Well, what took you so long? With the world in outrage following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, white people everywhere are scrambling to catch up to the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the most interesting products of this is a sudden surge of interest in media centering on racism and Black experiences, particularly movies. Black cinema and storytelling has been thriving in the background for decades, but never before has it taken up so much space on streaming service homepages.
For all those good intentions, there's an obvious problem with white-directed, feel good movies like The Help trending on Netflix. As non-Black people watch films in hopes of understanding racism, they often go for the ones that are comfortable. But you shouldn't watch a film about racism as a white person and come out feeling good about yourself. There is nothing comfortable about racism, protesting and fighting for what is right.
So what to watch instead? Instead of focusing on the obvious titles, such as Ava DuVernay's 13th and Selma, Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, Raul Peck's I am Not Your Negro, and the plethora of groundbreaking Black cinema available for free on the Criterion Channel, let's look at recent film releases essential to the current conversation of Black Lives.
As well as these 10 picks, hopefully the support for Black cinema is carried over to Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods and Channing Godfrey Peoples' Miss Juneteeth, both of which release this month, and earlier 2020 films such as Numa Perrier's Jezebel and Tayarisha Poe's Selah and The Spades, and of course, Matthew A. Cherry's award winning short, Hair Love.
Black cinema expands well beyond North American borders; it is vast and deep as the ocean. Which is why everyone should watch Maiti Diop's first feature film, Atlantics on Netflix.The French-Senegalese director was the first Black woman to have her film premiere in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, going on to win the Grand Prix. What makes Atlantics unique outside of its commentary on Dakar's class structure and struggles is its love story. It is a supernatural tragedy that will leave you spellbound and utterly speechless by the time the final shot appears on the screen in front of you.
Written, produced, and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, with Carlos López Estrada directing, Blindspotting features comedy elements and brilliant dialogue — but its strongest element is how it portrays the mental aspect of being a Black Man trying to do the right thing. When cops kill an unarmed Black man, we often think of the victims' families, and the life the victim lived. But what about the bystanders who watched it all happen? Blindspotting has a powerful answer to that question, leading to one of the most memorable scenes in the film between Diggs' character and a cop who killed a Black man in front of him earlier on.
As a general rule, white people shouldn't direct movies about the Black experience. The Help, Greenbook, Waves... all films directed by white men who think they know the Black experience but end up using my people as props and devices to tell a feel good story about white people as saviors. But there are exceptions to the rule, and Fast Color directed by Julia Hart is one of those. A well-executed sci-fi flick with themes of feminism and environmentalism is just the half of it. With defining performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney, Fast Color nails the feeling of being a Black woman in this world, and the responsibilities laid upon you.
Julius Onah's success is the exact result of giving Black men the same second chances as their white counterparts. Two years ago, Onah directed The Cloverfield Paradox, one of the most disappointing films of 2018. But as an infamous hotep once said, "a setback is always a setup for a comeback," and so Onah went on to direct one of the best films of 2019, Luce. Available on Hulu and VOD, Luce features great performances by Octavia Spencer andKelvin Harrison Jr., but what makes the film stand out is its willingness to flip the white savior trope on its head. As Harrison Jr.'s character parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) grapple with the fact that their adopted son from a war torn country in Africa may not be perfect, we also look into what it means to be the best you can be as a Black a teenager in America.
Are you familiar with Phillip Youmans, the first Black man to win the Founder's Prize at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival for his directorial debut, Burning Cane? Like Mati Diop's Atlantic, Burning Cane is featured on Netflix, yet often overlooked for more palatable films on the Black experience. Which is a shame, because Burning Cane is one of the most essential films to watch from 2019, as it tells a heartbreaking, yet vital story of Southern Black churches, alcoholism and toxic masculinity in the Black community. A film so rich in the Black experience that it is hard to believe Youmans directed this film at the age of 17.
Clemency, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, won the U.S Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019, making Chukwu the first Black woman to win the award. But like most great Black films, Clemency wasn't given its due in 2019. Featuring a superb performance by the living legend that is Alfre Woodard, the film tackles a touchy subject in America: the death penalty. But Chukwu doesn't reduce Clemency to trauma porn like most of her white counterparts would. Instead she centers the story on Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard), a Black woman who oversees the executions, and the detrimental psychological effects it can have when most of the people you execute are minorities, some of which might have been falsely accused of their crime.
The Burial of Kojo
Like Atlantics, The Burial of Kojo, directed by Samuel Bazawule (better known by his stage name Blitz the Ambassador) is another worthwhile film available on Netflix, that most people wouldn't even know was on the streaming service. Set in Ghana, The Burial of Kojo is a part of what we like to call "Modern Black Storytelling." Storytelling that acknowledges the trauma of being Black in a prejudiced world, but is still focused on magnifying the beauty of Black lives. And by acknowledging this, Bazawule weaves a beautiful fable, with images that will leave you in awestruck long after you watch The Burial of Kojo.
When you think of Black people in the horror genre, one of your few thoughts might be how they are always the first to be killed off, or maybe how they are the voice of reason in said film/series. But Black people's involvement in the genre runs deeper than tropes and misconceptions. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman's must read book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to the Present, Shudder's Horror Noire is an essential watch, as it delves deep into how Black history is intertwined with the genre, including several interviews from key figures such as Jordan Peele.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
From the moment they are born, Black people are judged by their looks and deemed lesser by a society dominated and dictated by white people.Despite that, we are determined to live our best lives no matter the location or circumstances. In comes Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a riveting documentary directed by RaMell Moss, depicting Black people doing just that. Taking place in Hale County, Alabama, Moss focuses on capturing the everyday lives of the county's Black inhabitants without preaching a message or dictating the viewer's perception. Instead, Moss depicts scenes from the inhabitants' point of view and allows his audience to come to a conclusion for themselves. Nominated for several awards, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a film that transcends preconceived beliefs a viewer might have when it comes to documentaries and Black lives.
History tends to repeat itself. George Floyd wasn't the first Black man to be killed unjustly by the police, nor will he be the last, and no film better captures that feeling that Ryan Coogler's feature debut, Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan. The film centers on the life of Oscar Grant III and the final moments leading to his untimely death at the hands of Bart police officers on New Years Day 2009. Often when a Black man or woman is killed by the police, people tend to focus on their misdoings as a way to justify their deaths, and ease their minds as they sleep at night. But like Floyd, and the numerous other people slain by police, Carter was a person. He loved, he laughed, and he dreamed like any other. Yes, Fruitvale Station is a heartbreaking watch, but it is a necessary reminder that Black lives matter. Always have, always will.
Film still from "Burning Cane" courtesy of Netflix