Cultural films vary frequently in their strengths and overall mission. Most set out to highlight the cultural issues of their times - Italian Neo-realism in the aftermath of World War 2 or the Battle for Algiers which highlights the struggle against French occupation in Algeria. In the US, much of the cultural clashing films seek to highlight an issue with the rampant racism of the country. Some films can highlight a minorities general life - Native American Smoke Signals, but a few fall within the auteur theory as they are made to not only highlight a cultural significance, but also the skills of the director in their craft of filmmaking as many old foreign film directors are given credit for.
As such, I wanted to highlight ten films made by Black directors which highlight more than slavery, more than the "hood" and are meticulously made to impress audiences regardless of their ethnic background. I tried to not have more than one director for any of these films. I also tried to highlight a variety of film movements and styles for people to explore as well. After this list, I will definitely post some links to two lists which I tend to agree with. Note that this list is not in any order whatsoever and the list will not be numbered.
Moonlight (2016) - This film will most likely have more backlash than any other film on this list, but I wanted to get it and its fanfare out of the way first. Yes, it is a gay Black film made brilliantly by the wonderful Barry Jenkins. Yes, it is also a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture (in arguably the most treacherous way possible). However, Moonlight is a masterpiece that will be remembered for more than its controversy. The acting and writing are superb in conveying and telling, respectively, a tragic story of self-discovery in a community that not only has difficulty accepting gay people exist, but that being Black and gay is dangerous by nature. Still, greater than this is the filmmaking from the sharp color contrasts of blue beaches and memories in shadow it creates imagery that stays with you. The lighting and direction of some of the sequences are going to go down to history as some of the greatest displays and secrets of love in all its forms.
Within Our Gates (1920) - Yes that date is correct and even more amazing is that you can now watch this early Black film on Netflix! Early Black director Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates highlights not only the times of the Jim Crow era, but also humanizes Black people on film in a time that no major Hollywood studios were doing so. It highlights a Southern Black woman and her relationship with a doctor from the North. They navigate each other along with lynching, Jim Crow, and mixed-race heritages. The filmmaking is pretty solid fare as well for the times and the strongest film I recommend pre-Civil Rights and pre-Blaxploitation.
Killer of Sheep (1978) - I'm going to flat out say at first that I didn't understand this film at all. However, looking back I understand what Charles Burnett and the LA Filmmakers movement (1970s) were trying to do in creating scenes of the Black experience. Burnett picked the city of Watts in South Central LA to highlight scenes revolving around daily life in the Black community. Whether that is a meal at home or headstands, it doesn't entirely matter, because it's not the bombast of Blaxploitation and it is also not the exploitation of slavery films. The importance of the film is that it is Blacks in an urban setting living life with a variety of auteur experimentation in tracking shots, odd angles and distinct uses of Black and White film with natural lighting. This is another one for the history books but well worth a watch.
Dope (2015) - Rick Famuyiwa of The Wood fame created a film that highlights the plight of Black geekiness and runs with it in a distinct tale of classism and double-crossing into a Black boy's quest for college admission. Dope is a fun film filled with unexpected acting turns (A$AP Rocky?! and the introduction of Shameik Moore) and a ton of switching agendas for characters who are more than they appear. Much of this comes thanks to the editing in which a news clip and drug becomes a meme and a series of events is filmed from multiple perspectives. As such, it never lets up and features a main character who prefers rock music, Bitcoins and hanging out in the computer lab while still hustling dope and hanging with gangsters. As such, it highlight Black nerdiness while contrasting it with gang grittiness and it coalesces into pure entertainment.
Creed (2015) - Ryan Coogler has only two major films but they already are highly regarded in the filmmaking as his debut with Fruitvale Station is heralded I wanted to highlight his take on a film in not only a genre (boxing & sports), but extended storyline (the Rocky series) that Black filmmakers often don't partake in. I was never a fan of Rocky, but Creed not only takes the formula and improves it, but it works completely as a standalone film as well. Rocky was often know as the great white hope for sports films in being counter culture to the rise of Black athletes and four out of six of his opponents were Black. However, Creed is a Black film from its discussions on the underbelly of Philadelphia, to its hip-hop infused boxing anthems, and primarily to its protagonist who is trying to rise from the ashes. Furthermore, it is exceptionally well made with excellent theatrics in ring entrances and even small music venues to its long take boxing fight that is pure cinematic genius. Coogler his actor Michael B. Jordan and this film are on the map.
Pariah (2011) - This is still one of the best Black films that nobody talks about. The reasons for this could be behind it being released in limited theaters or that its main actress (Adepero Oduye) and director (Dee Rees) haven't done much since. However, this is an absolutely brilliant film that was ahead of its time. The colors, rich lighting, and phenomenal acting from every cast member highlight the wounds of being a Black dark-skinned lesbian in a world that often can't comprehend their existence. The story is well written in examining both religion and race as it pertains to lesbianism, but the mood lighting that reflects the main characters changing experiences is also a sight to behold. Still, it's the one film I don't want to ruin any part of and it's also the film I probably recommend over any others here.
Do the Right Thing (1989) - This is probably the most stereotypical film I have on here but it is so well done and so important for the world of Black cinema that it is impossible to ignore it. Spike Lee's kick into stardom was not only a film that brought into focus a new auteur, but also created a Black renaissance in filmmaking highlighted by others filmmakers in the 90s such as John Singleton and F. Gary Gray. Do the Right Thing did a few ideas that pushed in from being another film about the ghetto. Instead the film took racism full on with no holds barred and cooked to a boil in its climax. It also paved the way for an emphasis on 90s clothing, hip-hop, and Black community sentiments from the Reagan era in not only filmmaking but culture as well. Along with this, the filmmaking that uses blatant editing and camera work to highlight the hottest day in Brooklyn ever to give a sense of tension rising from not only the heat but the racism. Finally, enjoy the wonderful cast of characters: Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez and Roger Guenveur Smith.
Get Out (2017) - One of the more recent entries on this list is also one of the best entries for this list. In Jordan Peele's directorial debut Get Out sets out to be a genre-busting Black film highlighting white liberalism in a horror film format. Is the film the scariest film I've seen? No, but it has jump scares, gory deaths, and a sense of dread. Moreover, the horror lies within the white liberalism of the family that the protagonist interacts with as racism becomes a real horror. The highlights of the film are that it goes from subtle microaggressions (I voted for Obama!) to an outright slave auction. There is rarely a film that combines both outright racism and horror in a masterful way but Get Out does. There isn't as much fancy film work outside of the "sunken place" sequences which are well done, but the story and direction of the film is why it was a sensation. The story remains constantly engaging as you try and put all the deeper meanings from the subtle moments of racial history or comparison come about. As such, you will need repeated viewings of this film, but it is really unlike any film you've ever seen.
Fences (2016) - If there is one aspect of films that haven't touched to much upon is that of acting. I was highly tempted to put Selma here for a great turn out by David Oyelowo, but that is a great performance (there are some others, but none compare). Fences utilizes it's entire ensemble to create a wonderful play put to film that is intensely provocative all the way through. Every actor and actress in the film is great especially Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Mykelti Williamson. The writing and acting drive this film and it never lets up. You'll stay completely engaged the entire time and be amazed by the acting performances of the characters.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017) - If there is a reason most of these films are in this current decade is that we are currently in a decade of Black auteurism that includes several Black directors having a chance to shine bright. As such, it comes to the documentary to close our list and while I could've went with the stunning 13th or OJ: Made in America, I had to go with the unconventional I am Not Your Negro. While many documentaries feature talking heads that discuss an idea, I Am Not Your Negro uses the early transcripts of James Baldwin, his live interview and speeches, and several images to create a fluid reflection on the difficulties of Blackness during and after the Civil Rights. The film primarily seeks to discuss the difficulties of being Black in America even today and does so in a series of chapters that come alive through imagery rather than exploration of a topic. It is raw and it is real but it is powerful the reflections in conjures up on society.
Many of these films will be a great new viewing experience for you. Outside of Oscar Micheaux's film company, Blaxploitation, LA Filmmakers and the 90s film Black renaissance there are not a lot of auteur style films that exist. Along with that I wanted to avoid both slave narratives and the 90s gangster film set. Plus I wanted specifically African-American filmmakers. It's my hope that many of you discover the grand sense of Black filmmaking through this list.
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