Black filmmakers have long been barricaded from the film industry and sidelined in film history, to the detriment of a cultural conversation that thrives on a variety of voices. Some of these astounding films will be recognisable to many, some less so. With this list there has been an attempt at including films related to today’s crises, others that simply stand testament to the breadth and variety of talent within the black community.
Whilst these protests might drop from the headlines, our conversation must carry on. An important way to champion a multiracial arts scene is not to just cheer when a single actor or filmmaker breaks through, but to spearhead the path for every voice, no matter how small. When there is a new film, go and watch it. Pay for it at your local independent cinema (when they next open up). Go to your regional theatre and see that small production written or directed by a young black playwright. This goes beyond hashtags; we must support black artists no matter their platform.
· Do The Right Thing – Spike Lee
A suffocating summers’ day. Racial tensions simmering at the edge of an inner-city community. A mob of racist, emboldened officers. Sound familiar? It might pain Spike Lee that his 1989 film is still so fitting, yet it is essential viewing for anyone in today’s environment to understand the long history of racial violence in America, and the debate on the forms that protest can and should take. The painful resonance to today’s crises notwithstanding, Lee’s script produces a single day drama more akin to theatre. Febrile Brooklyn becomes the stage for a violent confrontation, and though its shocking ending exists more in the realm of docudrama, the emotional gut punch begins in the set-up. Comedy, romance, hip-hop. It all plays artfully to portray life being lived. Lee’s film never purports to have all the answers, a filmmaker this smart knows there are rarely any, but cleverly raises questions by turning the camera back on ourselves, our communities, and the way we treat each other as human beings.
· Daughters of the Dust – Julie Dash
Possibly the most unheard-of film on this list, Julie Dash’s 1991 debut has had a remarkable influence on African American cinema and the black diaspora; heavily influencing the visual imagery of Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, whilst its cinematographer Arthur Jafa has worked closely with musicians such as Solange and Kanye West. Set in 1902 on a small island off the coast of South Carolina, it follows a community of African Americans who’s agrarian, egalitarian society is threatened by the appeal of a civilised mainland to the young with no memory of slavery. Raising issues of religion, memory, ancestry, and language, it is a dense, lyrical film. Actors use the traditional creole dialect, rich in poeticism. Jafa’s hauntingly beautiful cinematography basks in the natural landscape, the richness of their clothes and faces. It is horrible to see the mostly female commune embark on their trip north; with the audience’s awareness of the racism they will unknowingly face. Yet Dash never reveals this, rather, she focuses on this small slice of heaven that once existed, committed to celluloid, and remembered by the stories of their children.
· Shame – Steve McQueen
Before 12 Years A Slave brought critical adoration and commercial success, McQueen was in the business of making quiet and tortured character studies. His 2011 sophomore effort, though not ostensibly about black issues, echoes universal themes of addiction, mental health, and physical and emotional isolation, once again timely in an age of COVID-19. Michael Fassbender’s raw unadulterated performance as a sex addict in New York strips back any pretence of glamour, where real emotions are something to be feared and pleasure is cheap and fleeting. Carey Mulligan counters Fassbender perfectly as his equally damaged sister, the two miles away emotionally even when sat side by side. With social distancing enforced and many couples or would-be romantics pushed online, McQueen’s anaesthetised cityscape evokes an eerily recognisable world for many of us in 2020. Not an easy watch, but it is a fantastic case study for the dangers of true human connection becoming sexualised and commodified. Broken family and fragile people have rarely been rendered as soul-shatteringly on screen as this.
· Selma – Ava DuVernay Considering the film’s monumental success, it is easy to forget how personal 2014’s Selma is. Ava DuVernay became the first black woman director nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in her attempt to cover Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and his campaign to bring equal voter rights to the American South in 1965. This a bruising story, not shy of depicting the shocking violence that protestors faced and the racism that those in power showed. DuVernay operates in a recognisable Hollywood biopic style but it is the clever notes, powerful subject matter and central performance that elevate it above the usual pack. Nods to this include the sharply observant real-life FBI logs as date signifiers, who trailed, bugged, and spied upon Dr King. David Oyelowo is undeniably rousing as one of the 20th Century’s most distinguished speakers, yet it is his quiet family life torn at by his incessant campaigning that offers the most revelatory insight. DuVernay proved herself a Hollywood mainstay with this picture, a film that can capture a large audience without losing any of the soul at the heart of the story.
· Moolade – Ousmane Sembene
An article about black filmmakers would be disappointing were it not to include one of the many fantastic directors to have worked out of Africa. Director Ousmane Sembene is often considered a father of African cinema and was a novelist in his native Senegal. He made his final film at the age of 81, 2004’s Moolade. Focusing on the barbaric tradition of female genital mutilation and the active dialogue within a Burkina Faso village, Sembene rouses a shocking tale of subjugated women and their refusal to live oppressed any longer. At turns distressing, comedic, even Aristotelian, Moolade manages to combine an idea of Africa with the old and the new, the masculine and feminine. The sheer plurality of voices is its beating heart; a conniving mercenary who stands against the men and the knife, the son returning from Europe aghast at his village’s traditions, the elder women who commit the act of mutilating young girls. Sembene’s film is intensely political, yet the characters who foil themselves and surprise us never fall disastrously into cliché. A highlight of Sembene’s distinguished filmography.
Daughters of the Dust