With the Black Lives Matter movement still holding strong with daily protests in America and some real change finally happening, I wanted to use my platform to share the voices of the black community. It is well known in the film industry that it is harder to be seen as a director or as a creator in general if you are black or an ethnic minority, and yet they are some of the best people we have working in this industry to this day. I, therefore, asked my fellow film fans to give their recommendations for their favourite film by a black director. Here is what they picked.
Chosen by Amy Smith (me)
Jordan Peele is a guy that has proven that he can do it all, with many people originally doubting if he could be a writer and director of an original horror due to his comedic background. He managed to prove, however, that he is not only talented in both of those aspects, but also putting his own personality and background into his films, making them seem personal and incredibly important. Whilst he also did this with his directorial follow-up, Us, I still think the stand-out in his filmography so far is Get Out.
As Peele said himself many times in interviews, Get Out as a concept should not work. This is a psychological thriller centered around the idea of racism but elevated with the insane scares and horrors that are laced throughout. He attempted to write this screenplay several times, almost admitting to himself that it would be impossible to create. However, instead he came out of the process with a Best Original Screenplay winner and what a worthy one. Not only is there so many references to black history and the struggles that black people have faced in their lives, but also a thrilling horror that quite simply works.
With horror films, I find myself to be quite picky with the script. If you are going to present a film as a serious and sophisticated horror that does not go for the cheap jump scares, you have to be confident that it is going to work. Another issue that many films like this suffer from is the rewatchability factor. After watching this film many times, it somehow works even more once you know all of the twists and scares. That is because of the writing and direction of Peele, alongside the incredible lead performance from Daniel Kaluuya (one of the more interesting actors working today). I think we are soon reaching the day we look back on the 2018 Academy Awards and questioning why Get Out wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have for Best Picture, because quite simply this is one of the best films in this generation.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Chosen by The Pope in the Pool: Twitter
Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece from 2018 is to me top of a long list of amazing films by Black film directors. It is clear that there aren’t enough opportunities going to Black filmmakers in Hollywood, and this needs to change, not just because opportunities should be given out to people from various different backgrounds, but also because it is clear that more diverse directors leads to more diverse and better films. Look at how Jordan Peele has brought a fresh take on the horror genre, how Ryan Coogler has put a great spin on the MCU formula and Rocky franchise, and how Ava DuVernay has made important documentaries and bringing light to information most people aren’t aware of, and became the first Black woman to direct a live-action film earning more than $100 million in the US box office. Even look at how for more than three decades, Spike Lee has been highlighting stories that explore race in the US, mixing humour with strong insights into American society.
But now to focus on why this specific film is so great. If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of a young Black couple in the early 70s, who are split apart when Fonny is wrongly charged for a crime he did not commit, leaving Tish to try and clear his name. The film may focus on quite a big moment of discrimination but also expertly captures the experience of Black people being continuously mistreated, such as the couple struggling to find a place to live and how Tiff is treated by white men in her place of work. The key to what makes the film great is how Barry Jenkins gets us to root for Tish and Fonny so quickly. We instantly want them to succeed and be together which means every setback and frustration is felt by the audience. It feels like it is them against the world and allows the viewer to gain a better understanding of the structures in place that allow them to be discriminated against.
This fantastic story is only amplified by the other breathtaking parts of the film. The score by Nicholas Britell is so fitting that I didn’t notice how great it was until I listened to it separate from the movie as it effectively drew me in closer to the moments on screen. The performances from Kiki Layne, Regina King and Stephan James, to name but a few, are perfect. They are able to express so much through their faces about how they feel and levels of heartbreak and dismay. The cinematography brings us into this world, gives us a scene of the time, place and perspective, all while consistently making every frame beautiful. I find it hard to describe this film as anything but perfect and would put it top of a long list of films by Black directors that I consider essential viewings.
Chosen by Samuel Preston: Twitter | Website
I feel it imperative to begin with a confession. Unfortunately, my viewing of movies directed
by specifically black filmmakers isn’t as extensive as it should be, a flaw as a film fan I aim
to repent. However, of the films I have viewed, one who I have found myself returning to in
anticipation, is British-born filmmaker Steve McQueen, who smashed his way onto the
screen with the detailed portrayal of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in 2008’s Hunger. By his
third film, 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, McQueen would cement himself as an evocative but
daring filmmaker who generates career-best performances from his actors in impactful
movies. But unlike many, my favourite of his is neither of these two films; instead, my
favourite is his relatively underrated Shame.
Released in 2011, Shame is a blend of psychological drama, eroticism and character piece,
focusing on Brandon, a successful bachelor who has an overwhelming sex addiction.
Portrayed by McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender in a career-best performance, Brandon
has frequent sex with prostitutes, masturbates multiple times a day (including at work) and
has a disturbingly large collection of pornography. Unfortunately, his addiction means he is
empty of emotional connections, demonstrated by his fraught relationship with his visiting
sister, Carey Mulligan’s Sissy. The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is full of subtext
and uncertainty, hints of damaged backgrounds and broken boundaries, an uncomfortable
reminder of Brandon’s void of happiness.
It could have been easy for Brandon to have come across as just revolting and unlikable, but
Fassbender ingrains humanity to his character, a wounded and struggling individual whose
carnal urges drive him. But in this nihilistic and dark descent into harm, there exist moments
of light. Whether a beautiful rendition of “New York, New York” by Sissy that affects her
brother, or a moment of clarity in their journeys, or even a lighter inclusion from supporting
performer James Badge Dale, it offsets the grim interpretation of desperate urges and needs.
Coupled with McQueen’s steady hand as he draws you in, like a conspirator, and some
gorgeous shot compositions, including an engrossing long take following Brandon as he jogs
for distraction, it becomes impossible to tear your eyes away.
The first time I watched this movie was at a packed independent art cinema, and during the
viewing, I found myself holding my breath from anxiety. The entire audience was silenced
within minutes as they allowed the emotions of the movie to wash over them, and at the end,
they all seemed dazed from the experience they’d just gone through. Nearly ten years later,
and I still remember that screening, where Fassbender, McQueen and Mulligan combined to
create art from a taboo subject, taking a ridiculed subject of sexual addiction and making it
real for the audience. I rewatched it prior to writing this review to check it still held up, and
even now, I find it as engrossing and impactful as ever. It may seem strange to nominate a
film by a black director that doesn’t focus on a black protagonist, but in truth, that may be
why I enjoy it so much. Because it doesn’t matter that McQueen is a black director making a
story about a white protagonist, the race of the characters weren’t vital; what matters is he’s
making a brilliant movie that focuses on fascinating characters that got me involved.
Chosen by Ram Venkat Srikar: Twitter | Podcast
Among all the American films that depict racism in all its ugliness, Mudbound takes it to a notch higher, pointing to the sheer purposelessness of it. Set in Mississippi, a geography that has been an emanating point of the issue in several films – Free State of Jones, Freedom Song, and Ghosts of Mississippi, to name a few – the Dee Rees-directorial draws parallels between a war- torn Europe and America amid WW2, alluding how the former region was a relatively comforting place for its black protagonist, mentally.
The horrors for Ronsel, the elder son of the Jackson family, exist at home, not the battlefield where he comes face-to-face with death. Ronsel is freed from racial inequality during the war, far from home, fighting shoulder to shoulder with his American brothers. It is only after returning home, Ronsel grapples to adjust to the prevailing racism in his homeland, where the distance between white household (The McAllan Family) and their tenants on their farm, the black household (The Jackson Family) is evident, both physically and figuratively.
Farming being a major part of the characters’ lives, the title Mudbound has dual implications. One, both the families are reliant on the farm for their livelihood, and nature exhibits no prejudice to any human whatsoever. Two, the bigotry among the ‘superiors’ is deeply rooted in, that it feels they grew up feeding off racism. Hence, the resultant attitude is bound to their upbringing and the world around them. It comes naturally.
Pappy McAllan, the film’s antagonist, is only the human form of racism, representing a negligible fraction of the belief that a person of a different race is inferior. I couldn’t help but wonder about the purposelessness of the character’s hatred towards the Jackson family, especially after Ronsel returns as a war hero. He goes to the extent of warning Ronsel that he is still an inferior being in Mississippi, regardless of what he achieved as a soldier. However, Jamie, the younger son of the McAllen family is the only person who empathizes with Ronsel, having experienced the trauma of war first-hand. Being war heroes, Jamie and Ronsel form a bonding, but it’s almost like an illicit one, a friendship disapproved of by the time they live in.
Mudbound’s portrayal of racism boils your blood, while you sit helplessly watching the horrors and heartbreak unravel. We can’t change what happened in the past, but now is the time to ensure the future generations do not feel ashamed of us, the same way we do while looking back at our history. A mirror of history, Mudbound asserts you to ameliorate the present.
What did you make of our choices? What would you choose as your favourite film from a black director? Let me know in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.