This time of year, every year for about the past decade, Brickson Diamond is among the most famous names in Park City, Utah. He’s not a filmmaker in the traditional sense, but he sure sees to it that black films and black film creatives are represented, supported and (when a delicious bidding war gets underway) properly feted at the annual Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m just an interloper,” he deadpans. Nah — he’s selling himself way too short.
This year, Diamond, who heads up Blackhouse — the foundation that helps expand opportunities for black content creators in film, television, digital and emerging platforms — is celebrating a major coup: A record 39 black films are being presented at the largest independent film festival in the United States; Sundance was founded in 1978.
“I gotta be honest,” says Diamond, whose actual job is chief operating officer of an independent corporate advisory firm called Big Answers LLC. “I don’t believe there are any more black creators than there used to be, I just think there are more pathways for their voices to be heard. Sundance’s palate, the palate of the festival, and the palate of the audiences have been refined in a way that makes appropriate room for all these stories.”
And the room, thankfully, is now a little bigger.
Diamond’s mission officially kicked off at the festival 11 years ago, but the seed was planted in 2005 when he attended for the first time. He was visiting with some friends from business school — he was the lone black guy in the house — and someone scored a few tickets to a film screening for something called Hustle & Flow.
“They were like, ‘Well, Brickson will go and see that!’ I was like, ‘OK, I will …,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It was my first Sundance movie. [The screening] was in a gymnasium … the basketball hoops were kind of pushed on the side. The cast got up and they were crying, all happy, and loving it. You see [other] people running up and down the aisles the whole movie. It turns out they were making offers for the film, and they were doing it before the credits rolled. … Fast-forward and you watch the release, and you watch the Academy Award nominations, and you watch, you know, Three 6 Mafia at the Oscars.” It was a moment.
So Blackhouse was birthed in 2007, and that year there were seven black films at Sundance. “We were real generous: black director, black subject matter or black star lead — so if Danny Glover’s in a movie, we counted it.” It was a starting point. What was missing was programming.
“My favorite is when black people show up with their luggage like, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but Blackhouse is here, so now I’m here.’ And we help [them] understand … how to navigate this world as we push the festival,” Diamond says.
The foundation has since expanded, creating a presence at spaces like the Tribeca Film Festival, the LA Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest. At this year’s Sundance festival, Blackhouse is hosting loads of activities, including programming like a panel on diverse storytelling that features Jada Pinkett Smith, Effie Brown, Poppy Hanks, Radha Blank, Lena Waithe and Christine D’Souza Gelb. There’s a “Women of Color in Hollywood” panel that will be moderated by Angela Rye, as well as a panel that will include producer Tonya Lewis Lee and Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer (and now Hollywood producer) John Legend.
But, of course, most of the focus is on what is coming out of Sundance. And the expectation is that a film like Monster — featuring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas, John David Washington and Jeffrey Wright — is going to be a festival smash. Also on deck: Blindspotting with Daveed Diggs; Skate Kitchen with Jaden Smith; A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night with Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good; Come Sunday with the aforementioned Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and Burden with Forest Whitaker and Usher Raymond.
Yet, with as much progression as has happened, there’s still more work to be done. Diamond is ready for more even more diverse representation at the festival, and he’ll also be looking for a spark for the next movement.
“I hope that on the ground at Sundance, we’re not just seeing more black people everywhere, but we see them engaged … right? [And] my Asian-American brothers and sisters, and my LatinX brothers and sisters, and my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, and my indigenous brothers and sisters, all are repping for each other. We all need a seat at these tables so that … increasingly diverse consumers can be satisfied. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”