A Century in Color: 11 Black Art Films from 1920 to 2020
I believe movies to be the ultimate artistic medium, not simply because they rise above literature, theatre, music, or photography in themselves, but because they are a Frankenstinian amalgamation of the four. The film industry is rife with prolific imaginations, household names, and deep pockets that often band together in a mission to revolutionize pop culture, from billion dollar properties like the Marvel Cinematic Universe to artistic and provocative social commentary like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. Accessibility to such a rich and malleable field of artistry should never be confined to a single nationality, sex, race, or orientation, lest we be deprived of culturally invaluable imitations of humanity. See Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins, and Paris is Burning filmed by Jennie Livingston and her 16mm Bolex, for example.
However, there is currently a nettlesome discourse over the value of diverse filmmaking bobbing across the Internet like deadwood amidst the Mediterranean. It implies that we, as an inherently ignorant species, have nothing to learn from a novel perspective, that representation is a burden, and that the film industry is anywhere near as diverse as it could be. Diversity is neither a green nor dangerous concept. Film-lovers of every creed and color have been fighting for places on movie-sets since they were first built. The multiculturality of the industry today merely signifies the fruit of their labors dropping too late.
If it weren’t for characters that looked like me and stories that could one day be mine, my interest in the compendious history and development of movies would be nonexistent, and the passion I feel about film would not be so perennial that I feel the need to share it. So, in the spirit of hospitality, here are eleven films spanning from 1920 to 2020 that reinvigorate my love for filmmaking and carve a limpid window into Black (African, American, and Latino) culture that I think everyone can benefit from peering through.
1920s: Within Our Gates (1920) Dir. Oscar Micheaux
Within Our Gates is a silent, nonlinear, black and white film about a Southern teacher named Sylvia who travels to the North to acquire funding for her school. Although the premise may seem simple, Micheax wrote Sylvia’s story to mirror that of every Black American from the Reconstruction era to the present day. In a mere 80 minutes of sullen, grainy, 35mm film, Sylvia interacts with the sharecropping system, various forms of white bigotry in both the North and South, race riots, gambling, and the reintroduction of the Klu Klux Klan and mass lynchings to America in the late 1910s. Interracial relationships ranging from benevolent to predatory are explored with especial depth and purpose that is almost inconspicuous due the brevity of the film, but which inspires awe upon revisitaton. What may seem goofy, offensive, or haphazard on Within Our Gates’s initial viewing grows more heavy on the second, and serves as a well directed, paced, and acted snapshot of life during the Great Migration from thereon after. Though silent films test the patience of some, Within Our Gates remains consistently entertaining and provocative throughout its second and third acts and leaves its audience with a newfound appreciation for race films, the first genre of movies about racial identity and prejudice directed by Black people for by Black people. I highly recommend that those who are interested in the Reconstruction and Progressive eras of American history, especially racial politics, watch The Library of Congress’s restored print of Within Our Gates on YouTube, where it is completely free.
1930s: Emperor Jones (1933) Dir. Dudley Murphy
The most difficult thing about combing through the Internet for Black films from the 1930s is that half of them do not have a single black person in them. Prior to the release of The Emperor Jones, many American films that featured black characters opted to cast white actors as servants or petty criminals covered in grease paint, tattered costumes, and wool wigs, regardless of how nightmarish they turned out to be. This was due to a deficiency in the industry of black actors which was, in turn, a repercussion of segregation and an unwillingness to train them. However, The Emperor Jones was one of first motion pictures with sound to feature a black man in the forefront of a complex narrative. Adapted from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill’s Broadway production of the same name, The Emperor Jones tells the operatic tale of Brutus Jones, a charismatic pullman porter, and his transfiguration into the makeshift emperor of a Carribean island. It is one of my favorite films on this list if only for its provision of Paul Robeson’s best performance to date, one that was so enticing it catalysed Robeson’s career as an iconic performer and fervent political activist. Like many of the other films on this list, The Emperor Jones can be streamed, in full, on YouTube.
1940s: Cabin in the Sky (1943) Dir. Vincent Minnelli, Busby Berkely
Compared to the stark, nihilistic tones of Within Our Gates and The Emperor Jones, Cabin in the Sky is a breath of redolent air worth experiencing if only for the performance of Ethel Waters, an iconic and renowned actress and jazz singer who starred in the Broadway rendition. She reprises her role as Petunia Jackson, the wife of the main protagonist, Little Joe. Invigorated by actor Eddie Anderson’s charisma, Little Joe is a likable but cowardly gambler who fights to earn a second chance at life after he is nearly killed in a bar fight. Lucifer Jr. and an angel called The General fight over Little Joe’s soul in comedically potent transition scenes that make the quick pacing of the film’s first act more palatable. Once Georgia Brown, an ex-girlfriend of Little Joe’s, is introduced as Lucifer Jr.’s pawn to trick Little Joe into betraying his wife, the film slows its break-neck pace. The audience is then given enough time to enjoy Cabin in the Sky’s elaborate musical numbers and production design, both of which are directed with exceptional style. Lovers of the Jazz Age will especially enjoy cameos from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong who perform in a jazz band in the film’s finale. Unfortunately, segments of Lena Horne’s performance as Georgia were deemed inappropriate and cut by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in pre-production. Additionally, many theaters refused to show the movie due to the almost exclusively Black cast. Despite opposition, Cabin in the Sky was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and garnered universal acclaim from those who saw it. Over the years, it has remained a fun, endearing edifice in Black film history and is available for purchase on YouTube for $2.99.
1950s: Black Orpheus (1959) dir. Marcel Camu; Río Zona Norte (1957) Dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos
The 1950s produced two Afro-Brazillian pictures so conspicuously linked by subject matter that I find it impossible to view one without the other. Adapted from Brazilian playwright Vinicius de Moraes’s Orfeu da Conceição, Black Orpheus follows Euridice, an amicable young woman living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and the two men who pursue her— Orfeo, a musician and samba dancer, and a manifestation of Death. Altogether, Black Orpheus is a mystifying picture whose rhythm and enthusiasm injects splendor into every frame. The second film, Rio Zona Norte, directed by the native Brazilian Nelson Pereira dos Santos, was inspired by Italian neorealism (or New Wave Cinema) and is much darker than Black Orpheus tonally. It tells of a samba composer’s grapple with exploitation from the music industry and with producers who don’t understand his art taking advantage of it for a disproportionate profit. Although they are polar opposites in tone, Black Orpheus and Rio Zona Norte delineate eerily compatible stories about how samba has been manipulated by foreign directors and producers with Rio Zona Norte having been written about it, and Black Orpheus serving as an example of this exploitation in practice. Both films are impressive depending on whether you prefer uplifting, escapist musicals, or heavy, realistic dramas. I encourage readers to watch Black Orpheus then Rio Zona Norte so that you can enjoy the beauty of Black Orpheus and be informed on how it hurt Brazilian artists that participated in its production all at once. Both films are available for free on YouTube.
1960s: Black Girl (1966) Dir. Ousmane Sembène
Arguably the best film on this list, Black Girl is an ethereally-shot character study of a young Sengalese woman named Diounna who, in an attempt to cultivate a more fashionable life for herself, applies to be a governess under a bourgeois French couple. However, her conceit soon buckles under the reality of menial labor and virtual isolation. Equating housekeeping in Cannes to slavery, Diounna states, “France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom.” The frustrations of being tethered to her employers are brilliantly expressed in short internal monologues by Sengalese actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop, and Ousmane Sembène succeeds just as often in her direction, employing deafening silence to provoke audiences to sympathize with the disappointment and alienation felt by immigrants in their new countries. If you’d like a movie that makes you numb after you watch it, Black Girl is free to watch on YouTube.
1970s: Cooley High (1975) Dir. Michael Schultz
One genre in which black people have been particularly underrepresented is the coming-of-age story. If not conveniently absent or playing the sidekick, black teens in coming-of-age movies are encumbered by gang violence, police brutality, or other forms of systemic discrimmination that eclipse their childhoods. While stories such as these deserve just as much exposure as any other, they overpopulate black representation in the genre and are often hyperbolized and hardly emblematic of black adolscence. Cooley High deviates from these conventions and gives its characters room to enjoy their youth. Though the film has its solemn moments, Cooley High spends most of its time trailing behind a group of highschoolers as they navigate their way through the North Side of Chicago, figuring out what they want to do with their lives and deepening their relationships with one another. Alongside Cooley High, I would recommend listening to its soundtrack, which features the best of Freddie Paren, The Temptations, and The Miracles for fans of 60s soul and disco. Cooley High can be streamed online with a Vudu subscription.
1980s: Losing Ground (1982) Dir. Kathleen Collins
Based partly on her own experiences, Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground is a fiercely intelligent comedy/drama about the marital drudgeries of a black couple from New York. Sara, a philosophy professor, becomes disgruntled as her artist husband, Victor, spends a worrisome amount of time with his new muse. To both distract herself from her husband’s affair and avoid researching an essay she is writing about human affection, Sara agrees to star in a film by one of her students. On the film’s set, she meets Duke, her love interest for the bulk of the movie. Similar to the race films of the 1920s, Losing Ground was itself lost for several decades before making rounds throughout the film watching community in the mid 2010s. It isn’t rare to find unsung, excellent films, but I don’t believe I’ve come across a more criminally underrated feature than Losing Ground. It is soulful, genuine, ideologically bewitching, the first feature length film directed by a Black woman and, unfortunately, the only movie Kathleen Collins ever made. It is available on the Criterion Channel and DirecTV.
1990s: Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) Dir. Michel Ocelot
The first in a trilogy of French language animated films based on African folk stories, Kirikou and the Sorceress tells of a baby boy named Kirikou who emancipates his small East African village from the trickery of an evil witch, Karaba. Initially, Kirikou and the Sorceress seems like any other animated fairy tale, with familiar tropes― a wise older mentor, a youthful protagonist, bright colors, and talking animals. However, it deviates from most animated children’s movies in how utterly weird it is, featuring psychedelic animation, unconventional dialogue writing, and complex editing meant to accurately portray the convoluted nature of many traditional folk tales. Michel Ocelot and a diverse production team composed of both West and East African creatives pour unparalleled vividness into a familiar story of heroism and spirituality into one of my favorite animated movies. Kirikou and the Sorceress is available on Amazon Prime Video.
2000s: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004) Dir. Ken Burns
Even if you’re not obsessed with boxing or are unfamiliar with the story of Jack Johnson as I was before watching it, Ken Burns’ thoroughly assembled retelling of the first Black heavyweight world champion’s life and career will engage you all the way through its three hours and thirty-four minute runtime. In chronicling the experiences of Jack Johnson, Ken Burns doesn’t shy away from exploring racial discrimmination during the Jim Crow Era in all its depth and cruelty. Narrated by a cornucopia of notable actors — Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Alan Rickman, Amy Madigan, and Derek Jacobi — Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is one of the best documentaries to be released in the last couple of decades, and can be streamed on the Public Broadcasting Service’s website.
2010s: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) Dir. Joe Talbot
If there were any single film on this list that I recommend you leave this article and watch right now, it would be The Last Black Man in San Francisco, one of my favorite films ever made. It is the semi-autobiographical story of Jimmie Fails, a young man who lives with his best friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (played by Jonathan Majors) and his father (the one and only Danny Glover). Jimmie harbors a deep obsession with a now-gentrified and expensive Victorian house from his childhood that was built by his grandfather in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Jimmie and Mont embark on a tenderly written journey to acquire the home for themselves, a journey that tests the endurance of their friendship. Everything from the performances to the cinematography are aesthetically ingenious, but the original score composed by Emile Mosseri is so good that I listen to it once a week. You can watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco on Prime Video.
2020s: Da Five Bloods (2020) Dir. Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods warrants more precise and eloquent examination than I am capable of affording it in this article. All I can and will reiterate is that it's more than worth watching. Da Five Bloods is simply about four war veterans who reunite in Vietnam to recover the body of their deceased squad leader and a locker of gold they buried in their youth. However, my appreciation of the film revolves primarily around the encapsulating performance of Delroy Lindo, who expresses misguided pride, sorrow, and racial frustration with a power similar to that of Paul Robeson. Newton Thomas Sigel’s vibrant and immersive cinematography is similarly impressive, however underutilized. Though not the most popular in Spike’s filmography, Da Five Bloods was one of few good things to come out of the summer of 2020. Following the passing of Chadwick Boseman, Da Five Bloods’ eulogy for Sergeant “Stormin'” Norman is especially heart-wrenching and is available to stream on Netflix.