The 2016 Sundance Film Festival began with its annual kickoff press conference this afternoon, and founder Robert Redford was asked about the criticism levied on this year's Academy Award nominations regarding their lack of diversity. "I'm not into the Oscars... What I mean is I'm not focused on that part. For me, it's about the work," said Redford. Expanding on the topic and its relation to his festival, Redford said, "Diversity comes out of the word independence. It's a word I operate from principally for most of my life... If you're independent-minded, you're going to do things different than the common fort. That's something we're genuinely proud of — how we show diversity because it's tied to the fundamental word of independent... We don't take a position of advocacy."
In a moment where high-profile black performers and directors (including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith) are boycotting the Oscars and the Academy's president is promising "big changes," Redford's refusal to take a stance on Hollywood's diversity issues is particularly noteworthy. He's the force behind one of the world's most influential film festivals, a cinematic event that helps to set the tone for the conversation surrounding film every year. You can argue there are few people better equipped to affect change in the movie industry than Redford. If he wants to nudge Sundance in the direction of movies like Tangerine and Dope, that's well within his power.
Does independence naturally lead to diversity?
Redford is trying to walk a thin line with his comments this afternoon. He's suggesting Sundance's independent ethos facilitates greater diversity than Hollywood's ruthless machine, but he doesn't want to make it look like the festival is making selections with identity-based benchmarks in mind. Does Redford's belief in the relationship between the festival's independence and its diversity hold up? Fusion's Jorge Rivas looked into Sundance's demographic data and posted a slice of the results on Twitter this afternoon. When he evaluated the races of the directors involved in this year's US dramatic competition, Rivas found that 10 of the 17 filmmakers (59 percent) were white. It's a better ratio than the ones you'll find among Oscar nominees, but it's also just a snapshot, one that focuses on a single category and a single aspect of identity. The link Redford is trying to draw between Sundance's independence and its relative diversity remains tenuous at best.