Looking for films to see during the holiday season and into New Year? One of the heartening trends in film in 2016 has been an increase in the number of quality Black films. Just last year, a controversy erupted around the Academy Awards for lacking diversity. While the Medea comedies, the Barbershop series, black comedians, inner city crime, and Denzel or Will Smith always have an audience, movies with complex black characters and honest depictions of African American life have had a difficult time getting made or finding an audience. This year that has changed. Here is a list of highly regarded films about African American life from past years. They are followed by a list of eight from this year that are well worth seeing.
In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song made 15 million dollars. Van Peebles proudly stated: "It was rated X by an all-white jury." The film became a bastardized template for the 70's Blaxploitation movement. By the 1990's a growing number of films about black life that didn't resort to cliché, slapstick, drug dealing or gunplay began to make a splash: Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Daughters of the Dust (1991), To Sleep With Anger (1990), Eve's Bayou (1997) and David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000). Then in 2009, Lee Daniel's Precious took in 64 million dollars. Quvenzhané Wallis in Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) became the youngest nominee for an Academy Award in that allegorical and mythic film. 2013, Ryan Coogler established his directorial strength with Fruitvale Station followed by Creed. In 2014, the same year that Selma chronicled civil right history, Dear White People, a comedy about racial hypocrisy on college campuses broke ground with a crowdfunding campaign, social media marketing, and a viral video campaign. The film grossed over three and a half million dollars That same year 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In late 2015, Spike Lee's Brechtian Chi-Raq, based on Lysistrata met with mixed reviews, but it was a sincere effort to address the plague of Chicago's street violence. During August of 2016 came the release of a collection called Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a five-disc collection. It contains the work of Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as bonus features.
The following seven films from 2016 are well worth watching. Most are currently in theaters or about to be released:
Queen of Katwe: (streaming and Blu-ray on 01/31/17)
Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a girl from a shantytown suburb of Kampala, Uganda called Katwe. Despite a life of dire poverty, she discovers she is a chess prodigy. Gender, social status, and lack of an education all stand in the way of her becoming an international chess champion. While the movie has the traditional arc of adversity and triumph, Nair steeps us in the chaos of Ugandan life. For Nair location is a character. Says the director: "I've lived in Kampala for the last 27 years, and it is really my home. I have always wanted to tell the story of the city's people and where I live. It's easy to see the paucity of Africa from [publicized] images. Any depictions of the continent are always negative ones -- images of despair, suffering or dictatorships. Nothing resembles the everyday joy and dignity of the continent". The young lead actress, Madina Nalwanga, won the part over nearly 700 other young actresses. She is supported by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) as her mother and David Oyelowo (Golden Globe winner as Martin Luther King in Selma). Nyong'o was raised in Kenya and Oyelowo is British-trained actor of Nigerian decent. Both have command over the Kenyan dialect and disappear into the roles. Nyong'o buries her significant beauty in an unglamorous role as the willful and struggling mother who finds it difficult to believe any women could excel without being exploited.
The Fits: (streaming on Amazon)
First-time director Anna Rose Holmer's film is an abstract, surreal drama about the anxieties of adolescence. In yet another remarkable first time performance by a child, Royalty Hightower, age 9, plays Toni the youngest member of an energetic dance troupe. The entire movie takes place in the neutral spaces of a community center. Toni looks in on her peers who periodically seem to suffer from strange fits. Other dancers will suddenly begin to twist and spasm as though possessed, but there is little follow-up and no cause given. We watch Toni watching. A haunting soundtrack adds an ominous atmosphere, but this is not at all a horror film. Dancing as an art form is enormously competitive and physically taxing. The film catches frenzy of dance at the same time it transposes the anxieties of the changing body, desires, insecurities, and limits of adolescence into the realm of the fantastic. The only white characters are the instructors, and they are kept at a blurred distance. The Fits is a unique, haunting and strangely liberating film.
Birth of a Nation: (Amazon Video and iTunes on December 20)
The film was purchased for a record 17.5 million dollars Sundance. Since then its director, writer and star, Nate Parker has had to address controversies from his past that may have hurt the film at the box office. Birth of a Nation deals with the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, which was a brutal slaughter and ultimately fatal for those involved in the uprising. Characters are broadly conceived and the film lacks the epic scope and star power of 12 Twelve Years a Slave. It has the feel of a folktale. There is no savior and most of the whites are hideous creatures at best, all too willing to compromise what humanity they have to keep their ‘property' in line. The story unfolds as a classic tale of revenge and anger directed at an intolerably inhuman system. The uncompromising vision echoes the injustice felt on the streets of many cities today. Nat Turner is martyred in an overtly stylized ending. The story draws significantly from a book called The Fires of Jubilee. The provocative title of the film is a slap in the face to D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece. After too many decades of stifled depictions of minority Americans, the time is right to air uncomfortable parts of our history. I admire its lack of slickness and that the film unfolds on its own terms - simple in the telling, unequivocal and evangelical in its message.
Moonlight: (now playing)
Barry Jenkins demonstrates great style and in his directing debut. With his mostly novice cast of actors, he elicits a sense of immediacy in every performance. Faces are given extended close-ups prioritizing emotional resonance over melodrama and action. An inner city boy coming to terms with his sexuality is a radical subject for an all black commercial film. The film is based on Tarrel Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and structured in three chapters. In ‘Little', Chiron is a child (Alex Hibbert). He rescued one day from a beating and befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drug dealer who is likely in search of his own redemption. While Ali brings enormous heart and soul to character, the friendship is ultimately doomed. In the 2nd chapter, "Chiron", the boy is an adolescent (Ashton Sanders) brutally bullied by classmates and still at odds with his crack-addicted mother. He has a brief sexual episode with his best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome - terrific). The third section, "Black", leaps ahead to Chiron's adulthood. Gone is the red, white and blue pallet of the earlier scenes. Jenkins saturates the frame with greens, yellow and neon lights. Now called Black, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has sculpted his body from an apparent stay in prison. He sports a gold ‘grill' on his teeth and is dealing drugs. Jenkins a burrows down on Black's impassive face that belies a world of pain and loss. Following a random phone call from Kevin, ‘Black,' journeys to visit his friend (André Holland). Like Richard Linklater's, Boyhood (2012), key story elements are put aside to focus on the emotional journey. We have seen too many tales of black men with tough lives who go to prison, deal drugs and find redemption. This is not that movie. At its core, Moonlight is a love story.
I Am Not Your Negro: (in theaters February 3rd)
James Baldwin began a book on three murdered friends who never made it to age 40: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Samuel L. Jackson reads the text of the unfinished manuscript combined with interviews with the author (he died in 1987) and creative use of archival footage. Baldwin is angry and lucid about the black experience in America. The author gives discussion to a sober perspective and brilliant analysis of race in America. This is a timely film. At one point, speaking spontaneously in an interview, Baldwin says:
"You wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are you going to communicate to the vast unthinking cruel white majority that you are here. I'm terrified at the moral apathy, at the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have exerted themselves for so long they really don't think I'm human. I base this on their conduct, not what they say. And this means that they have become themselves moral monsters."
The film would be well served as part of school curricula.
Loving: (West Newton, Capital, Framingham. DVD and Blu-ray on February 7, 2017)
Richard and Mildred Loving were a mixed-race couple in Virginia who, in 1958 defied the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 by getting married. In 2012, HBO produced a documentary called The Loving Story. Loving is one of the year's best. Review
Fences: (in theaters December 25th)
Fences is the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. According to sources, the project was stalled years ago with Wilson frustrated that films about black lives were being directed by white filmmakers, saying: "Whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience" and adding, "Blacks should at least be able to direct their own experience." Under Denzel Washington's film direction, the play has kept its integrity. He recognizes that in Wilson's play words sing like jazz. The dialogue moves from black colloquial conversation to epic monologues. Fences is the story of a family, fathers and sons and shaped by a particular time in American history.
Troy (Denzel Washington) has a devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis). Their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) wants to play football but Troy insists he works a job. Troy's son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship is a musician often on the dole. Troy disapproves. His ethic is simple: you work hard, you earn money, you take care of your family. When Troy confesses to an affair, his credibility crumbles while his ego fails to submit. Troy's arrogance is the defensive position of a man attempting to reconcile his life and guide his family in difficult times. But those times are changing and like Lear his hubris is his undoing. Washington makes smart use of a single set, long taKes, and a thoroughly rehearsed cast of excellent actors.