AT THE MOVIES
Black America in the Hands of Black Directors
By Noah Gittell
Last week, “The Help” was the most watched movie on Netflix, and it’s easy to see why. As protests rage throughout America over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many other unarmed black Americans killed by police, viewers are eager to feed their brains with films that tell the story of America’s racial history.
But they’re watching the wrong film. “The Help” is a white savior historical drama that centers its story of racism in the American South on its white characters, instead of on the domestic workers played marvelously by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. That’s not progress. It’s a perpetuation of white supremacy. Davis herself acknowledged this in a recent interview, saying that she regretted taking the role, despite the film’s success, because it didn’t showcase her character’s voice.
Films like these are still common in Hollywood (see last year’s “The Best of Enemies”). They’re almost always directed by white men, who can’t help telling the story through the eyes of a non-black character. We can do better. Forget “The Help,” and watch these films by and about black Americans.
“Do the Right Thing” (director Spike Lee)
Released in 1989, this is still one of the most perceptive and engaging American films about race. Set on a blistering summer day, the film tracks the conflict between the black residents of Bed-Stuy and the Italian-run pizza parlor that is the neighborhood’s hub. Concluding with an unarmed black man being choked out by the police, followed by a riot in which the film’s protagonist throws a garbage can through a window, it was a timely film that has become timeless for how little has changed since its release.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (director RaMell Ross)
This 2018 documentary rejects mainstream narratives about black America and paints a mesmerizing mosaic of a rural Alabama community. Ross, a local teacher who gains incredible access to the lives of his friends and neighbors, expertly weaves together breathtaking shots of the Alabama land with a vivid portrayal of those who live and die there.
“The 13th” (director Ava Duvernay)
Following her breakthrough work helming 2015’s “Selma,” Duvernay made this striking documentary about America’s prison state. Packing 400 years of racial injustice into a mere two hours, Duvernay confirmed her ability to make black history accessible to all. As Americans focus on systemic racism in the police system, Duvernay’s film will help budding activists scale back to see the big picture.
“Fruitvale Station” (director Ryan Coogler)
Before he conquered Hollywood with “Creed” and “Black Panther,” Coogler made this indie drama about Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by San Francisco transit police in 2009. Starring his frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan, it’s a thoughtful portrait of a complicated man and a quietly moving drama that upends the narrative of the black “thug”.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (director Barry Jenkins)
After winning Best Picture for “Moonlight,” Jenkins set his considerable filmmaking sights on a novel by James Baldwin. It’s a black love story set in New York in the 1970s, full of romance, drama, and heartbreak. But what I’ll always remember is the film’s centerpiece, a long scene of dialogue between the young black protagonist (Stephan Jenkins) and his childhood friend (Brian Tyree Henry), who has recently been released from prison. The ex-con’s jubilance at reuniting with an old friend slowly gives way to a chilling reveal of the trauma of his incarceration.
“Hollywood Shuffle” (director Robert Townsend)
Before there was an independent film movement, there was Townsend, who spent years scraping together the cash and maxed out his credit cards to make 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” an incisive and hilarious comedy about the trials of breaking into Hollywood as a black actor. The film, based on Townsend’s own experiences, addresses serious issues, like the industry’s reliance on stereotypes and its consistently negative depictions of black America, with a wink and a smile.
“Daughters of the Dust” (director Julie Dash)
One of the lost films of the early ’90s indie boom, “Daughters of the Dust” is a unique work, a tone poem about a black family torn between its insular community off the coast of South Carolina — where former African slaves carry on their old traditions in isolation — and the lure of the mainland. It’s a film like no other, with narration from an unborn child, shifting time periods, and a story that’s untethered to traditional narrative techniques. It’s a film a white artist would never think to make.
Further Viewing: “Four Little Girls”, “Selma”, “The Best Man” “Get Out”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Shaft”, “Bamboozled”, “Waiting to Exhale”.