Although the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 28 – Feb. 3) was a pared-down, mainly virtual version of its usual self, it still provided six straight nights of a diverse and thought-provoking array of hundreds of short films, documentaries, feature films and artist talks from filmmakers based across the globe. 

Some of the best films I had the privilege of watching during the festival were documentaries that act as correctives to histories that were previously erased (Summer of Soul, Ailey, My Name is Pauli Murray); a crime drama that centers Indigenous communities (Wild Indian); a short that explores the emotional effects of violence (Bruiser); and a period piece that features some of the most exquisite, delicate cinematography I have seen in a long time (Passing).

Here is my list of six must-see films that premiered at Sundance:

1. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Watching the concert documentary Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, is like being wrapped up in a warm embrace. It was culled from footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which sat in a basement for 50 years, unseen until now. The documentary features rare performances by legendary jazz, blues and soul performers including Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder performing a drum solo, along with Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” before a sea of Black New Yorkers in attendance. A total of 300,000 people attended the festival, which was held as a series of six weekly concerts between June 29 and August 24. 

It’s infuriating that this history was kept away from us for so long and that it isn’t as much a part of the cultural consciousness as the Woodstock Music Festival, which took place later that same summer in upstate New York. But given that Summer of Soul won both the grand jury and audience awards in the U.S. Documentary Competition category at Sundance, that momentum could help it get picked up for distribution soon.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.
2. Passing

Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella about two Black women in New York City who can pass for white, is British actress Rebecca Hall’s carefully observed directorial debut. Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga—looking every bit like a classic silent movie star—and Andre Holland, and filmed in dreamy black and white photography, Passing explores the slipperiness of race, class, identity and sexuality. It also shows how the ways we choose to define ourselves are never truly fixed, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Netflix is nearing a $15 million deal to distribute Passing.

A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jack Mitchell.
3. Ailey

Ailey is a thorough and lovingly researched documentary directed by Jamila Wignot about the legendary Alvin Ailey and the history of his eponymous dance company. Through never-before-heard audio interviews of Ailey himself, archival footage of past performances and current-day interviews with Ailey dancers, the film is at once a celebration of how Black people have always found catharsis through art and a bracing reminder that many of our artistic geniuses lived with a great deal of loneliness and pain while they created a legacy for us to carry on. Ailey has been acquired by NEON, so this should be appearing in theaters and video on demand soon.

J.D. Williams and Alexis Suarez appear in Bruiser by Miles Warren, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
4. Bruiser

I can’t stop thinking about Bruiser, a short film about the impact of a sudden act of violence on a father-son duo directed by Miles Warren. J.D. Williams (of The Wire fame) stars as a father who gets into a fight at a bowling alley in front of his grade-school aged son, played by a captivating Noble B. Whitted. We have all seen chaotic fights on Worldstar, but this film looks at what happens when one of the people in those shaky smartphone videos is someone you love and admire. 

It asks us to examine what impact that has on a child, and what exactly we are teaching our children about what it means to “be a man.” Even though it’s just 10 minutes long, its impact reverberates long after its run time. So far there is no news about distribution but hopefully it will either be acquired as is by a streaming service or developed into a feature film.

Michael Greyeyes appears in Wild Indian by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eli Born.
5. Wild Indian

Wild Indian is a compelling, if bleak, drama about assimilation, self-destruction, and the consequences of generational trauma. It follows Makwa and Ted-O, two Ojibwe teenagers in 1980s Wisconsin whose lives diverge after one of them commits a shocking crime and they help each other cover it up. Their stories then take another unexpected turn when the two meet again 30 years later. 

Michael Greyeyes brings a quiet menace to his role as adult Makwa, while Chanske Spencer is a great foil as Ted-O, whose moral clarity is at direct odds with his old friend. Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. is a confident director, unafraid to let uncomfortable scenes linger longer than expected and let the story unfold slowly and patiently. There is no news yet about a distribution deal.

A still from My Name is Pauli Murray by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Pauli Murray Foundation.
6. My Name Is Pauli Murray

My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, is a fascinating documentary about Black, queer, non-binary human rights activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray, a poet, lawyer, activist and priest whose writings and teachings laid the groundwork for many legal arguments for race and gender equality. Through Murray’s extensive archive of letters and interviews with her family, students and colleagues, the film makes a compelling case that Murray should be credited for spearheading many of the gains made during the history of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Murray led protests to desegregate restaurants in Washington, D.C., almost 20 years before the lunch-counter sit-ins, wrote papers as a student at Howard Law School that became the basis of Thurgood Marshall’s winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, and used the 14th amendment to end gender discrimination five years before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued her gender equality case before the Supreme Court. 

The documentary also explores Murray’s gender identity, and connects how their experience with gender dysphoria and gender expansiveness made them that much more keenly attuned to the immorality of racial and gender discrimination. There is no word yet on distribution but considering that West and Cohen’s 2018 documentary RBG was nominated for an Academy Award, it shouldn’t be too long before this is picked up.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.