parks’ Invisible Man series to illustrate “U is for Underground.”

This is largely Jones’ personal history, which is a surprise, as the film’s description makes it seem like it would be about the development of those famous flash cards, and what it was like for kids growing up at that time to see themselves represented in a positive and recognizable way. (That is still a film I would love to see.) But Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma turns out to be a pleasant one, as Jones pays homage to his family, who feature prominently in home movie footage that is interspersed throughout the film. 

The film at some points recalls m.a.a.d, Khalil Joseph’s stunning often surreal visual component to Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s classic album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, that also blends home movie footage and Joseph’s darkly romantic view of Los Angeles. 

However, the similarities between Joseph’s and Jones’s projects are only in the blend of archival footage and fictional vignettes, along with the use of the 70mm-style square frame that gives the film a retro look. Jones’s music has more of a breezy, easygoing style than Lamar, and Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is also not quite as cohesive as m.a.a.d., as sometimes the lyrics in Jones’ songs don’t get as personal as the images and interviews he presents in the film.

A still from Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma by Topaz Jones and rubberband., an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Toward the end of the film, Jones raps about various landmarks he grew up with in Montclair, a diverse city 30 minutes outside New York City— “07042/this is for you/who am I?” — which made me wish the other songs throughout were as personal as that one. 

While the film often employs incredible visual tricks and sometimes distorted sound design, the strongest components of Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma are the interviews, where the action slows down and we focus on conversations around education, organizing, intellectual property, vulnerability, food apartheid and the power that language gives us to “assert our existence,” as one interviewee, rapper and producer Ivy Sole says in the vignette “L is for Language.” 

Sole’s segment was fascinating, as they talked about being from Charlotte and relocating to Philly, how they learned to code switch and hide their southern accent and how it comes back to life whenever they go home. They talked about the power Black vernacular has and how we bend language to fit our own needs no matter where we are. 

By giving us a chance to slow down and listen to the profound insights Jones’s friends and family share in those interviews, we get a glimpse of his personality, the values he holds close and a sense of how he has learned to be in the world from the people around him.

A still from Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma by Topaz Jones and rubberband., an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Instead of thousands of film enthusiasts and filmmakers gathering in Park City, Utah, this year’s festival — which runs between now and Feb. 3 — will take place in our individual homes, gathered around our own smart TVs and laptops. 

It still feels a bit uncanny for a communal experience such as a film festival to be reduced to 15- or 20-inch screens, as so much of our lives have been reduced since the pandemic began. There are no serendipitous conversations to be had while waiting in line to enter a theater, no collective laughter, or gasps, or “mmhmm” murmurs of approval (or disapproval) while a film collectively envelops the audience. 

But that certainly doesn’t take away from the power of Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma. While it could have been tighter, the blend of archival footage and photos— and those interviews with Jones’ extended community — make it worth watching. And it doesn’t take away the thrill of knowing that Sundance is still a place that can launch talented filmmakers’ careers, and give the public the pleasure of seeing films that exist outside of the established rules and boundaries of filmmaking.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.