sundance 2017

At the Sundance Women’s March, Jessica Williams Excels in the Role of Inspirational Leader

Photo: Vulture

“I am my ancestors’ dream,” said Jessica Williams, looking out over a huge Park City crowd. “They fought for me to be able to stand up here in the cold-ass snow in front of a bunch of white people wearing Uggs.”

The crowd laughed, and shivered. The Daily Show alum Williams was speaking in the aftermath of a crowded Women’s March down Main Street here at the snow-pelted Sundance Film Festival, where the usual movie-going and deal-making has taken a backseat to the inauguration of Donald Trump. As our 45th president rails against celebrities like Meryl Streep and prepares to gut the National Endowment for the Arts — the independent federal agency that gave Robert Redford a loan that he used to start Sundance in the first place — the creative class here is notably anxious about what the future holds. Actress Maria Bello, who spoke before Williams, confessed that her post-election depression had kept her housebound for weeks. “I realized that I stayed in bed for too long, and I have never been that girl,” Bello said, raising her voice. “I don’t want to be that person now who stays silent.”

After coming together today, the Sundance crowd was anything but. Chanting “Love trumps hate,” more than 5,000 people marched down Main Street, including filmmakers, actors, and even Sundance director John Cooper. “This isn’t 1917, this is 2017,” said Chelsea Handler, who helped organize the march. “We shouldn’t have to fight for progress we’ve already made, but we’re ready to.”

Indeed, it was a pugnacious group of speakers. As Bello exhorted the crowd to “punch back harder with your pussy power,” a woman in the crowd raised pink boxing gloves into the air. Labor leader Dolores Huerta got the marchers cheering when she said, “Everything in this world has come from the body of a woman,” while Aisha Tyler and Connie Britton led the crowd in an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution. Filmmaker Janicza Bravo, mindful of the powerful creatives in the audience, extolled intersectionality and representation. “Our greatest power, the thing that I think we have over them,” she said, “is the power of inclusion.”

But it was Williams who truly galvanized the crowd. The 27-year-old stars in the Sundance closing film The Incredible Jessica James, but if she tires of her fledgling leading-lady status, she could be a movement leader or CNN’s smartest talking head. “The silver lining of this election is that we are here on this early-ass morning, in literally 21 degrees, supporting each other,” Williams said, earning grins and nods. But her speech was not complacent. It was expansive, accusatory, and riveting.

“I am the daughter of Maria Brooks and the daughter of John Williams,” she said, voice quavering. “I come from black bodies. My ancestors were slaves. ‘Williams’ is my last name, but it is not my real name. It is my slave name.”

With the cadences of a Sunday preacher, Williams led the crowd on an emotional journey to match the march. “I grew up thinking that the civil rights movement already happened, that we already fought, she said. “But this election was a wakeup call … We have to fight, and we cannot slack.” It was emotional and powerful, sometimes all in the same anecdote, as when Williams recalled what her mother said after she came home from school with average grades, a story you really must watch for its fiery finish:

The heights she hit seemed to surprise Williams herself. “I was not expecting that,” she said near the end of her speech, pausing to collect herself. “But I just want to say thank you so much for coming out. Enjoy the rest of your day and enjoy the rest of the festival. I stand with you. I hope that you stand with me.”

Sundance: Jessica Williams at the Women’s March