Black Lives Matter. If you find an issue with that statement, then your presence on my website is unneeded. The comment section of this post will not be allowed to house any sentiments contrary to this. There is no free speech in my little corner of the internet when it comes to white supremacy and fascist ideals. The history of abusing, mocking, torturing, and killing black people in my home country of the United States is too long and still happening. Cinema was used as a weapon against black lives during the early silent years and into the talkies. However, films have been made that lift up black people and show them as human beings. Here are some of those movies.
Moonlight (2016, directed by Barry Jenkins)
From my review: As a public school teacher, I’ve worked mainly in the inner city for the seven years of my career. As a result, I have worked with some young men, much like Chiron. I have also worked with young black men who are happy and healthy and have very supportive families. So, I don’t think we should view Moonlight as a universal truth of the “black male experience” so much about how masculinity is framed for so many black men. The scenes where Chiron sits at Juan and Teresa’s kitchen table eating food and refusing to speak has been a part of my life. I’ve sat across from young men who are so tormented inside at such an early age. Food is about the only nurture some of them get. I’ve watched young black men crying because they’ve injured themselves only to have their mother smack them over the back of the head and spit “Stop crying and being a pussy! Men don’t cry!” Even with my current year’s class, I have a young black male student who finds it deeply difficult to verbalize his frustration even when it is just the two of us talking. He didn’t want to say sorry to another student; he upset in front of everyone because he’d been taught that would make him look weak, and his status among his peers is more important to his life than his conscience. This sort of toxic masculinity is what Moonlight is all about. It’s why the brief glimpse we get of Chiron being able to stop tensing and stop holding himself back is so emotionally cathartic.
12 Years A Slave (2013, directed by Steve McQueen)
From my review: There are moments where an audience could think McQueen was exploitative, but I think he is stylistic, heightening the horror and creating a psychological distance between the viewer and full trauma of the experience. We see multiple instances of black bodies being torn apart by inhuman slave owners and masters, McQueen doesn’t hide the strips of bloodied meat that hand from their backs and the permanent scars. However, he also employs a Steadicam, which creates a floating dreamlike tone to many of these scenes. I recall a moment where Northrup is allowed to walk to town by himself to purchase items from the general store and sees an opportunity to escape. As he wanders through the woods, he happens upon a lynching in progress, likely two runaway slaves. The white man overseeing the murder spots Northrup and makes sure he gets the message. The whole moment feels like some horror out of a fairytale, of haunted woods and an inescapable nightmare.
Do The Right Thing (1989, directed by Spike Lee)
This was the film that sent director Spike Lee exploding into the mainstream and came at the build-up to a massive explosion of black anger in America that actually seems so small compared to what is happening right now. The movie uses a few blocks in Brooklyn to spotlight the simmering racist tensions across all of America. Mookie is a pizza delivery man who is merely working and taking care of his girlfriend and baby son. The son of his boss at the pizzeria is a loud racist who particularly hates black people. Over this single hot summer day, we’re taken around the neighborhood and meet its residents, always aware of the tension boiling up beneath the surface. And in the final act, it all erupts. Do The Right Thing is a funny, shocking, sexy, heartbreaking film and one of Lee’s best. This captured such a specific moment in time as we moved into the 1990s that I didn’t think would ever happen again in my lifetime. I was very wrong.
Precious (2009, directed by Lee Daniels)
This is one of two films on this list I included for a very particular reason. Precious became a popular internet joke when it’s a movie that touches on significant themes and topics. But because it features an overweight black woman who lives in poverty, it was allowed to be ridiculed. It’s not a perfect movie, but it has some fantastic moments. The picture follows 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) whose growing up in Harlem, raised by an emotionally disturbed and abusive mother (Mo’Nique). Alarming things happen to this woman throughout the movie, and it can feel unrelenting bleak at times. What happens to this character is a combination of horrible things experienced by black people living in poverty when there are no resources or people to save them. I don’t think this is an example of all black people who live in poverty, but they all feel trauma due to the racist structures that exist through every aspect of American life. Precious isn’t a joke, and it had never sat well with me how quickly people were to mock it when it came out.
Queen & Slim (2019, directed by Melina Matsoukas)
From my review: Queen & Slim is presented as a story of legendary figures who don’t realize that they will become icons. They are unassuming people, but the filmmaking informs us through its cinematography and a musical score that this is important. The first moments of the movie undercut these elements, two people sitting across from each other in the middle of an awkward Tinder date. It’s clear the situation is not going well, and they likely won’t see each other again after this. We learn a lot about Slim (he prays before he eats, he chose a little corner diner for their date) and Queen (she’s a lawyer whose client was just executed, she rolls her eyes at Slim’s prayer). The aftermath of the date becomes the inception of the entire film, a traffic stop by a police officer with ill intent on his mind.
The Wiz (1978, directed by Sidney Lumet)
This is another movie that gets mocked when I think it is a brilliant (though flawed) film adaptation of a Broadway musical. The Wiz, if you aren’t familiar, is an all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of Kansas, this magical world is based out of New York City. The movie was produced by Motown Films, and the songs reflect the styles of black music of the time. The Wiz has become a cult classic, but upon its original release, it was a flop with audiences and critics. For some, it’s seen as the capstone to the fruitful decade of blaxploitation cinema. Critiques of the picture were that it was “too scary for children” and “lacked the charm of the MGM original.” I personally believe these are anti-black sentiments. The original Wizard of Oz is a scary movie too, and the “the charm of the original” is simply code for that picture having an all-white cast. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it is so ambitious, and production design is phenomenal.
Eve’s Bayou (1997, directed by Kasi Lemmons)
From my review: Eve’s Bayou’s thesis statement is declared early on in the main character’s voice over as an adult, recalling the events that transpired in her 10th year. “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain.” This is a story told through the filter of years gone by and seen initially through a child’s eyes. Adult Eve tells us that when she was 10, she killed her father, and the film gives us a couple of explanations for this, emphasizing the distortion that occurs as a result of experiencing time passing.
Us (2019, directed by Jordan Peele)
From my review: Years ago, young Adelaide was visiting the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with her parents when she became separated from them. Wandering inside a funhouse of mirrors, the girl has an encounter that continues to haunt her into her adult years. Present-day finds Adelaide, her husband Gabe, and two children Zora and Jason are on the way to their lake house in Central California. Gabe has a new boat and plans to meet up with some friends across the lake. When Adelaide finds out they are going to the beach, right off the boardwalk, she freaks out but eventually relents. Strange coincidences occur with a sense of impending doom coming for our protagonist, images harken back to her childhood trauma, and something she has repressed for so long begins to leak out. That night a strange family appears at the end of the lake house driveway, which will lead to Adelaide and her family descending into hell.
Kuso (2017, directed by Flying Lotus)
From my review: There is no argument that this film is entirely obscene and vulgar. That is its intent, so if you watch it and are nauseated, it has to be viewed as successful. This is NOT a film meant for a broad audience, but I would be wrong if I said I wasn’t ever entertained by it. The short Smear felt like the best glimpse of the filmmaking talent here. It built a strange and exciting world and created a peculiar atmosphere. Flying Lotus is not coming out of nowhere with his particular brand of art. His contemporaries would be the likes of Tyler the Creator, Tim & Eric, and Eric Andre. But going back even further, Kuso sits alongside Cronenberg and Jodorowsky. I was reminded a lot of the 1980 Oingo Boingo film The Forbidden Zone while watching this. If those types of media are obnoxious to you or you don’t feel compelled to view it, then Kuso would likely not be your cup of tea. If you have a strong stomach, then Kuso works as a very bold and loud introduction to a distinct artistic viewpoint.