Sundance 2023 (hybrid again this year) expanded its multicultural reach, spreading over several sections. It offered films by and about Black protagonists – some identified as women – queer and trans subjects, and fables, stories and documentaries about displacement, immigration and transience. The narrative award was won by A.V. Rockwell’s first feature A Thousand and One – a film about the intertwining of two lives, a young Black mother and a son, linked by a kidnapping from a foster home and a series of lies to the administrative system. Sexy, bad ass and energetic, Inez (Teyana Taylor) stops at nothing to keep the family unit she forms with young Terry, whether falsifying paperwork or travelling two hours on the subway to a menial cleaning job in the borough of Queens. These ebullient and often misdirected efforts are mirrored by the transformation of New York itself in the 1980s, with its unchecked gentrification that leaves no room for impoverished families. Inez’s sleek (white) slumlord in Harlem uses the renovation of her apartment as a pretext to push her out – just as Terry is applying to the elite college of his choice.


Changing New York

Co-directed by a Black woman, Kristen Lovell – an activist and actress who spent years working and living alongside transwomen of colour – and artist/producer/filmmaker star of the trans scene, Zackary Drucker, The Stroll is also a quintessential New York film. Expanding north and west around Christopher Street, the gay neighbourhood in the West Village, the Meatpacking District was a place where gay men could find “rough trade” or anonymous sex and transwomen could find (or be found by) johns. Turned away from legitimate jobs, the women could work there, and formed a true camaraderie amongst themselves. Segueing from shelters, covenant houses, homelessness and prison, Lovell pays homage to the brave and charismatic women active in creating advocacy institutions, fighting homelessness, police harassment and violence (sometimes murder) on the part of the customers. Maybe because it’s already old news, or maybe because it would be another film, AIDS is not mentioned as a prominent factor on the evolution of the area; yet many Black sex workers and cis-gay men perished from the disease. Lovell and Drucker show a novel aspect of the Meatpacking District: a sense of community, of solidarity, that made, in spite of its dangers, The Stroll relatively safe for trans sex workers. In the early 2000s, when mayor Bloomberg was elected, he started on a plan of gentrification of the Meatpacking District and a tightening of police control. A number of women died or ended up in jail at that time, and now the district has been “cleaned”. Yet, where do the trans sex workers go?

They can go to D. Smith’s Kokomo City. They are younger, the community that supported their older sisters in the Meatpacking District is no more; they work alone, they are more virulent and more critical of their johns. For her first feature, (which she shot and edited as well as directed), Grammy-nominated transwoman D. Smith gives the floor to four Black transwomen: Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver in New York; Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell in Georgia.1 They talk candidly, violently, humorously, about their clients’ hang-ups and bad faith, but also of the prejudices of the Black community, who rejected them in the margins they are living now. As in The Stroll, these women were not given a choice to make a living and be what/who they really wanted to be, yet they inhabit these circumstances with energy, charisma and a no holds barred criticism of the injustice they are exposed to.

Going to Mars: the Nikki Giovanni Project

I am Everything

Another figure (1932-2020) who inhabited the changes of American society from the 1950s on with ebullient energy and irreverence was the self-described architect of rock ’n’ roll, Little Richard, and it took one brave woman to tackle such an often-documented subject: Lisa Cortés, who had executive-produced Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009) and knows a thing or two about transgressive Black culture. Even through the documentary is called Little Richard: I Am Everything, Cortés does not aim at producing the ultimate biopic on an icon many times celebrated, but focuses instead on the way the icon was mismatched in American culture. “I am everything” alludes to the utopia that Little Richard tried to embody. Unabashedly queer within a largely homophobic Black culture (his father threw him out of the house when he was a teenager); a singer and musician so wild his compositions fully entered white culture once tamed by the likes of Elvis Presley; a sexual bomb that addressed both men and women; on a frenzy that took him sometimes toward hard drugs and sometimes toward religious conversion and a traditional marriage. “I am everything” in this context meant “I want to live everything” – not only to be Black and queer but to be the first musician to whom women were throwing their panties on stage. Being everything comes at a cost, but also creates legends. Little Richard was cheated from some of his royalties, some of his work is better known when performed by white musicians, but, contradiction and all, he changed popular music in America forever. 

A more subdued but no less utopian and energetic Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is inhabited by the spirit of one of the greatest African American poets, born in 1942, i.e., 10 years after Little Richard. Segueing from historical footage of Giovanni’s early years to recent interviews when she reflects on her work and legacy, the film spans about 60 years of creative life, embedded, sometimes in a contradictory way, in the unfolding of Black history (“Where were you when MLK was assassinated?) In inverse relation to the Middle Passage2, the trip to Mars is a well-known trope of Afrofuturism, way before Elon Musk’s colonizing fantasies. Musician Sun Ra (1914-1993), one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism, claimed to have been teleported to Saturn as a young man, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans,” said Giovanni. In this dreamt out trip to and from the red planet, you can see a poetic iteration of the Middle Passage (being “teleported” out of a world to another one) and/or being transported into a future society where Black women would be given full agency.

Also born in 1942, Bethann Hardison is one of these voices and charismatic presences who shaped the last seven decades of American society. She teamed up with filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng to co-direct Invisible Beauty in which she recounts her sometimes glamorous, sometimes lonely struggle to give parity to Black models in the fashion industry. Hardison started as a model herself, and in 1984 she founded the Bethann Management Agency. Acting as a mentor to prominent Black models, such as Naomi Campbell, she teamed up with one of them, Iman, to launch The Black Girls Coalition in 1988. She also takes credit for having introduced the first male Black supermodel, Tyson Beckford, to photographer/filmmaker Bruce Weber in the early 1990s. Years of advocacy paid off, and you could see more models of colour on the runways. Hardison decided to leave the United States for a long vacation in Mexico. When she returned, the trend was skinny blondes from Eastern Europe who were progressively eliminating the Black models from the runway. In 2007, Hardison organized a (well attended) press conference to denounce the racism of the leaders of the fashion industry. Things have been in flux since, with more and more Black women on the runways and the cover of Vogue. Fashion is indeed a multi-million dollar industry, but it is also an outpost in the struggle for parity and visibility as, beneath the expensive clothes, fashion dictates which bodies are desirable and worthy of representation.

Bravo, Burkina!

Having a background as a designer, Nigerian-born filmmaker Walé Oyéjidé is deeply invested in the idea of beauty, especially in depicting people in the dire straits of poverty and emigration. In Bravo, Burkina! he plunges into the multiple layers of African magic realism. A boy in a Burkinabe village wants to leave and go to Europe. The next sequence shows him, fashionably dressed thanks to the content of Oyéjidé’s closet, working in a shop repairing precious vintage artefacts – somewhere in Italy, probably in Bologna. Yet, through the encounter with a beautiful Burkinabe woman who has just been denied her immigration papers, he realizes what he has missed, and is transported back in time (or into the future?) in his small village. With stunning visuals and elliptical narration, the film works as a fable about dreams of escape and emigration.

Similarly, the moment of travel to Europe is elided in Singaporean-born Anthony Chen’s first English-language feature, Drift. In 2013, Chen’s debut film, Ilo ilo, created ripples when it won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Drift focuses on the grim realities of survival for Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), a homeless woman who is alone and has escaped (how?) from war-torn Liberia to a touristy Greek island; she sleeps on the beach, and steals a bottle of oil to give tourists foot massages for a few euros. The beginning of the film may remind some of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008): how to avoid being harassed by men at night, how to clean oneself, how to wash one’s only set of clothes and underpants. These details are minutely rendered, their quiet matter-of-factness working against the counterpoint of Jacqueline trying to cope with past traumas. Yet, when she strikes a friendship with an American émigré tour guide, Callie (Alia Shawkat), things become more predictable and, frankly, much less interesting.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

As Time Goes By

In contrast to the urban stories that filled the U.S. Dramatic competition section, Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt unfolds, in a non-linear way, covering forty years of the life of Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child; Charleen McClure as a young woman), in Mississippi. A poet as much as a filmmaker, benefiting from the splendid image of award-winning African American DP Jomo Fray and the subtle editing skills of Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Lee Chatametikool, Jackson lyrically captures a sense of space – the air filled with the haunting hum of hundreds of invisible insects, the land still worked in the tradition inherited from African ancestors. If the dirt roads smell of salt, it’s not only because Mack learns fishing from her father there, but also because it is a reminder of how close it is to the ocean where the slave ships of the Middle Passage unloaded their cargo. The elliptic mode of storytelling in the film becomes a mirror to the story of the area: beloved by its inhabitants, but a reminder that they’ve been torn from Africa, “stuck” there upon arrival, unable to go North. In All Dirt Roads time congeals beautifully.

Also in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, transgender director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s Mutt is the affectionate portrait of Feña, who is in the midst of their transition, retaining a fluidity identity. Feña is played by Puerto Rican and Greek artist/actor/filmmaker Lío Mehiel, who became the first trans actor to win Sundance’s top acting award. Mehiel has said they identify as a ”mutt”, i.e. a mongrel dog3, and the film, a quintessential portrait of New York in the 2000s, shows them negotiating this hybridity through an adrenaline-filled day in the urban landscape, reconnecting with people who knew them before: a former boyfriend, John (Cole Doman), turned on by and curious about what their body looks like now; a little sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder) who has her period; and a father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), who has just flown in from Chile and, on account of whom, Feña needs to borrow a car to pick him up at the airport. Granted, Feña appears to be white, but the situation for trans people has changed since those of The Stroll, when people were reduced to prostitution because they couldn’t change their names on their legal or financial documents. Feña’s employer forgets sometimes to write their new name on a cheque, but this can be solved by depositing the cheque in an ATM. Of course, one specific day, the ATM is broken – which could trigger a crisis, but Feña handles it with poise and mischievousness (how do you get through the subway turnstile if you don’t have any cash? And how does Feña acquire his signature band-aid over their left eyebrow?) Feña is so endearing and relatable, because Lungulov-Klotz has projected his own identity as a Chilean/Serbian trans person to create a context in which Lío Mehiel could express the vulnerability of their character, where their acting skills blossom.

The Accidental Getaway Driver

Still in the US Dramatic Competition, Hong Kong-British Sing J. Lee has crafted, with The Accidental Getaway Driver, another unlikely hero, the elderly and demure Vietnamese cab driver, Long (Hiệp Trần Nghĩa). As he’s about to go to bed, Long receives a phone call asking him for “a short ride.’ Long is reluctant, but he does not know how to say “No”, so he picks up a trio of young guys. Soon, a gun is pointed at him, as it turns out that his three customers are dangerous escapees from an Orange County prison in California. As the trip goes on, including a stopover in a motel, it becomes obvious that the trio does not have a clear plan about what to do next. At the same time, as it is revealed that Long lives alone and that nobody will come looking for him, the relationships shift, and Long discovers a new generation of Vietnamese immigrants who know next to nothing about the fall of Saigon but have to wrestle with the fear of deportation, the difficulties of integrating into a new society and the lure of gangsterism. Among them is Tay (martial artist Dustin Nguyen), who, unexpectedly, starts bonding with Long. No less unexpectedly, the latter reveals he was an officer in the Vietnamese army, and has sound advice to give Tay. The Accidental Getaway Driver loses momentum in its last third, but provides insights about the multiple layers and contradictions of the Vietnamese community in the U.S.…

My Animal


In the Midnight section, Jacqueline Castel – a former collaborator of John Carpenter, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch and a director of award-winning music videos (including Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth with experimental singer/performance artist Genesis P-Orridge) – has emerged from the frozen expanses of Canada with a feminist horror tale, My Animal. Produced in collaboration with singer and author Jae Matthews (a member of the Boy Harsher band) My Animal revolves around the irresistible attraction between two teens, played by Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Amandla Stenberg, two young actresses who have already made their mark through their public statements or their lifestyles in the LGBTQ+ scene. It’s winter, in a small, snowbound lower middle-class community. There is nothing much to do there, except play ice-hockey games, and Heather (Menuez) wants to become a goalie for the all-boy team, insisting that she is “as good as any man” (and we believe her). Yet Heather has a “condition”: her family locks her up at night when there is a full moon, to prevent her from going out, for fear that she might turn into a werewolf. For Castel, lycanthropy becomes a metaphor for Heather’s feeling of alienation and otherness, and also the rage and passion she has bottled inside herself. Her mother is a hysterical alcoholic, and her father runs a modest convenience store. One day, Heather sees Jonny (Stenberg) quietly swiping a bottle from the shelf. As much as it is Jonny’s beautiful face, her blonde dreadlocks and her figure-skating body, it is the discovery of this act of delinquency that immediately attracts Heather; soon the two women are hanging out together, and finding much pleasure in each other’s company. Until…

Jonny’s about face is brutal, as she utters heinous words “I am not gay!” Later, when Heather tries to enter a house party attended by Jonny, the latter’s macho hockey champion boyfriend intervenes, and pushes Heather outside. There, he does not mince words, slinging homophobic insults. The tone escalates: “You can’t even satisfy her,” says Heather. Oh… but it’s full moon that night…


Unlike a number of the independent films mentioned above, in which there is a contiguity between the character, filmmaker and the performer/subject (e.g., a film about trans people directed by a trans filmmaker with trans actors or trans subjects in front of the camera), Cassandro, shown in the Premieres section, has a more classical production make-up. Counting the successful and prolific Ted Hope among its producers, and directed by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, who debuts here his first narrative feature, the film involves a superb and soulful performance by Gael García Bernal who plays Saúl, an amateur wrestler in Juárez, Mexico, who wants to become a star of the Lucha libre wrestling scene. Saúl is gay and won’t renounce or hide his identity. Like Little Richard, he wants to be everything and, because of this, faces homophobia in Mexican society and in the Lucha Libre milieu. Like Little Richard, he was rejected by his father for being an effeminate teen. In the second most popular sport in Mexico, some wrestlers are relegated to the ridiculous roles of the Exóticos, dressed in flashy feminine garb, who always lose the matches (the latter, more lucha – fight – than libre – free, being fixed) under the jeers, taunts and homophobic insults of the attending crowd. To become a better wrestler, Saúl trains with Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), and to become a star he designs the flamboyant persona of Cassandro (based on the name of the telenovela diva, Kassandra) and makes costumes adorned with sequins and featuring leopard prints. His challenge is met: crowds cheer Cassandro instead of jeering at him and, in Mexico, he competes against the legendary fighter El Hijo del Santo (who plays himself) and wins his respect when the latter accepts the terms of a fair fight (not fixed). 

Cassandro is an adaptation of the story of the real Saúl Armendáriz whose journey Ross Williams had evoked in a short documentary, The Man Without a Mask in 2016. In 2018, he was also the subject of a feature documentary, Cassandro: The Exótico! by French filmmaker Marie Losier. In Ross Williams’s feature, Cassandro becomes a triumphant star and a queer hero. In real life, Armendáriz is internationally known in Mexico and the U.S., where he trains teams of Exóticos to win. The fight for acceptance and against homophobia continues.

Sundance Film Festival
19 January – 28 January 2023
Festival website: https://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival


  1. Michael Levenson, “Koko Da Doll, Star of Film on Transgender Sex Workers, Is Killed in Atlanta”, New York Times, 21 April 2023.
  2. The part of the journey taking enslaved Africans from their communities to the plantations in American, where they were unloaded. The trip over the Atlantic lasted between six weeks and six months. The enslaved people suffered from ill-treatment, diseases and malnutrition. The death rate was very high (several millions), especially since many enslaved people preferred to jump overboard rather than face a life of enslavement. As a historical fact as well as a metaphor, the Middle Passage is an important figure in African American consciousness.
  3. Scott Orlin, “Lío Mehiel the Activism of Art”, The Golden Globes Awards, July 20, 2022

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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