Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

As part of a collaborative effort to highlight some of the most talented Indigenous screenwriters in the U.S., The Black List, IllumiNative and the Sundance Institute have unveiled their latest selections of The Indigenous List for 2020.

Initial submissions to the Indigenous List were open in June and were accepted until September.

Ianeta Le'i, the senior manager for the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous program says an important aspect of these screenwriters being selected for 2020’s Indigenous list is increased exposure in the industry. But getting the list together wasn’t an easy process.

Le'i said the process of selecting and vetting new Indigenous screenwriters was a larger hill to climb than she and her other colleagues expected.

“Actually, this was a lot more work than we expected, because we went above and beyond …, each script was read through two or three times by our independent readers. It was a lot of work, but we're proud of the list,” Le’i said.

Le'i said the Indigenous List has already paved the way for one of the screenwriters who has already been approached for possible development, funding and agent representation. “Just seeing the visibility of The Blacklist and its reputation, has already opened up some doors, just hours after the release of [The Indigenous List] and it is super exciting for us.”

Le'i said they do have plans for an Indigenous list for 2021.

Here is the list of screenwriters selected for 2020 in alphabetical order:

BUNKER BOSS by Joey Clift

Joey Clift - Instagram

After a nuclear war forces most of humanity into underground bunkers, a total loser must become the inspirational leader of a bunker known to execute any leader that drops below a 60 percent approval rating. (Animated)

FANCY DANCE by Erica Tremblay & Miciana Alise

Following the disappearance of her sister, a Native American hustler kidnaps her niece from her white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow in the hopes of keeping what’s left of their family intact.

FIREBIRD by Kathyn Machi

After earning the chance of a lifetime to dance her dream ballet in France, a talented teenage Cherokee ballerina and her cowboy father search for her estranged mother, who left them years ago to chase her own dreams abroad.

LORDS OF THE EARTH by Blackhorse Lowe

LORDS OF THE EARTH is about two star-crossed lovers searching for each other amidst the backdrop of a harsh and violent New Mexico territory in 1863. In the film, Hastiin Hashke’ is a Navajo man who longs to be reunited with his wife, Taa’deezbaa, who was abducted into slavery.

MOLOKA’I BOUND by Alika Maikau

After several years in prison, Kainoa wants nothing more than to reestablish a relationship with his son and Hawaiian heritage, but old friends and new circumstances threaten to derail his path.

POI DOGS by Bryson Chun

When a small-town, high-end Hawai’i dog groomer learns that a hit was put on her on the Dark Web, she has to race to find the culprit among her friends and family before it's too late.

THE BLIND by Sterlin Harjo

Noted Native filmmaker Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek), whose feature 'Four Sheets to the Wind' was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is an advisor at this year's NativeLab.

When the teenage son of a Native American hunter is murdered by a group of backwoods drug dealers, the mourning father decides to exact revenge on those responsible for his death and the corruption in their small town.

THE WILDEST WEST by Blake Pickens

Riley works as a theme park attendant at Seven Flags Over Texas, a miserable establishment full of tyrannical customers that make obscene demands. But when a spot opens up to play Geronimo in the park's annual Wild West Show, he sees an opportunity to stop hawking hot dogs and become closer to his real goal of becoming an actor.

TINDER ON THE REZ by Brooke Swaney & Angela Tucker

Just because you are 35 and living back on the Rez with your parents, your brother and his two kids, doesn’t mean you can’t get laid, right? Don’t ask Lenny. It’s a sensitive topic

Responses from IllumiNative, Sundance and The Black List

The script selections were announced Tuesday and Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee, the founder and executive director of IllumiNative; N. Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, the Indigenous Program Director at Sundance and the Black List founder Franklin Leonard all offered comments in an announcement release.

“IllumiNative is proud to partner with the Sundance Indigenous Program and The Black List to showcase the immense talent of Native writers,” said Echo Hawk. “These writers, and the more than 6 dozen other scripts submitted during this process, shows the growing talent, diversity and strength of Indigenous storytellers. Now more than ever, it’s important that we continue to support opportunities for Indigenous peoples to shape, author, and control our own narrative- these scripts show the depth and range of stories Native writers are creating. Our research shows that there is a strong demand among audiences for authentic Native stories and content. We are hopeful that 2021 will represent a groundbreaking year for Native representation. We look forward to continuing this work and seeing these stories on our screens.”

“The Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program team and I congratulate these extraordinary storytellers whose scripts have been selected for the Inaugural Indigenous List — they offer not only some of the most unique voices of Indigenous film and television writing, but also offer a glimpse of what our American popular culture landscape will be shaped like when Indigenous voices are recognized and included,” said Runningwater. “These scripts represent the breadth of authenticity that Indigenous writers bring to their work and are a testament to the craft and creativity that happens when Indigenous voices tell their own stories. We are proud to have partnered with The Black List and IllumiNative to elevate these Indigenous writers and we can’t wait until these stories make it to screens for audiences everywhere.”

“I’ve known Bird Runningwater since my earliest days in the industry and have, since then, admired the consistent, heroic work that he’s done on behalf of storytellers in the Indigenous community, the community more broadly, and on behalf of all of us outside it in doing so. It’s a real honor to be partnered with him, the Indigenous Program team at the Sundance Institute, Crystal Echo Hawk, and everyone at IllumiNative,” added Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “I look forward to these and many more stories from Indigenous writers gracing screens of all sizes.”

The requirements to have submitted to the 2020 Indigenous List included the following:

  • Indigenous film artists working in the U.S. were eligible to submit scripts to this partnership
  • Any kind of story was eligible and would be considered
  • Feature film scripts, half-hour scripts and one-hour episodic scripts will be considered for this partnership — no webseries
  • All levels of experience were considered for submitting writers
  • Submitting writers answered the following questions: What is your Tribal Nation/First Nation? Please describe how your Native culture has supported your ideas and process as a screenwriter?

About The Black List

The Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives' favorite unproduced screenplays, was founded in 2005. Since then, more than 400 Black List scripts have been produced, grossing over $29 billion in box office worldwide. Black List movies have won 54 Academy Awards from 267 nominations, including four of the last twelve Best Picture Oscars and eleven of the last 28 Best Screenplay Oscars.

In October of 2012, the Black List launched a unique online community where screenwriters make their work available to readers, buyers and employers. Since its inception, it has hosted more than 70,000 screenplays and teleplays and provided more than 120,000 script evaluations. As a direct result of introductions made on the Black List, dozens of writers have found representation at major talent agencies and management companies, as well as sold or optioned their screenplays. Several films have been produced from scripts showcased on the website including Golden Globe-nominated NIGHTINGALE, starring David Oyelowo, and Amazon’s HONEY BOY, written by Shia Lebeouf.

Currently, the Black List hosts over 3,000 by nearly 2,700 writer members, available for download by industry professionals ranging from agency assistants to studio and network presidents, to A-list actors and directors.

About IllumiNative

IllumiNative is a national, Native-led racial and social justice organization. Founded in 2018, IllumiNative uses research, narrative, and culture change strategies to increase the visibility of Native peoples and amplify Native voices, stories and issues. Our work aims to build power for Native peoples in order to advance justice, equity and self-determination and disrupt the systems and narratives that have perpetuated and institutionalized our invisibility and erasure. We provide tools for Native advocates and allies to develop and advocate for accurate and contemporary representations and voices of Native peoples. Learn more at illuminatives.org.

About Sundance Institute

Founded in 1981 by Robert Redford, Sundance Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides and preserves the space for artists in film, theatre, and media to create and thrive. The Institute's signature Labs, granting, and mentorship programs, dedicated to developing new work, take place throughout the year in the U.S. and internationally. Sundance Co//ab, a digital community platform, brings artists together to learn from each other and Sundance Advisors and connect in a creative space, developing and sharing works in progress. The Sundance Film Festival and other public programs connect audiences and artists to ignite new ideas, discover original voices, and build a community dedicated to independent storytelling. Sundance Institute has supported such projects as The Farewell, Late Night, The Souvenir, The Infiltrators, Sorry to Bother You, Eighth Grade, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Hereditary, RBG, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, The Big Sick, Top of the Lake, Winter's Bone, Dear White People, Little Miss Sunshine, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, State of the Union, Indecent, Spring Awakening, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Fun Home. Join Sundance Institute on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Native Nerd Phone

Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com.

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