5 Favorites Redux #33: Favorite Films by Black Directors

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

Black stories in Hollywood have been told for years by white filmmakers. These filmmakers have little experience facing the kind of trials and tribulations the Black community has been struggling against since the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the United States constitution. While that amendment ostensibly liberated the slaves throughout the nation, true equality has been elusive. Even after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s led to radical reforms, including desegregation, that community has felt the pressure to exist peacefully and thrive against systemic racism and indifference within the white community.

Although Black History Month was over in February (the shortest month of the year if that tells you anything), the recent riots in protest of police treatment of Black citizens after the choking death of George Floyd have helped galvanize public support against systemic racism, the violence perpetrated by law enforcement against Black citizens, and numerous other grievances that have been allowed to seethe and fester under the permissive eye of a president whose racism has been well documented since he became a New York City slumlord and an outspoken opponent of Black rights within that city long before he transitioned to the presidency.

Post-racism has never occurred and may never if we don’t examine our bias and educate the public to eradicate this false belief that the Black community is worthy of mistreatment, condemnation, and worse. As a white man, privilege has given me a rose-colored view of Black treatment in America. Even if I understand and relate better because of the prejudice I’ve felt in other avenues of life because of my sexuality, it’s something I was able to hide for the longest time, enabling me to benefit from my privilege more so than the Black community because they cannot hide the color of their skin.

This week, after celebrating Queer History Month last week, I thought I would tackle racism as part of this week’s article. To do that, rather than exploring films that present the Black experience to white audiences, I’ve chosen to look at Black history from the eyes of the Black community. In doing so, I have chosen to highlight films directed solely by Black filmmakers about the Black experience. These filmmakers have imbued their own experiences into the films that they’ve made. While it’s impossible to highlight every black director and every black film as those opportunities are slowly improving in Hollywood, I wanted to start by explaining my rationale.

One of the most influential Black filmmakers is Spike Lee who managed to carve out a career in Hollywood when it was still largely resistant to change. That resistance has been slowly eroded over the last three decades since he began with his debut feature Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads in 1983. His second film, She’s Gotta Have It, catapulted him into the position where he could make his seminal film, Do the Right Thing. That film, upon release, surpassed numerous milestones, but when it came to the Oscars, it was ignored. Hollywood would wait until John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood before finally recognizing a Black filmmaker with a nomination for Best Directing. While a handful of filmmakers have scored Oscar nominations since, Lee has remained at the forefront of the movement to expand and improve the position of Black filmmakers in Hollywood.

Two of Lee’s films barely missed my list. Both Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman are great films and were it not for the five titles I selected, they might have appeared here. That said, they are easily among the ten best films by black filmmakers ever made.

Before we get to the list, I wanted to highlight a number of filmmakers who were not mentioned below, beginning with Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux was the first major black filmmaker, working in Hollywood from the middle-to-late silent era in 1919 through the sound period. His nearly-50-year career, which ended in 1948, three years prior to his death, was a tremendous milestone in cinema history. He was never fully recognized for his achievements during his lifetime, but his position and importance cannot be understated.

Other filmmakers of note whose films I considered, but did not reference include Singleton, Tyler Perry, Gordon Parks, Antoine Fuqua, Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou was the first film by a Black filmmaker that I remember watching in the theater), Julie Dash, Gina Prince-Bythewood, F. Gary Gray, Lee Daniels, Malcolm D. Lee, Melvin Van Peebles, Nia DaCosta, and Robert Townsend. Three other directors worth note are prominent actors who tried their hands at directing on a smaller scale: Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Ossie Davis.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

After directing acclaimed films Hunger and Shame, both starring Michael Fassbender in the lead, Steve McQueen (no relation to the yesteryear star of the same name) gives us his most chilling film yet, a look at the fate of a New York State-born free African American man who is sold into southern slavery in the Antebellum South. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a stellar performance as Solomon Northrup who must endure harsh and unending torture at the hands of numerous slave owners.

While the film also features strong performances from white actors Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Brad Pitt, none of them can hold a candle to the trio of black actors that headline the film. In addition to Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o’s courageous performance stands proudly at the edge of Northrup’s story, as does Alfre Woodard’s.

The film is a harrowing look at the life of slaves in the American South. More so than any other picture that has tackled the subject, McQueen’s film is dominated not only by its humanity, but also its brutal honesty, demanding that audiences come to terms with the horrendous conditions for slaves in the South, pushing aside all notions that life was easy for them, that White Saviors were in abundance, or that this is even remotely a heritage worth celebrating. This is a film that few will easily forget once they’ve seen it.

Selma (2014)

Moving forward over 100 years in American history, we come to one of the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Ava DuVernay’s follow up to her acclaimed Middle of Nowhere, takes American viewers into the campaign of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a superlative David Oyelowo (who also starred in DuVernay’s prior film). He maneuvers through a political minefield attempting to encourage the American public through non-violent protests to afford his fellow Black Americans unabridged rights and equal treatment under the law.

Starting with the cowardly church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls, a flashpoint that helped add fuel to the growing movement that would ultimately lead towards the end of segregation. Although King’s family refused to permit DuVernay to use his numerous powerful speeches in service of the film, screenwriter Paul Webb does his best to give Oyelowo the kind of words King might have used. Regardless, as King struggles against the tide of bigotry he is hindered by the FBI, who is constantly surveilling him, the despicable Governor of Alabama (George Wallace), and a push from his flank by Malcolm X to add more potent, and perhaps violent, rhetoric to King’s movement.

All in all, there are too many scenes that stand out in the mind of any who have seen it, but one of the most potent, and in fact it is the one that became the turning point of American sentiment towards the movement, is the violent attack on King’s peaceful protesters as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The assault was carried out by police and state troops sent by Wallace to quell the march that King was attempting to carry out between Selma and the state capital of Montgomery. Like 12 Years a Slave, this isn’t a film you’ll soon forget.

Get Out (2017)

It’s not that Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is difficult to understand, but there are subtle elements to his direction that aren’t easy to identify unless you know what you’re looking for. Get Out is about a young man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his girlfriend (Allison Williams) who are visiting her parents’ (Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener) house in the middle of nowhere. As he slowly discovers something sinister underneath their faux hospitality, it becomes a fight for survival as the haunted nature of this family’s past comes to the forefront.

From the image of Chris picking cotton from the chair in the basement to the symbolism of the dead deer and its connection to Chris’ late mother, Peele’s film is replete with fascinating allegories, metaphors, and more. Not only is it a spine-tingling horror film, it’s a striking commentary on the supposed era of post-racism that some thought our society had entered until it not only reared its ugly head, but came from unsuspecting places. It’s a film that’s a pointed rebuke of our current political environment.

Peele followed this up with the even more horrific and more symbolism-laden feature Us, showing audiences that he was more than just a one-trick director. A compelling career lies ahead for a man who may ultimately become synonymous with his own directorial style the way Alfred Hitchcock did decades ago. Benevolent racism, ulterior motives, and more categorize this tremendous and easily accessible look at the lives of the Black community in our present world.

Black Panther (2018)

It is often said that Disney has an iron grip on all of its productions, including the Marvel films under the Avengers banner. With their fingers in everything, it’s surprising that a film like Black Panther could have emerged from the studio with all the allegory, symbolism, and inventiveness still intact. Ryan Coogler proved he was more than capable of directing a big budget blockbuster, which followed after his other two successes, the indie film Fruitvale Station and the mid-budget Creed.

Starring Chadwick Boseman as the king of Wakanda, a fictitious, prosperous, and technologically advanced African nation. As the titular Black Panther, Boseman guides the audience through his personal history on his journey to becoming the king. Challenged for leadership by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), T’Challa must find a way to become the king his people need and to defeat the forces at work to bring Wakanda violently onto the world stage. His film was, until part 2 the finale of the Avengers storyline, the most successful in the franchise’s history, topping even that year’s part 1 of the finale.

With stunning cinematography by Rachel Morrison and a starry cast that includes Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, and burgeoning talents like Boseman, Jordan, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, and Sterling K. Brown (not exactly burgeoning in the TV landscape), Black Panther is a tremendous achievement showcasing not only Coogler’s appreciable skill, but those of everyone else in the production and demonstrating once and for all that black characters can still sell tickets, a long-held disbelief lingering in the minds of myriad studio honchos.

What’s so spectacular about Black Panther‘s success was not just its luminous box office performance, tremendous critical support, seven Oscar nominations (including a Marvel first: Best Picture), and three Oscar wins, it is that the film will certainly provide a template for how studios can capitalize on giving a voice to young talent, regardless of skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. We are at a crossroads in cinema where those voices that have long been repressed by studios concerned about alienating white audiences and reducing their bottom lines are finally seeing the error of their ways or are actively being pushed out of leadership positions to make way for a new generation of visionaries. Black Panther was a pinnacle achievement of this movement and a sign of the ever-changing times.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

James Baldwin’s novel about a young couple, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), whose love keeps their disparate families from falling apart, finds strife in the 1970s when Fonny is accused of rape and sent to prison with only the woman who fingered him able to prove his innocence. Barry Jenkins’ third feature film, a follow up to his Oscar-winning gay romance Moonlight, is his most passionate and provocative yet with wonderful performances by Layne and James as the star-cross lovers as well as Regina King as Tish’s mother, Colman Domingo as Tish’s father, Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister, Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend, and Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, and Dominique Thorne as Fonny’s father, mother, and sisters respectively.

The gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell brilliantly pairs with the tortured love affair between Tish and Fonny, a lovely melody that bolsters and supports the narrative, allowing Jenkins’ assured direction and James Laxton’s beautiful photography to bring this bittersweet story to the big screen. Against the backdrop of continued racial tensions in New York City, we’re given a glimpse into the challenging lives of Black Americans in a city that wasn’t always welcoming to outsiders, even those who were born and raised there, but who were not in the upper crust of the city’s elite.

As much a love story as a rebuke of the broken judicial system that treats Black Americans more harshly than their white neighbors, Jenkins’ film improved upon his work in Moonlight in subtle and breathtaking ways. He, along with the other directors mentioned here, is the future of world cinema. Their tableaux providing new insights into areas of societal unrest that white filmmakers have often struggled to evoke and explore sufficiently in numerous films over the course of the last half century. These voices are an integral part of promulgating their experiences into the hearts and minds of audiences of all kinds, bridging the gap between those who’ve seldom seen the truth behind the things they take for granted every day.

Each of these films, in their own ways, deconstruct modern society for the consumption of new audiences, providing insight and context to any number of important touchstones, both cultural and psychological. They are extending cinema’s age-old reach to bring the world into our homes and theaters to both entertain and educate us in ways we might otherwise never have had the chance. It’s no hyperbole to say that we’re on the edge of a new golden era of cinematic achievement and these directors will help guide us through it.

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