It has been twenty days since George Floyd's killing. Not only did it spark nationwide protests throughout America, it irrevocably penetrated countries across the world. These are now global protests, against police brutality and atrocities, and racism. And for decades, a great number of movies and television series' have held a similar philosophy. At the core of it are films about Black lives. Marcel Camus, Norman Jewison are familiar names in this arena. But back in the '60s and for several subsequent decades, a Black artist at the helm of films was unheard of. Owing to this disparity and the lack of representation in cinema on Black experiences, this list will curate formative works by Black creators.
I do feel it is important to convey that the films and shows below are not single-bracketed in their approach. It is a study of Black culture and history, and how that marries with the epidemic-like racism. Injustice and prejudice are not the sole themes here. They look at other seemingly innocuous characteristics that define the Black community as well — their music, hair, dwellings, and relationships — for they all add up to that injustice and prejudice we see and hear today.
Towards the end of the first episode of a four-part miniseries, a detained Black kid feebly asks, "Why are they doing us like this?" That faint question is meant to be as piercing as it is to be telling. Despite being a masterful replay of well-known, real-life events — the Central Park Jogger case in the US, the show's ability to keep you on tenterhooks cannot alone be attributed to its storytelling or performances. It is the series' exposition of how a legal and judicial system is engineered to function against minorities that is searingly painful.
This is a show that's way past introspecting. It wants to uncompromisingly confront the injustice, cruelty and as a sum, the dehumanisation. As a viewer, far insulated from these happenings, this reality doesn't simply "hit hard." There is no momentary anger or rage at the so-called system. The anger is directed towards your negligence, ignorance, and rage towards past insouciance. In a lean five hours, DuVernay makes When They See Us a seminal piece of viewing.
Chronicling the history of incarceration in America, this documentary is a primer on the Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and all the different racist machinations people have devised to date. But the main focus here is the abrupt rise in nationwide convictions since the Nixon era — hundreds and thousands every year. And even after being released from this unjust and bigoted captivity, you're still in a perpetual prison. The whole world becomes a panopticon.
Other notable works of hers include Selma, This Is The Life, and Middle of Nowhere.
While it has been said earlier, it bears repeating — studying racism, in its bare form, within a unidimensional box will most likely result in a failure to account for the smaller (sometimes micro) factors that lead to it. Hair, often a defining symbol for Blacks, is one such factor. And this Academy Award-winning animated short does just that — it creates a microcosm of this seemingly small characteristic where a young girl needs her dad to set her Afro hair. In doing so, it becomes a sweet and pleasant commentary on identity and self-acceptance.
In a typical household, you have the birds and bees talk as children come of age. However, the "talk" in a Black household does not stop at that. It's stop-and-frisk talk. It's racial profiling talk. It's the fear of police.
Starr Carter is a 16-year-old high-schooler who tries to un-black herself as much as possible. That means not being confrontational, no stank eyes, and no slangs. Basically, all stereotypes associated with Blacks. But, after witnessing her childhood friend get wrongfully shot by the police, she doesn't choose to stay silent. She reclaims her identity, the black-ness that defines her, and fights — with grit and tenacity. The protests at the end of the film can be heard and seen today. "It's the same story, just a different name."
The film opens with the thumping and powerful Public Enemy song, 'Fight The Power,' which sets the tone for the rest of the film. A customer, at an Italian-American pizza joint, complains about the lack of Black artists on the wall, a bulked but quiet 'Radio Raheem' plays his stereo everywhere he goes, and a near senile, old drunk wanders on the streets aimlessly. Following those events, all in a day in Brooklyn, the film chronicles how subtle racial hostility and microaggressions eventually cause the Black community to erupt, only to cause incalculable violence and demolition. And it did not help that the sweltering summer day was the year's hottest.
The film is inadvertently and horrifically prescient. Towards the end of the film, a character is choked to death by multiple police officers. As those officers suffocate him with a baton, all the witnesses shriek with horror. He gasps for breath. The officers enjoy their gratuitousness. Over thirty years later, as director Spike Lee acknowledged, history repeats itself. The only difference is that in this case, it is not fiction.
Spike Lee has delved into similar subject matter in his other films — BlacKkKlansman, Malcolm X, Chi-Raq, and Da 5 Bloods.
The cinematic intersection between racism and homosexuality are still uncommon. They aren't easy to come by, especially when they are as sensitively crafted as this one. The film hinges on the experiences of one character, Chiron, a gay Black man — as a child, then a teenager, and then an adult. Sexual epithets are hurled at him, he is called effeminate, and even is a victim of abuse at home. It is an unvarnished look at the Black community, of prejudice within it as well as the sustaining cultural harmony.
Memphis' Beale Street has been a heart of blues music, that first emerged shortly after slavery was abolished. Blues has ever since carried a vein of emancipation — it supported Black heritage and "hollered" against oppressive social structures. And it is the hopelessness in this film that contrasts this very idea. A 22-year-old Fonny, wrongfully accused of assault and rape, is put behind bars — away from his pregnant girlfriend Tish, desperate to prove his innocence. Injustice, discrimination, and chauvinism have been recurring subjects in most of these films. But Jenkins doesn't approach this exclusively. The women, here are doubly otherised. His girlfriend is sexualised and exoticised, quite sickeningly. Their world can only be imagined, and trauma, even less so. In the end, you do wonder — if Beale Street could talk, would the couple be better off?
There is no comedy in this special. There is no stand-up. This is a purely half an hour long Chappelle monologue on George Floyd's murder. The name of this special, too, is indicative of that — the police officer knelt on him for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. There hardly is any audience here, and to quite a lot of extent, it's better that way. It's a quiet monologue. Despite having a few laughs seep into it, he doesn't care about being funny. And he shouldn't. As such an unfiltered stream of consciousness, Chappelle minces no words when talking about police brutality and unabashedly calls out on the differing news anchors and journalists.
This is one of the few films in this list that explicitly grapples with class and racial tensions by equally focusing on a White household alongside a Black one that works for them. The circumstances for the latter family are significantly distressful — they live in the Southern half of the US, entrenched in the Jim Crow laws, and have a son fighting in the war, right after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Rees offers a trenchant view of the family — they are mudbound, inescapably stuck in the wretched and mucky land on Earth.
Her earlier works, Pariah (2007 and 2011) and Bessie also focus on the Black experience.
"The blue sky seemed to descend like a blanket." These are the words used to describe the assassination of activist Medgar Evers, also to symbolically apply to countless other lives that were lost in the civil rights movement. Narrated through the words of James Baldwin, a writer, essayist, and activist, the documentary studies Baldwin's account of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers. It is a portrait of American history — of Black struggle, trauma and ultimately, weariness. The material of this documentary and Baldwin's poetically woven manuscript still hold their place in the world today. They must be repeated and heard again.
Some other artists that deserve a mention — Steve McQueen, Yance Ford, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Melina Matsoukas, F. Gary Gray, Lee Daniels, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and John Singleton.