I’ve been to SXSW as a patron. I’ve been to SXSW as a member of the press. I’ve always dreamed of going to SXSW with a project.
In 2019, I personally witnessed the significance of this (and every) festival’s potential impact on a black creator when I reviewed Numa Perrier’s Jezebel, which has since been picked up by Ava DuVernay’s distribution collective ARRAY and is currently available to view on Netflix.
Those were simpler times. As January ended, we became acutely aware of a virus named “SARS-CoV-2,” now known as “coronavirus diseases 2019 (COVID-19).”
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
On January 30, 2020, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). On January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to COVID-19.
On March 6, SXSW (originally scheduled to take place March 13-22 of this year), announced that they would be canceling the festival for the first time in its 34-year-history, at the behest of the City of Austin.
The world’s reaction to this public health crisis has created a gargantuan ripple effect on the nation’s economy in a myriad of ways. Freelancers assigned to cover the festival rushed to cancel flights and lodging, hoping companies’ cancellation policies worked in their favor or that this pandemic would be considered an “extenuating circumstance.” People who raised funds to attend the rather expensive festival were faced with refunding money to donors and eating the service fees. Various industry workers who hoped to descend upon Austin found themselves having to come up with an impromptu Plan B as they lost out on a priceless networking opportunity. Local business relinquished tourism profits while out-of-town exhibitors lost out on promoting their brands at the annual trade show. Passholders are still at a crossroads as to whether or not they will be refunded, which trickles down to the fact that festival organizers are out of a lot of money; in fact, SXSW recently laid off about 30 percent of its employees in response to the deficit. According to a report titled, Analysis of the Economic Benefit to the City of Austin From SXSW 2019, “SXSW’s 2019 economic impact on the Austin economy totaled $355.9 million.”
And that’s just a piece of the clusterfuck-flavored pie.
There’s a slogan, consisting of three words, that every SXSW passholder hears at least once: “Keep Austin Weird.” It was adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance in order to promote small businesses in the city. Before major festivals like SXSW basically became an extension of Hollywood (because let’s face it, most of the big ones are, at this point), the original intent was to serve as a platform of support for independent filmmakers, musicians and other creators. Along with killing the sheer jubilation of being able to premiere a film or perform at one of the biggest festivals in the world, coronavirus is simply fucking with people’s bags. While major production and distribution studios are also affected by this cancellation, the bigger burden lies on the independent artist solely relying on the festival’s acclaimed reputation in order to get their project seen and sold.
Since I started as Entertainment Writer at The Root in December 2018, I’ve made it my mission to continue the tradition of providing a preview of black-ass experiences at events such as Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Knowing what we know now, it is even more imperative that we make sure to give a platform to these projects.
Thus, I’m going to provide a preview any-fucking-way. The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of black-ass experiences I was looking forward to at SXSW, per the catalog:
1. A Most Beautiful Thing: “narrated by Common, executive produced by NBA Stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade, and directed by Olympic rower Mary Mazzio, chronicles the first African American high school rowing team in this country (made up of young men, many of whom were from different neighborhoods and rival gangs from the West Side of Chicago), all coming together to row in the same boat.”
2. Really Love: directed by Angel Kristi Williams, who co-wrote the screenplay by Felicia Pride, the Washington D.C.-based film follows black painter Isaiah, who “is on the brink of giving up when he meets Stevie, an intriguing beauty with big brains.” The film stars Kofi Siriboe, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Uzo Aduba, Mack Wilds, Naturi Naughton, Suzzanne Douglas, Jade Eshete, Blair Underwood and Michael Ealy.
3. The Lovebirds: “A couple (Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani) experiences a defining moment in their relationship when they are unintentionally embroiled in a bizarre crime. As their journey to clear their names takes them from one extreme—and hilarious—circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they, and their relationship, can survive the night.”
4. Cut Throat City: “from director RZA comes the explosive Cut Throat City, the story of four boyhood friends in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward who return after Hurricane Katrina to find their homes decimated, with no jobs, and no help from FEMA. Out of options, they reluctantly turn to a local gangster, who offers them one shot at turning their situations around—by pulling off a dangerous heist in the heart of the city. When the job goes bad, the friends find themselves on the run, hunted by two relentless detectives and a neighborhood warlord who thinks they stole the heist money.”
5. Uncorked: “Fueled by his love for wine, Elijah enrolls in a course to become a master sommelier, an elite designation given only to a handful who are able to pass its notoriously difficult exam. It’s a dream that upends the expectations of his father, Louis (Courtney B. Vance), who insists Elijah take over the popular Memphis barbeque joint that’s been passed down from father to son since its inception. Elijah struggles with the demands of school and a new relationship, while Louis wrestles with the feelings of his son rejecting the family business until a tragedy forces both of them to slow things down.” The film, written by Prentice Penny, stars Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash and Bernard Jones.
6. Broken Bird: a short film directed by Rachel Harrison Gordon, follows “Birdie, a biracial girl raised by her Jewish mom in a New Jersey suburb, [who] spends a rare visitation day with her father while preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. They share a meal, she overcomes her doubts, and decides to risk inviting him back into her life. Birdie confronts what independence means as she steps into adulthood on her own terms.”
7. Mthunzi: directed by Tebogo Malebogo, “the film follows Mthunzi walking home from the shops as he sees a lady go into seizures in her driveway—he is then asked to help carry her in by her niece and so becomes caught up in a world he does not belong.”
In addition to the films, I looked forward to checking out new artists from Issa Rae’s Raedio Showcase (hosted by Patreon), sitting in on Janelle Monáe’s Convergence keynote, cracking up at both emerging and established comedians during the festival’s Comedy section and more.
So, where do we go from here? As we live in a digital age, some employers have suggested the telecommuting option for their employees. To that same extent, filmmakers requested a digital alternative, suggesting a virtual festival or offering digital screener links for press reviews.
As SXSW said in their statement, “the show must go on.” Let’s keep it going, especially for marginalized voices.