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21 essential films about Black lives, in every major genre

Whittled down from a list of 1,700 movies

A grid featuring 7 film stills from terrific films about Black lives, in every major genre Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Three years ago, cinephile Adam Davie started building a Letterboxd recommendation list of films focused on Black lives. His hobby became a massive undertaking: His list now includes more than 1,700 movies, largely with consensus ratings of three stars or higher, broken down by genre to make it easier to navigate.

“I thought this was going to be for me to reference, just for myself, because I was upset I couldn’t find anything like this on the entire internet,” Davie tells Polygon. “You can search for ‘Best Black Films of the 1990s’ or whatever, but there’ll be 10 or 20 films total. I wanted something that would encompass the entire black experience. So I thought, ‘If you’re upset about this, then why don’t you just do it yourself? If it’s motivating you that much, obviously it’s something you should take on.’”

Polygon recently spent a couple of hours talking with Davie, and we asked him to curate a list for us, picking one standout movie from each of his genre categories — not the absolute best pick in any genre, but a favorite he’d personally recommend. (Note that the genre classifications come from Letterboxd.)

Along the way, Davie limited himself to films where he felt like at least one black character’s perspective was key to the narrative. Many movies deal with black lives and problems from white points of view, but as Davie puts it, “I wanted these films to be centered not just around a black character who was expendable, but about black stories, whether they were defined by racism or not … It’s a labor of love, it’s something I really enjoy, and it seems like people are getting some benefit out of it.”

This interview has been transcribed from a longer conversation, and edited for clarity and concision.

Action: Mandingo

With this list as a whole, it would have been very easy to just choose the highest-rated films in any category. Like here, it might be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. But a lot of people have already seen those higher-rated films, so I picked an exploitation film from 1975: Mandingo. It’s a film that influenced Quentin Tarantino when he made Django Unchained. I chose it simply because it’s exploitative, it’s shameful, and it’s obscene, but it perfectly describes the period these characters are living in. It’s about a slave owner who purchases a slave to train for bare-knuckle fighting, what’s called “Mandingo fighting” in the film.

One of the things that interests me here is the way black bodies are used for sport, but never given a concern outside of what they can do for white audiences. This is something we’re living with right now. A year or so ago, LeBron James stood up and made a statement regarding the killing of an unarmed African-American man, and a commentator from Fox News, Laura Ingraham, told him to shut up and dribble. And less than a week ago, Drew Brees, the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints said — he’s officially walked this back, but at the time, he said he’ll never agree with someone who doesn’t stand for the flag, because it means so much to him. And the same commentator said, “Well, he definitely has a right to his opinion!” The hypocrisy was so apparent. That’s just one of the things I thought of when I watched this film.

I know there are a lot of people who don’t like films that exploit black or white characters. If someone’s repulsed by it, that’s the response that they should have. This was a repulsive period in American history. No one who decided to own slaves or condone what you see in this film should be applauded. This film doesn’t applaud it — it’s brutal in its treatment of the antebellum South in general.

I’m not interested in having a film comfort me. When Hollywood wants to advertise a film, they often describe it as “the feel-good film of the year.” Especially in quarantine, people are talking about comfort films. I’m not comforted by removing reality from what’s in front of me. Just living in America as a black man, I can’t afford to stick my head in the sand. So whether it’s an exploitation film like this, or something uncomfortable by someone like Michael Haneke, one of my favorite filmmakers — these types of films prepare you well for life outside of the movie theater. Life is beautiful, life is grand, but life is also rough at times. And I do find that some of my film selections can prepare me mentally for the complexities of day-to-day life.

Mandingo is streaming on Amazon Prime.

African Cinema: Black Girl

This one’s from Ousmane Sembene in 1966. It’s about a Senegalese woman who’s looking to better her life, so she takes a job as a housemaid to this wealthy white family in France. The film explores a lot of different things: colorism, the exporting of colonialism — Senegal was at one point occupied by the French, until it declared independence, but the French footprint and grip on society is still there. But there’s this hope in the film that because Senegal is free, there will be new opportunities for the woman.

It doesn’t work out that way. She goes to France, looking for a bit of prosperity, thinking she’s going to be able to achieve some form of independence and a new life. But she’s quickly subjugated and relegated to the lower class. And there are these voiceovers of her questioning her decision, and questioning white supremacy, and her role and within it, and whether there’s a way out. I really enjoyed the way it touched on those subjects without feeling overbearing, without providing too much cover for the white family in the film, because it really isn’t about them. You know, she works for them, but it’s her story, and the film is centered around her for its entire duration.

Black Girl is temporarily streaming free on The Criterion Channel.

Animated: Whitewash

This was the toughest category, because there are a lot more animated TV shows than films centered around black characters. This one’s a short film called Whitewash, from 1994, directed by Michael Sporn. It originally aired on HBO. It’s based on a true story about a young girl named Helene Angel, who, on our way home from school one day, was attacked by a group of racist kids who spray-painted her face white. And this was in 1992, in the Bronx. The story just boggles my mind.

So it’s a first introduction to racism, for kids. It’s probably the most terrible thing that can happen to anyone, let alone a young child who is pretty much carefree at that moment in time. She obviously struggles to understand racism in the film, which contrasts her ordeal with that of her grandmother, who she and her older brother live with. Her grandmother paints a picture of how things were when she was growing up in the South: “This is nothing new, and this is how I overcame it.” It has an afterschool-special feel.

When I was thinking of animated films, I was thinking of something meant obviously for children. Even in a lot of black families, discussions about race are commonplace as you get older. But from my perspective, we don’t do a good enough job in this country of dealing with the issue of race early on, and we don’t give children enough credit for being able to understand these issues. You don’t have to give a James Baldwin treatise on what’s going on in the world, or in an individual’s life. But if you can explain to a white child that their black friend was hurt because of XYZ, and it made them feel bad, because something happened simply because of the color of their skin, I believe children will be able to pick up on that.

Later in the film, the young girl’s classmates show up to her house and escort her to school, letting her know she’s not alone. And it’s a pretty multicultural group. It struck me as interesting because that’s exactly what’s happening in the streets today — hopefully racism is no longer an issue where black people are taking up the cause, championing it, while white people recognize it’s a problem, but don’t actually step up to take the necessary steps. We’re all living together. We’re not going back to segregation. We all have to make this work. In the film, there’s a community effort to help this young girl heal. I think the same thing is going to have to happen within our country, to get us back on the right path.

Whitewash is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Adventure: The Last Dragon

I had to look up the definition of adventure, because I normally think of “adventure films” as Star Wars or Superman, and that isn’t how Letterboxd is using it. Turns out adventures can take place on your block, or light-years away. So I went far afield here and picked The Last Dragon. I would say black people are often attracted to kung-fu and martial-arts films, maybe because of the themes of betterment and self-empowerment. This film isn’t very good, but it’s earnest in its aims, and the people within the film are having fun. It’s really trying to do the right thing, even if from a technical or just a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t all come together.

I think it fits into the same narrative as [the Shaw Brothers studio kung-fu films] that the Wu-Tang Clan always talk about, because it merges black culture with hip-hop and R&B. And it’s one of those instantly quotable films. It’s one of those films I always have fun with. It gives me good feelings. I like anti-escapist cinema, but I can’t help but have fun and laugh and smile when I watch this film.

The Last Dragon is available to rent on major digital services.

Crime: Blindspotting

I chose Blindspotting, which is centered around a crime. The main character, Collin, played by Daveed Diggs, is out on parole and looking to reform his life. But he has this friend, Miles, who keeps trying to pull him into scenarios that may jeopardize his freedom. The number one thing I like about it is that there’s an interracial friendship there that feels genuine. You know there’s a healthy respect between these two men, but even even though they’re lifelong friends, there’s still a gap between the two. Miles doesn’t recognize his privilege, and in many cases, the unlimited strikes white men have in society. Whereas for Collin, there is no coming back from a failure. If he screws up again, he might be going to jail for a very long time.

It tackles the issue of race in such a fanciful way. There’s a moment where Daveed directly addresses the camera. He’s talking to a cop, he’s angry, and he’s rapping, in kind of the same way he did in Hamilton. He’s standing up for himself, and against police brutality and racist police tactics. It fits the current moment because of the way he refuses to be defined by or exploited because of his blackness. There’s a target on his back, he recognizes it, and he’s doing his best to avoid it, but it’s not as easy for him as it is for Miles.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know there’s an unarmed black man running from a cop, and the cop shoots him in the back. Throughout the film, you learn more about this fictional character who has been murdered. There’s a scene where Miles is sitting on the couch with his wife and daughter. And then there’s this news coverage of the event, where the newscaster says something about the victim’s prior arrest, and Miles says, “Oh, no, no parade for you!” or something like that. It blew my mind how aware this film is about the way that even in death, the criminalization and dehumanization of black shooting victims continues to take place. People have been trying to do it with George Floyd. They did it with Trayvon Martin. There are just these little insights in the film, these discussions of the way we view race and decide who is worthy of redemption, and we don’t see those in a lot of films.

Blindspotting is streaming on HBO Max and HBO Now.

Comedy: Support The Girls

This is another section where I decided to go off the beaten path. I chose Support the Girls, Andy Bujalski’s 2019 comedy, because number one, I really like Regina Hall! And because I’ve watched so many films about black people in pain because of racism that it was nice to see a black woman who’s just tired. I believe the film takes place over the course of one day, as she goes through everyday working-class issues. You have this woman who’s a lead, who’s strong, who’s a leader. She has folks, both black and white, who respect her. She’s able to stand up for herself.

But at the same time, she’s not superhero. All too often, I think we depend upon the women in our lives. Just speaking as a black man, we rely on black women to carry much of the load. You can see it’s just wearing on her in this film, for a variety of reasons, but it’s deeply funny, because of her exasperation, and because of the supporting characters. Mainly Haley Lu Richardson, but they all do a great job.

Support the Girls is streaming on Hulu.

Documentary: Lenny Cooke

This is probably the strongest category. Black history is American history, and there’s a ton of stories to choose from. I chose Lenny Cooke, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. At one point in time, he was the number-one high-school basketball player in the country, and this documentary about him has the Safdie touch. I describe their characters as “unlovable losers,” for a variety of reasons, and you can place Lenny in that category, even though he’s an actual living, breathing person.

He fits nicely into their worldview, and the worlds they’ve created. He’s someone with immense talent and grit, but he can’t get out of his own way. We just saw that in Uncut Gems — a character who just could not get out of his own way. The same in Good Time, there’s someone who’s hellbent on stacking one obstacle on another against himself as he traverses New York City, working to get his brother released from prison. I see a little bit of both of those characters in Lenny Cooke, because at one point, the world was his oyster. LeBron James, for instance, is really good friends with Jay-Z, and Lenny had that same type of relationship with Jay. That’s how big he was. The film is split into two parts: the earlier years, like the late ’90s, early 2000s, when he was on his meteoric rise throughout high school, and then you see what his life is like now.

And I wouldn’t want to be Lenny Cooke on his best day or on my worst. Facing the music right now and looking at what his life could have been — it’s just so depressing, but in that sad way, too. At one point, the world was his oyster, and you just watch him slowly squander it. It’s not as fast-paced as Good Time or Uncut Gems, but the same types of themes are there. And just the fact that they got him to actually sit there and grapple with what could have been, it’s just amazing. I’m so enraptured by this film because I read about him growing up, and I knew how good he was. I’ve seen him play. To just watch all that talent be wasted unsettles me, and makes me feel so bad, both for Lenny and for those around him whose lives could have been uplifted through his talents.

Films like this allow me to remain cognizant of the fact that all all the blessings, all the great things I have in my life right now can be stripped away in an instant. It encourages me to work harder. And it also forces me to think about the ways in black men and women — but mainly, from my perspective, black men — have been boxed into a particular mentality as a result of starvation of education and other opportunity. Biggie Smalls said on his first album, Ready To Die, “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” It’s the truth, in certain ways — certain opportunities will be placed in front of you, and if you don’t have anything, you’re just going to grasp at the one thing that seems most appealing.

Lenny probably could have been a rocket scientist or a doctor, but he chose basketball. He was really good at it, but I don’t think he recognized at the time that this gift isn’t given to everyone, and that you have to take advantage of every single opportunity. It’s a stark contrast to the life of someone like LeBron James, who probably hasn’t made the best decision every single step of the way, but he’s taken advantage of every single opportunity. He’s not only uplifted himself, but also others around him, and in the community of Akron. He’s made millions of dollars for tons of people who he may or may not know.

I try to understand that this is dealing with real people’s lives, and not to take delight in it, except maybe in some of the scenes of him playing basketball, before his downfall. It’s just a film that brings me down to earth, that keeps me from getting too wrapped up in the fantasy and the miracle of filmmaking. Here, there are real people’s lives at stake.

Lenny Cooke is streaming on the library-supported Hoopla.

Drama: The Story of a Three-Day Pass

This one’s easy: Melvin van Peebles, The Story of a Three-Day Pass. It’s a great 1967 film about a black soldier stationed in France who begins a relationship with a white French woman. It came out a year after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It makes sense that Melvin van Peebles had to produce this independently in France, because white audiences and white America was just at the point back then where they might be willing to, within the context of a film, accept a black person into their homes. But this film takes things a little further.

You can see that Melvin van Peebles was very much inspired by New Wave techniques and directors. There are a lot of jump cuts and voiceovers, and it feels like he’s thumbing his nose at the system. Interracial relationships weren’t readily accepted in America in the late ’60s, so he’s really taking a bold step here. Just as there’s a freedom with these new filmmaking techniques and the camera work, there’s also a freedom in this character’s life. Maybe he wasn’t initially interested in dating a white woman, but when he has the freedom to do so, he takes advantage of it. At the same time, there’s a stark reminder that he’s a black man from America. When racism rears its ugly head once again, it’s so disappointing. But for this brief moment in time, he’s able to be to be free.

I would love to see other black directors be inspired by the French New Wave, and have their own take on it, but they rarely had the opportunity in the 1960s. This was one of the rare films that really took advantage of that. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s getting there for me.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass is streaming on Fandor and the library-supported Kanopy.

Family: Pariah

This is Dee Rees’ first film, about a young woman who’s gay and grappling with it, because her family is very strict. I would say as a community, black people are becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community. But at the same time, certain things get in the way, like religion and the awareness that you already have a target on your back as a black man or woman. And then if you come out, that’s automatically another target on you. I think that’s a concern for a lot of black families. You see this family grappling with that in the film. Their young daughter doesn’t come out directly in the film early on, but it’s always there on the periphery. They’re aware things aren’t gonna be easy for her, and they feel like she’s just making things harder for herself. But at the end of the day, the girl, Alike, has to ask whether she’d rather repress her true self, or embrace it and let the chips fall where they may. That’s a big part of the film, because for a good portion of the story, she’s withdrawn and hiding her true self from those around her.

It’s not grim, because there is a reconciliation, and a recognition of the fact that this is who she is. But another thing I love in film is that even when films don’t end on happy notes, it’s just positive that the story is being told. That is important. Regardless of the subject matter, if it’s a story that needs to be told, and someone managed to tell it, that’s uplifting for me. Just the fact that it was able to get in production is a positive thing in of itself. When I think about some of the films that have dour endings, I still celebrate the fact that it was able to get made, because for the longest time, there were gatekeepers who believed no one had any interest in these stories, or they just weren’t worth being told. Which is obviously not true.

Pariah is available to rent on major digital services.

Lakeith Stanfield sits in a glass booth under purple lighting in Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Image: Annapurna Pictures

Fantasy: Sorry to Bother You

I love the fact that Sorry to Bother You is such an outlandish story. This poor black guy is just consumed by our capitalistic system. There’s something to be said about this moment when all these occupations are being deemed essential, even though a few months ago, the upper classes and capitalist society overlooked them in terms of wages and the benefits people have been fighting for, like healthcare. This film does a deep, quirky dive into the way capitalism eats away at us, and even more so if you don’t have the means to protect yourself? It’s a battle, in a way, and this film turns it into an actual battle between characters. I just enjoy the fact that Boots Riley is in Hollywood right now, an actual director championing socialism and toppling and overthrowing the system, under the guise of this comedy about a guy working in a phone bank. It’s just so outlandish and tough to describe.

Plus, White Voice is definitely a thing. I don’t even think it’s something I try to put on anymore. It’s an everyday part of my life, because I live in a predominantly white community. There’s that need to make sure you’re accepted, and that’s one way to do it. It’s not just when you’re on the phone, trying to get money out of somebody’s pocket. It’s just one of those ways of coping with a world where white supremacy rules or dictates our every move, how we adjust and cope with the situation we’re dealing with. But it’s used hilariously in the film. I love how he takes some of these ideas that could really be painful for a lot of people, particularly black people, but he puts a humorous spin on it as well. It’s incredibly funny.

Sorry to Bother You is streaming on Hulu.

A car on fire surrounded by crowds of people. Photo: National Geographic

History: LA 92

Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary LA 92 recounts the Los Angeles riots from 1992. What I love about this film is — so many people today are eager to rewrite history, whether it it’s about a vote they cast in Congress or something they said on social media in the past, something that’s coming back to bite them, because there’s a lot of reckoning taking place right now. In this film, the directors took, I think, a couple thousand hours of footage, leading up to the riots and in the aftermath, and they put it together into a little film that’s under two hours. It’s just so concise, and so full of fury and heartbreak.

But it also shows us that the protests going on right now — this has all happened before, and we’ve refused to deal with it. There are still people today looking at peaceful protests and riots, and commingling the two, and acting like this is something new. But it isn’t. It’s always been there, and people have chosen to ignore it. I love the way the film only uses archival footage to tell the story. Nobody’s able to come in and whitewash history, not just in terms of an actual white person saying, “This is what I would have done, and this is what would happen,” but in terms of actually recasting what really happened. You’re able to see it play out.

One of the things that really upsets me about the film, though, is that it shows America has a really, really hard head, and it just doesn’t learn. There’s a scene in this film where a group of activists and community members are watching the verdicts being read for the cops who beat Rodney King. They’re coming in: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. You see this man who’s got to be in his 60s or 70s, and he just starts crying. At that moment, I think I lost it too. I can’t imagine — how sad is it as a country that we’ve allowed people like this man to live in this world? He’s probably overcome Jim Crow, been through the civil-rights movement, possibly a world war, and yet he’s still being let down by our society. It disturbs me so much because he’s crying, because he probably had hope. The crime was caught on tape, the cops were brought to court, charges were brought up. It seemed like there might be this one moment in time where America would do the right thing. But they didn’t. And then all hell breaks loose.

There was a woman on social media who gave us an impassioned speech that went viral. Kimberly Latrice Jones. She said the country should be happy that black people just want equality and not revenge. And from my perspective, LA 92 is showing you what happens when people do want revenge. They’ve seen people march, they’ve seen people vote, they’ve seen people engaged in activities designed to affect change, but nothing has come of it. So they say, “You know what, F it, we’re just gonna burn this place down.” It’s white America’s worst nightmare. That’s why certain people are so opposed to the idea of what they think equality is, because they feel like, “Well, if we ever gave them an inch, they’ll try to take a couple yards.” No, it’s just like, “We want to be on equal footing. We’re not looking to establish a new supremacy here, we just want a level playing field.” It’s just disappointing to see America continue to stumble upon itself, when there are so many clear examples of these types of things happening. We watch it repeat itself in movies like LA 92, but hopefully this current time is different.

It’s all archival footage. No voiceovers, nothing. It’s more powerful that way. You get to hear people voice their concerns, their anger, within the moment. You bring in these talking heads, and in this case, they’ve got 25 years to reflect on this and say “Well, it wasn’t really like that. I didn’t really mean it that way.” This way, the events are right in front of you, and you make of it what you will. It’s a clear example of what happens when America doesn’t learn its lessons when it comes to mistreating people of color and marginalized communities.

LA 92 is streaming on Hulu and Netflix.

Horror: The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is a horror-drama that came out a few years ago, about this young boy reeling from the death of his mother. He also has a fascination with vampires, which factors heavily into the film because as a way of processing his trauma, he’s retreating into this vampire lore. It plays out in such a strange way. One of the things I really enjoyed about it is that you don’t see a lot of films where black kids are just allowed to be weird in this way. Think Let the Right One In The Transfiguration isn’t as good, but it has a similar feel, that same atmosphere. The young boy, Milo, also has a young girl that befriends him, and he seems weird to her, but they slowly become friends. While she recognizes that something is probably a little off, they retreat into their own little fantasy world, that is really, really strange.

I probably wouldn’t show this to a young child. But when I have kids, as my child got older, I’d love to hold this film up, if they were into horror, and say, ”Look at this, this is us in the genre.” It’s also another film where — I’ve covered films that deal with racism, but another reason I put together that Letterboxd list is that I just want to see films of black people doing regular stuff, or living in weird fantasy worlds, just playing out any story where white supremacy doesn’t play a major part in their lives. This film is a good example of that. It’s not that scary, but it’s disturbing. For me, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is scary, but the Halloween films, those are disturbing. This is more along the nerve-wracking, disturbing line of films, vs. anything that’s seeking to shock you with jump scares, or and stuff like that.

I think this is why I gravitate toward real-life scenarios in horror. A young boy whose reality is blurred because he’s trying to cope with the death of a family member is something that’ll stick with me far longer than a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees, where it’s disturbing and scary, but it’s not real. You could actually encounter someone like Milo in The Transfiguration, who’s totally detached from reality, and is unable to tell fact from fiction, and he’s so deeply entrenched in his world as a way of overcoming his grief and any guilt he may feel.

The Transfiguration is streaming on Shudder and the library-supported Kanopy.

LBGTQ: The Wound

John Trengove’s The Wound is about a factory worker in South Africa in a relationship with another man who was a part of his tribe growing up. Obviously in certain parts of the world, LGBTQ rights aren’t respected. There’s no room for homosexuality within the community in the film. One of the things I enjoy about this one is that it’s about how we attempt to define masculinity, and how someone will go to great lengths to protect it, even if they don’t believe in the concept itself.

This couple, Xolani and Kwanda, would rid themselves of their community in a heartbeat. In the films I’ve seen that have been set in Africa, family and social structures are a very strong bond that ties people together, so it’s hard to give them up. You see them grappling with this in the film, and it’s an amazing story about someone trying so hard to fight who they really are, because they’re trying to conform and remain part of their community. They both have a lot to lose in terms of their family and their larger social structure. It’s a type of film you don’t see coming out of Africa very often, because homosexuality isn’t tolerated in many parts of Africa, so they aren’t making these films. This would make a good double feature with Rafiki, because you’d also get to see a woman’s perspective on the same issue. The films are different in terms of their overall plot, but the general concept is the same.

I’m always intrigued by films that depict same-sex relationships as authentic, and I love that this film does that. The scenes where they’re allowed to be themselves, vs. the scenes where they’re out in the open, you sense the repression, and the masks they have to place on themselves to reintegrate into the community. You see that in a lot of LGBTQ films, these dual personalities at play.

The Wound is available to rent on major digital services.

Music: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nina Simone is one of those artists where, if you don’t know her, I suggest you get familiar. I’m sure you probably have some some artists in your life you really enjoy, and if somebody says “I’ve never heard of them,” or “I’ve never listened to them,” your jaw drops and you question their taste in the arts overall.

And this is one of those documentaries that’s pretty much it on a career. I’m fascinated by her story. Like most young black women growing up in her time, she came from pretty much nothing, and she became a superstar, a household name worldwide. Early on, she expressed a desire to be a classically trained musician. But the people interviewed in the documentary, and Nina herself, through archival footage, state that promoters and executives and teachers felt she wouldn’t be acceptable because she was a darker-skinned black woman. Because of that, she was forced to gravitate toward jazz and other popular forms of music.

That type of boxing-in of black women and black artists in general is still prevalent in the music industry. As talented as they are, there’s a reason why the Beyoncés and Rihannas of the world are more popular, and why there aren’t a lot of darker-skinned black women who have achieved that worldwide-superstar status. A lot of it has to do with the way we view beauty, which has nothing to do with talent. The two can exist without each other. Nina Simone was a beautiful woman, and she was talented. But she came up during a time where it was important to distinguish between the two, for whatever reason. And at the same time, she was able to overcome that and have a very successful career.

In this documentary, the concert footage and performances factor heavily into the film. Her performances are so passionate, it’s probably a blessing in disguise that she wasn’t confined to the classical realm. Even today, there’s passion in classical music, but you also have to be very restrained. You don’t want to lose your grip on the keys, or on your instrument. And most classical music is geared toward stuffier, buttoned-up crowds. But the music she chose let her be expressive. And when it was time for her and other artists to speak up about Jim Crow and civil rights, she was able to do so in a way she couldn’t have as a classical artist.

There’s a famous song, “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” that she recorded shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She doesn’t perform it in the film, but the passion you hear in that song, you see in the documentary, and that’s something that would have been taken away from her if she went down the other path. So I’m happy she ended up in the genre she did, because she affected a lot of people’s lives, and she reached a lot more people because of it.

What’s Happened, Miss Simone? is streaming on Netflix.

Justin Lubin

Mystery: Get Out

I went pretty commercial with this one. If you haven’t seen this film at this point, you’re probably someone who chooses to ignore the realities of being black in what was originally termed “post-racial America.” Clearly we aren’t over race. It’s a film that needs to be revisited because there are people in society who consider themselves good people, but their heads are in the sand. I really enjoy the way the black protagonist, Chris, comes to the home of his white girlfriend’s family’s, and he’s accepted, but there’s something a little off. That’s the thing that stands out to me more than anything, just the discomfort.

I was at a country club this past Friday. I play golf, and friends invited me, and I was the only black person there. This happens every single time. So as Chris is in this space, Jordan Peele really captures the sense of discomfort he feels, even though he’s trying to keep it together as these insults and these passive-aggressive comments are being made. That feeling of being black in a predominantly white space sticks out for me. In this day and age, films like this one, among others, need to be continually re-examined. The film was designed, in Jordan Peele’s mind, for that post-racial society. But we’re still living in a society that’s deeply segregated, where people don’t really understand the internalized pain black people feel when they’re not made to feel welcome, when we’re in predominantly white spaces. I would hope that with the discussions being had today, surrounding the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, that this discomfort is part of it. It’s not your job to make me feel feel comfortable, but it’s your job to understand other people, to understand what’s taking place in these situations, in these surroundings.

I enjoyed Us, Peele’s second film. I think that it’s a film that isn’t defined by a specific moment. There are no specific references to Donald Trump, or white America. When capitalism’s ill effects rear their ugly head, this is a film that speaks to that, in the images of the doppelgängers. They amplify or exhibit the characters’ worst tendencies and attributes. It’s not as defined by race as Get Out. I think the movie should grow on people, and that it will be able to evolve with the times. I don’t think it was appreciated the way it should have been, because a lot of people were looking for Get Out Part II, and they didn’t get that, and they were confused. In Get Out, the characters are able to verbally explain what’s going on, and explain their pain, explain some of the issues of the day. Us doesn’t do that in the same way, so I think people were frustrated with it. But it’ll grow with the times. We’re going to be able to come back to it continually, and re-examine what it means as times change.

Get Out is available to rent on major digital services.

Romance: Beyond the Lights

I wanted to throw this in Drama, but someone on Letterboxd described this movie as “all rom without the com,” and it struck me how you don’t see that very often. It’s a pure romance, but it’s also about the music industry, and the way women’s bodies and appearance are exploited for our own personal gain, at the expense of their health. It’s a sincere, charming romance that really doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the prospects of Nona Jean, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and this gentleman Kaz, played by Nate Parker, actually being together. They’re from opposite ends of the public spectrum — she’s this pop star who’s worldly and all about presenting this sexual image to the world, and he’s very buttoned-up. He’s a cop with political aspirations, and associating himself with someone like her, even though she’s not a bad person, could wreak havoc on his political career.

There’s a depth to it that I don’t see in a lot of other romances, and I really enjoyed that. It’s also another film where race doesn’t factor heavily into the romance. It’s definitely a part of it — you can see from Kaz’s perspective that he has to be careful about the moves he makes, because he won’t be able to recover from scandal as quickly as a white cop, or a white politician, who was associated with someone who most people would deem as not an ideal partner for someone looking to go into politics. There are always people who try to blame pop culture for our society’s ills, so it seems like their relationship wouldn’t work. But he chooses love, and you can see they’re both better off for it.

Beyond the Lights is streaming on the library-supported Kanopy and Hoopla.

The cast of Attack the Block stand in front of a motor scooter Image: Optimum Releasing

Science Fiction: Attack the Block

I love it, I love it, I love it! I watched it before I knew who John Boyega was. The term “leading man” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s normally just assigned to white cisgender males with certain physical and emotional characteristics. But he has all those traits, and I wish more people would recognize that. I love the fact that he’s being a leading man in real life too. He steps up for his community in this film, and he stepped up for his community in London, in the Black Lives Matter protests. He’s such a smart guy. He recognized that speaking out could dramatically affect his career, and at another point in history, I think it would. I hope things are different now. I do think that speaking up and being on the right side of history is going to serve him well.

But within the film, I just enjoy how the black kids recognize that no one’s coming to save them, so they need to do it themselves. It’s a much more uplifting portrayal than a film like The Transfiguration. It’s another film I’d show to my young son or daughter to say, “Yes, there are people that look like us at all ages, in all walks of life, who can step up when their community needs it, and be heroes. That’s a truth that’s been overlooked in Hollywood circles for so long. This was an independent British feature, but the point stands that the director didn’t throw in a white savior. He said, “No, these kids are more than capable enough to fend for themselves, and stand up to this alien invasion.” So they handle it!

Attack the Block is streaming for free with ads on Fubo and Pluto TV.

Steven Soderbergh/Netflix

Sports: High Flying Bird

It would have been very easy for me to choose Hoop Dreams, or a few others, but there are so many film critics who have written about that film and the others. So I choose Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird. I think in this day and age, we have a lot of athletes who are recognizing their worth, their value in a system that’s pretty much dominated by white men. The statistics boggle my mind. Like 70% of the NFL is black, 99% of the league owners are white! This is a film where an agent, Ray, played by André Holland, decides he’s not going to let the system game him and others around him anymore. Just the hint of expressing some form of ingenuity, just the thought of bringing up something that could in no way topple what’s already been built, just threaten it a bit, is enough for the forces to come together against him and others.

I love that the central theme of the film is, “Know your worth.” You see a lot of athletes, both when it comes to dollars and cents, and when it comes to areas of social justice, standing up to the system and saying, “I recognize what I’m worth, I recognize that you’re nothing without me.” There are very few sports leagues in America where you can remove all the black athletes, and the leagues can still stand on their own and be as exciting. I find the pushback exciting, but it’s a little tough for me to grapple with. We have all this power, but not the pull where it’s really needed, to make necessary changes. Colin Kaepernick gave up a lot when he chose to kneel a few years ago. Now you’ve got people in the NFL coming out and saying they were wrong on areas of racial justice, but they haven’t apologized to him. There’s no telling how much money he lost for his beliefs. If there was a way people like him could gain a little more power both in the executive suite and from an ownership perspective, then maybe we could see some of these leagues stand up and be on the right side of history early on, so the athletes who are taking a stand and making the right call aren’t as marginalized going forward.

I love the way this film looks. I know some people were disturbed by him using iPhone as the cameras in this film, but I loved it. I thought it gave the film an immediacy that was further highlighted by the Aaron Sorkin-style script. So you’ve got this camera which is right up on top of each of the characters, and then this snappy dialogue, and it all works for me. There’s so much at stake, and the filmmaking and dialogue makes it clear that time is of the essence. It paints this picture of someone who is searching for an opportunity, a leg up in a system where they should be a head honcho, but they’re relegated to the side. Ray is on top of things, he’s always thinking, even though he doesn’t own a team. It really is about reclaiming ownership of yourself, of your worth.

High Flying Bird is streaming on Netflix.


Thrillers: Luce

I love this film. It fits with Sorry to Bother You — the main character, Luce, doesn’t actually use White Voice in the film, but the story takes that idea and magnifies it. Luce is a star athlete and a star pupil, what I’d refer to as The Acceptable Negro, because he has to be on-point 24/7, lest he slip and fall, and be viewed as just as delinquent as some of the other characters in the film. His decency and upstanding-ness, if that’s a word, is contrasted with that of another character in the film. The star, Kelvin Harrison, does a great job. His teacher, Octavia Spencer’s character is very hard on him, with good reason. it’s, it demonstrates the ways in which there’s very little room for failure for black men and women in our society. I think a lot of that comes from our parents telling us, “Whatever, this white person does, this white athlete, this white student, you have to be two or three times as good, just to get your foot in the door and be noticed.” In the film, you see how that weighs on him. He’s an extremely smart kid. I love the way he recognizes his inherited privilege. He recognizes that there’s no room for failure, so he decides to test the waters of that, and he throws everybody, including his adoptive parents, played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, for a loop.

And it wreaks havoc on the lives of people like his teacher, who sees him as someone who’s potentially squandering opportunities. Then this model student and model son that Roth and Watts feel they have is being questioned, and they have no idea what to do with it. In my eyes, they’re the type of parents who don’t see color, even when they absolutely need to see it. It’s something that has allowed him to stand out within his community. But it can also easily destroy him, as we see with one of the other characters who’s just as promising, but has had a bit of a slip-up, and is now struggling to regain his footing in society, in this community that’s largely written him off.

Luce is streaming on Hulu.

War: General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait

This is a documentary about the former dictator of Uganda, who ruled from the early to late 1970s. The director Barbet Schroeder, just made this portrait, capturing a moment in time during his dictatorship. There are just so many stark parallels between our current administration and what I see in this dictator, in this film. Donald Trump is no way as barbaric as Idi Amin, but he’s just as clueless, and his grip on power is just as fragile. There are a lot of cracks in Trump’s armor right now. In the same way, in this film, you recognize that the emperor has no clothes, and the only way he’s able to hold onto power is through through violence, through force.

Something that trips me up about this film is that there are certain points where Amin is talking to his cabinet or his troops, and he refers to himself as a revolutionary leader. He goes on and on about this, “I’m a revolutionary leader.” And I’m like, “Is someone going to tell him that a true revolutionary leader like Nelson Mandela doesn’t have to assign that tag to himself?” People typically, generally, will let you know if you’re a revolutionary leader! But then, hey, if I was part of his cabinet, I wouldn’t be the guy to speak up to Idi Amin either! So there’s this comedy there, in the way he’s ruling. But it’s tough, obviously, to step up and speak truth to power, when you know you’ll be paying for it with your life.

I believe Schroeder was severely handicapped in what he was able to show. It’s similar to if Werner Herzog went to North Korea and was able to document Kim Jong-Un. You’re only going to get what the party wants to show you. I’m sure he could have taken more creative license, but he would have done so at his own peril, even if he wasn’t a citizen of that country. There would have been repercussions. So it’s definitely not the true story of Amin, his dictatorship, and his rule over the country during that period. I believe he murdered close to half a million of his own citizens, and there’s very little about that in the film.

But there is an unnerving moment in the film where Amin is having a cabinet meeting, and he’s talking to one of his subordinates, and he doesn’t get the type of answer he wants, because of something that’s gone wrong. And then later in the film, you have the same cabinet meeting, and that member is nowhere to be found. And you know exactly what’s happened to him. Even though it’s Amin’s self-portrait, very grandstanding, probably because he said, “This is how it’s going to be,” Schroeder fit in all these moments where you’re brought back to reality, where you recognize what a brutal, inhumane person you’re dealing with.

I think Schroeder is documenting for posterity. He probably took what he could get. There were probably other news portraits, and journalists and others who created individual pieces, and then when you put those together as a whole, you can provide a more realistic portrait of what took place while he ruled the country. But it’s important to get these people on record, and hear their own words. Because as time goes on, you start to realize how ridiculous some of the things they say can sound. You can’t point it out in the moment, but you can see how detrimental his actions and policies were.

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait is streaming on Criterion Channel and the library-supported Kanopy.

Western: The Retrieval

This was probably the toughest category, because a lot of the Westerns centered around black characters aren’t very good, at least the ones I’ve seen thus far. It would have been easy to choose Blazing Saddles or Django Unchained, but everybody’s seen those who’s going to, and as a recommendation, that won’t enlighten anyone. I chose an independent film from 2013, The Retrieval, by director Chris Eska. It’s about these two black bounty hunters living in the antebellum South who travel north to retrieve runaway slaves. The film is great because it’s one of those films showcases black agency in a time where there really was none. Most films set in this period, black people are slaves. And in the film, the two bounty hunters — one’s an older man, and the other’s a young boy, Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron in Moonlight. This was one of his first features. So it’s always cool to see actors you love at a younger stage of their career.

In the film, I love the fact that you’re able to see these black characters engage with their world directly. They’re confronting racism in many ways, because they’re freed slaves who are sent out to capture their own. And it’s such a moral dilemma, because they recognize what it’s like to want to run away, and they would have known that could result in them being recaptured, re-enslaved, or put to death. At the same time, they’re denying other people their freedom. It has such strong Western vibes — how many Westerns are about a group of men being sent out to capture someone, and going on an adventure as a part of it?

The Retrieval is streaming on Amazon Prime and the library-supported Kanopy.

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