Speculative & Historical Black Cinema Worth Your Attention

When The Help is the most trending film on Netflix amongst a mass stand against systemic injustice, the time has come for a Cinematic Intervention. In just two weeks following the murder of George Floyd, which ignited global protests in condemnation of Black deaths from Tamir Rice to Breona Taylor, a frighteningly large portion of the (white) population had the urge to finally learn about Black issues via…*ahem*…The Help. Yes, The Help – that film directed by Tate Taylor…he of the classically problematic film…*ahem*…Chicken Party.

For all the People of the Sun, and all of our beautiful allies, the following list is of films for/by/about Black-African issues representing a range of genres, but all with the appropriate energy to match the times.  Ranging from verified cinematic masterpieces to discarded auteur pieces, the following selection of films stand the test of time like Dapper Dan. Why eat sh!t cake when you’ve got the rum cake for the revolution right here?

The Battle of Algiers (Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo)

Arguably one of the greatest war films of the 20th century, if not just the most accomplished visual art on the nature of resistance, The Battle of Algiers is Revolutionary Viewing 101.  The neorealist nature of the images, the urgency of the score, and the humanity portrayed in this film on the Algerian resistance to French occupation in the 1950’s ushered in a new aesthetic of politicized film in both Africa and Latin America. Notably, the Assistant Director of this film was Sarah Maldoror, the Antillean-French filmmaker whose own work centered on anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist expressions through filmmaking and poetry. Full film available via streaming the Criterion Collection.

The Black Panthers (Dir: Agnes Varda)

Agnes Varda’s (RIP) short documentary completed during her “California Period” places the audience on the front lines, on the streets, and in the communities of the Black Panther Party as they protest the arrest of Party leader Huey P. Newton.  This film provides a more focused view into a specific moment of the BPP than other docs on the subject, allowing for a more intimate and human-focused portrayal..  Full film available via streaming on the Criterion Channel and PBS.

Rosewood (Dir: John Singleton)

Many people only learned of the Tulsa Massacre due to the event being central in the narrative for HBO’s Watchmen. If you fall into that camp, then of course you may have missed this 1997 medium-budget film from the late John Singleton about the 1923 Greenwood Massacre in Florida.  While so many Hollywood films glorify the “roaring 20’s” and the “Jazz Age,” only the brave deal with the realities of one of the most violently turbulent periods of American history.   Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, and Jon Voight star in a powerful, yet often overlooked, film that shows the scope of Singleton’s vision.‚Äč

Marighella (Dir: Walter Moura)

In the era of Pan-African freedom movements of the 1960s, the figure of  Brasil’s Carlos Marighella often falls unmentioned.  As a writer- politician who became a revolutionary,  his calls and actions for resistance in a fascist  regime known as the Fifth Brazilian Republic awakened a nation and inspired global revolutionaries.  The film is a tense, brisk journey into the life of a man who must protect his own family, while also choosing to fight for his own family.   Coincidentally, the film is banned in Brasil by order of the Bolsanaro-led government.

The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dir: Ivan Dixon)

Based on a novel of the same name that was banned in many U.S. cities, this 1973 film never achieved the recognition of a film such as The Battle of Algiers, but its ultimate message and spirit are one in the same.  Existing on the far end of the spectrum of the Blaxploitation movement, this film tells the story of a man who plays “Uncle Tom” in order to infiltrate the CIA and help train young Black revolutionaries for the Liberation movement. This complex political thriller is a lost-gem that is currently rumored to be shopping a remake.  Check the original before then!

Cosmic Slop: Space Traders (Dir: Reginald Hudlin)

The 1994 HBO sci-fi anthology series that took its name from one of Funkadelic’s wildest freakout jams was short-lived, but remains a cult favorite.  While only one episode was produced, the aesthetic of Black speculative fiction is rife with nuances of class, colorism, and politics worth of multiple viewings and discussions.  The logline says it all, and so much more –  “A conservative African American politician must choose between his people’s survival and appeasing his white colleagues when space aliens propose to share their profound knowledge in exchange for all black people on earth. ” Enjoy.

Strange Days (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

The influence of time on art is a funny thing. Case in point – a film made in 1995 about the year 1999 that feels more relevant today.   Dystopian, hedonistic society? Police murder of a Black man sparking protests? Virtual reality snuff porn? Strange Days lives up to its title, existing somewhere aesthetically between William Gibson and Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day album.  While none of the ideas are new, the confluence of them more than alludes to an uncomfortably familiar reflection of our complex reality once more.

Bamboozled (Dir: Spike Lee)

When Spike Lee’s dark critique of the media dropped in 2000, it made very little impact on the mainstream. Perhaps the DV camera style relegated it to the arthouse cinemas, or the prophetic content of the film was too dismal of a reality imagine – one in which a TV network creates a modern day minstrel show set on a plantation.  Highly overlooked and underrated, the film boasts a cast featuring the talents of Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Paul Mooney, Savion Glover, Mos Def, The Roots, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rappaport (basically playing himself, which is…yeah). This film is the heir apparent to Sidney Lumet’s “Network” and it knows it.

Full film available via streaming the Criterion Collection.

Daughters of the Dust (Dir: Julie Dash)

Julie Dash’s debut feature film was a milestone in cinema, not just for its symbolism of being the first studio feature film directed by a Black woman, but it helped create space for new cinematic narratives of Africa diasporic stories and genres. Touches of magic realism, history, and arthouse nuance places the audience in the world of the Gullah culture and a family whose story is told by an unborn child.

Full film available via streaming the Criterion Collection and Netflix.

Whether you lean more toward Sci-Fi, Documentary, Arthouse, or Historical, this list should be used like Robitussin, Cod Liver Oil, Ginger, or whatever family tradition you use to stay healthy.  If you find yourself thinking about watching The Help, check your temperature, and then consult this list.  Call me in the morning.

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  • Jon-Carlos Evans is a Berlin based filmmaker, audiovisual artist and writer. He holds a B.A. in Film Production from Webster University-St.Louis and a MFA in Media Arts Production from the City College of New York. Under his musical alias Klaas von Karlos, Evans is also is the founder of experimental-electronic collective ReVerse Bullets and creative director of the GLITCH performance series/music label. As Klaas von Karlos, he is also a member of music projects BIINDS, Naked Sweatshop, and Divan Rouge. He is the Programme Lead for the Creative Production-Film MA at Catalyst Institute for Creative & Technological Arts in Berlin.

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