I’m not a big believer in canons; they are, in my view, a notoriously suspect lot, prone to egregious oversight on the part of the overweening cultural gatekeepers who are too often charged with constructing them. Consider that an apology up front. This list of twenty-five essential films from the African Diaspora does and does not reflect my taste solely. Much impute was gathered from scholars, filmmakers, hustlers of various sorts and several individuals whose genius dwarfs my own. That said, thanks to the fine folks here at Fandor, I got to make the final call. It was, of course, impossible to watch all of these films in the form they were meant to be seen in. Not every film got a fair day in court. Some of these films I’ve watched multiple times in an actual cinema while others I’ve only glared at on VHS rips that miraculously ended up on YouTube. Which makes those that I didn’t see in optimal circumstances (Bill Gunn‘s Stop! for instance), or haven’t seen in some time (Stop! once again) stand out that much more.
My only real design here is to give a a thoughtfully curated snap shot of where black cinema has been and perhaps a few clues as to where it could go in the future. Certain touchstones, films that feel “canonical,” were impossible to ignore (Do the Right Thing and 12 Years a Slave both feel like they fit in that category) but by and large I tried to pay special attention to under-appreciated works by major filmmakers and one-hit wonders alike, from people we wish we had heard from again and those from whom we’ve already heard too much.
The novelist Colson Whitehead was recently asked by The New York Times who his favorite writer was and replied, “I don’t know the name of my favorite novelist of all time, because they never wrote anything.” So apt. Perhaps my favorite director of “black independent films,” a term that may or may not remain relevant to cultural production in the years to come, hasn’t even made her first film yet, or perhaps never will; they’ll choose to be a father or a homemaker or a plumber or a print archivist, a good daughter or a generous uncle, someone who in their actual life will never know what they could have made because they made practical choices not governed by ego or pain or unshakable insight, often the biggest drivers for any artists. But among those who were lucky, or foolhardy enough to forge ahead and tell stories with images and sounds, these are twenty-five real standouts. Go forth and see them.
Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920)
Thought to be a lost film for over sixty years (in 1990 a print was found in an attic in Madrid, labeled “La Negra”), African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates is among the uneven filmmaker’s most accomplished silents. Although less satisfying than his 1925 effort, Body and Soul, which marked the screen debut of the great (and criminally underutilized) Paul Robeson, the film is the first motion picture to depict in frank and uncompromising terms the lawlessness and terrorism that Southern blacks, and a few of their northern brethren, were subjected to in the Jim Crow South; at the height of the country’s obsession with lynching black men, this film dared represent such acts with an odd mix of earnestness and brutal irony.
The Blood of Jesus (Spencer Williams, 1941)
The other titan of black cinema in the first half of the 20th century, Spencer Williams, rose to fame on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, but his against-all-odds directorial career pegs him as some kind of weird spiritual cousin of John Cassavetes and Val Lewton. With a cast of amateurs (and the Reverend R.L. Robinson’s Heavenly Choir), the money of a Texas oilman and various rural Lone Star state locales, he made The Blood of Jesus, a gonzo mix of pious allegory and spiritual horror; it played for years in the basements of churches and midnight rambles throughout the Deep South. As in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (keep reading!), the Devil is but a black man who comes bearing a smile (and a flatbed truck) while the blues is all bound up with sin.
La Noire de… (Ousmane Sembene, 1966)
In the debut feature from trailblazing Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese fraulein named Diouana travels from Dakar to Antibes for a nanny job looking after the child of a wealthy French couple. Over the course of its slender sixty-five-minute run time, we watch Diouana, played by an elegantly broken Mbissine Thérèse Diop, struggle with the expectations of the increasingly abusive couple. A marvelous parable of African alienation in Europe, it won the 1966 Prix Jean Vigo, the first time the French first film honor had ever been bestowed upon a filmmaker of color.
The Story of a Three Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, 1967)
France isn’t any easier for the negro protagonist of Melvin Van Peebles’ first feature, a black G.I. with some time to kill who gets involved with a white Parisian woman in an affair doomed to fail given the tenor of the times and the military apparatus’ rank prejudice. The first made by an African American since 1947 (the twenty year gap oddly overlaps with the embrace of Civil Rights by the Democratic Party’s official platform and the effective end of mainstream liberal integrationist movement in the fires of riot-torn, white-flight-ridden urban America), here you can not only see where Spike Lee stole his famous “actor and camera on the same dolly” shot from (used in the club scene toward the beginning) but also glimpse one of the final performances from Nicole Berger, co-star of Shoot the Piano Player, who was killed in a car crash shortly after principal photography concluded.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (William Greaves, 1968)
Piling layer upon layer of metatextual storytelling onto a simple vérité glimpse at his attempt to audition and rehearse a pair of actors, William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is one of the most remarkable experiments of its era, a slap-dash time capsule and an oddly invigorating inquiry into the nature of performance and power. Enamored with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and unimpressed with the overly inflected, baroque performance style he saw in Hollywood film, three different film crews filmed Greaves, his actors and each other as the filmmaker slyly plays an embarrassingly inept and sexist version of himself. Initially planned as a cycle of five films, Greaves was only ever able to make this one, despite the picture’s cult reputation.
The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks, 1969)
Based on Parks’ autobiographical novel of the same name, The Learning Tree marks the first time an African American directed a film in the Hollywood studio system. Gorgeously photographed, Parks’ drama is lyrical and fatalistic. Set in Depression-era rural Kansas, it tells the story of two teenagers torn apart by the circumstances of their broadly terrorized community and the vastly different approaches they take to the ever-present specter of white supremacist violence and the toll of community infighting about methods and principles. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989, the Warner Brothers drama remains an underappreciated landmark, more ambivalent to the prevailing winds of black nationalism then more widely known African American films from the time but unwilling to flinch in the face of the rancorous terrorism of the era in which it’s set.
Stop! (Bill Gunn, 1970)
The first American studio film to represent explicit homosexual intimacy (and the first studio film by a black director than wasn’t explicitly about African American themes), Bill Gunn’s first feature followed his landmark screenplay adaptation of Kristin Hunter’s The Landlord and presaged his equally mind-bending vampire film Ganja and Hess (recently remade, poorly, by Spike Lee). The story of a blocked writer and his philandered-upon wife’s ill-fated trip to Puerto Rico, where they get involved in a ménage à quatre, it was suppressed like much of Gunn’s work. Pulled from theaters by Warner Brothers shortly after opening with an X rating from the nascent MPAA, it has not been seen in print forum since the Whitney screened it in the aftermath of Gunn’s death. A significant achievement regardless, the film is a riveting, often melancholy oddity, one which introduced the images of Owen Roizman (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and sounds of Ry Cooder to the movies.
Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
Made for just $30,000 with the help of the Senegalese government, Mambéty’s kinetic first feature, about a pair of lovers who have to resort to thievery in order to secure an ultimately doomed trip to France, took home the International Critics Prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Although indebted to the French New Wave, the movie nonetheless has an aesthetic profile all its own, one that expresses formally the movie’s latent themes of French colonialism and class tensions amongst the colonized. While it garnered a significant international reputation for its director, Mambéty didn’t go on to make another feature for twenty years.
Harvest: 3000 Years (Haile Gerima, 1976)
Haile Gerima directed his second feature while still a student at UCLA, where he helped form a tight-knit group of emerging directors known as the L.A. Rebellion or Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. A look at a family of Ethiopian peasants and herders just trying to get by amidst the country’s strident feudal system, the film mixes documentary and narrative strategies to reveal a lifestyle rarely glimpsed in western cinema. Intentionally lugubrious (just as one imagines herding often is), Germina uses an almost otherworldly sound design to punctuate many of the proceedings in one of the more lasting cinematic contributions to emerge from the Los Angeles School.
Which Way Is Up? (Michael Schultz, 1977)
A remake of Lina Wertmüller‘s 1972 film The Seduction of Mimi, Michael Schultz’s picture is the third and perhaps most memorable of the director’s collaborations with Richard Pryor, Hollywood’s black star of choice during the era. Prior memorably inhabits many of the most audacious characters from his stand-up routines in this story of a philandering orange picker who inadvertently gets caught up in the labor movement. A modest hit, Schultz’s final collaboration with Pryor, 1981’s Bustin’ Loose, is credited to Oz Scott, although Schultz is widely regarded as the film’s director, having taken over from Scott mid-production.
Penitentiary (Jamaa Fanaka, 1979)
The biggest independent hit of 1979 and the toast of festivals from Rotterdam to Rio, Jamaa Fanaka’s third feature is a lurid prison actioner about a man named Martel (the unforgettable Leon Isaac Kennedy) who after being picked up by a prostitute while hitch hiking in the desert is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Inside, he goes to great lengths to protect himself; such great lengths that he becomes an expert fighter, one with a chance to win his freedom through an early release program for such “specimens.” One would have hoped that Penitentiary, with its mix of irreverent humor and outlandish camerawork, would have been the beginning of a great career instead of the apex of a unique but stymied one.
A Different Image (Alile Sharon Larkin, 1982)
Alana, a graduate art student comes of age amidst western ideals of beauty and femininity that rub her the wrong way in Alile Sharon Larkin’s 1982 feature debut. Another product of the Los Angeles School, Larkin and her star Adisa Anderson, who would later appear in Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust, fearlessly deconstruct the various assumed roles of black women in pervasive sexual myth and in the minds and eyes of black men. Larkin, like too many folks on this list, has not made another feature.
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982)
The late Kathleen Collins left us too soon, having died at forty-six, just a few years after she made the 1982 comedy Losing Ground. Her second and final feature, the movie centers on a pair of black intellectuals, a philosophy professor and her painter husband who escape to the countryside for a summer in order to work in relative peace and tranquility only to have the husband’s creeping attraction to a young model sow the seeds of discord in their martial facade. Exploring a world of the black upper middle class that all but vanished from dominant narratives of American storytelling before this film (and The Cosby Show), the movie is a thoughtful and sad comedy that surprises and provokes for its entire running time.
Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
The eighth feature from Souleymane Cissé, Yeelen takes the viewer back to 13th-century Mali in this retelling of a popular myth amongst the Bambara tribe from which Cissé hails. The film, which concerns a young man, one with seemingly supernatural gifts, who is being sought through the Malian desert by his mean-spirited father, who despite having only a magical wooden post to guide him, is hell bent on punishing his son regardless of how far he has to go to find him. Taking place across several desert kingdoms, this haunting, phantasmagorical journey into ancient African myths is unlike anything that came about before—or since.
Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
OK, fine—it’s a studio film. But Spike Lee’s magnum opus, made on a modest budget some twenty-six summers ago on a Bedford-Stuyvesant block that was mocked up to be a microcosm of the racially divided city as a whole, a (literally) melting pot on the hottest day of the year, tackles the most salient themes of American Cinema—ambition and urban survival, economics and race relations, the relationship between violence and liberty—on a scale both intimate and grand. Its odd mix of street reportage and Brechtian distancing devices, high melodrama and comedic farce mark it as a peculiar work in Lee’s remarkable if perplexing oeuvre. A movie that was widely considered dangerous and the possible cause of race riots has gained elder statesman status, its lasting significance doubted by no one, its themes as relevant and vitriolic today as they were a quarter century ago.
Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989)
A Chaplinesque tart, Charles Lane’s Cannes prize-winning Sidewalk Stories takes a look at a luckless portrait artist trying to stay out of trouble in a city with a record homicide rate who finds himself unexpectedly forced into the role of caretaker for a toddler (Lane’s actual daughter) after watching the young girl’s father get cut down in the mean streets of Dinkins-era New York. Gritty New York City is injected with the slapstick of Buster Keaton and the pathos of Charlie Chaplin. Winner of the Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was a critical success but a commercial failure; Lane, a graduate of SUNY Purchase’s vaunted film program, starred in Melvin Van Peebles’ Posse, but has only made one feature since, 1993’s True Identity.
Chameleon Street (Wendell Harris Jr., 1990)
Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s parents financed Chameleon Street, which won the Grand Jury Prize from Steven Soderbergh and Armond White’s jury at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, triumphing over more well-known titles such as Hal Hartley‘s The Unbelievable Truth and Whit Stillman‘s Metropolitan. They never saw their money back and Harris, not for lack of trying, has yet to make another film. If he never does, at least he will have made this penetrating, discursive, formally adventurous portrait of the black con artist William Douglas Street Jr. Played by the director himself, it’s a breezy romp in which Street’s con artistry (he impersonated a doctor, a reporter, a scholar and a lawyer between stints in prison) becomes a metaphor for the shifting identities American negro men must wear like masks in order to advance in a world dominated by whites.
To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)
A jury prize-winner at Sundance, Charles Burnett’s third feature film stars Danny Glover as an interloper, a remembrance of things past, the bearer of a dark message. Like a ghost of the great migration, he appears at the doorstep of a striving South Central Los Angeles family and claims to know them from “down home,” the south, the place from which all things Los Angeles negro ultimately spring forth. Ingratiating himself into a rivalry amongst the family’s pair of sons, he soon turns the place upside down; when the family’s patriarch takes ill, the dark heart of the South will spare no member of the family circle. While some might see it as merely a black answer to Pasolini‘s Teorema, To Sleep With Anger has aged into a thematically audacious oddity all its own. Pity that upon its release the film notoriously failed to perform with black audiences, especially the working class ones whose milieu the film depicts in a fashion rarely seen in American films.
Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
This was first film directed by an African American woman to receive a commercial theatrical release in the United States. (Yes, in 1991. Read that sentence again), Julie Dash’s sumptuous tale of three women of various generations amongst the Gullah people, a group of blacks from islands off the shores of South Carolina who were mostly able to keep their African heritage and language intact despite the machinations of slavery and white supremacy, is a triumph of moodiness and tone, a meaningfully lugubrious story of the end of an era, a tone poem, narrated by an as-yet-unborn child, that makes the mundane strange and the outlandish accessible. It contains multitudes. Predictably, Dash hasn’t had another feature theatrically distributed since.
Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
Twenty-five-year-old John Singleton was the first African American filmmaker nominated for a Best Director Academy Award; and it was for this incendiary debut about the wages of gang violence and young manhood in post-crack era South Central. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube became stars of a certain kind (as did Morris Chestnut, albeit mainly for the black straight-to-video crowd) and Singleton launched a career as a pop hack, but the movie still stands up pretty well, despite the legions of imitators that followed in its wake. Screaming “Ricky!” might lead to a great punchline at some nineties nostalgia soiree, but the picture’s genuine emotional impact has only strengthened and its worldview is no less potent, and necessary, than it was two decades ago.
Friday (F. Gary Gray, 1995)
An odd analogue to Boyz n the Hood, this picture, set in the very same neighborhood, concerning underemployed black men involved with guns and turf wars, also features Ice Cube, but it is an odd inversion of the other film’s concerns; sometimes life in the Hood is very fun (!) and occasionally very boring, but mostly people keep on pushing. The movie that launched Chris Tucker’s all-too-brief comedic superstardom and introduced the term “debo’d” to the world just continues to be sidesplittingly funny, time after time. F. Gary Gray, like Singleton before him, settled into a reliable career of pop hackdom (he’s rumored to play video games on his sets, while the cameras are rolling!), but at least he’s made one picture that will stand for the ages.
Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)
The black sleuth movie everyone knew Walter Mosley’s oeuvre could produce (or Chester Himes, had the right director and material been paired), this late summer ’95 release from Paramount, the second film from Carl Franklin, didn’t fare that well at the box office but its stature has just grown and grown over the years. Featuring one of the great supporting performances of the nineties by Don Cheadle as Mouse (“If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”), the movie is that rare mid-century American detective movie that looks at every nook and cranny of the postwar order—passing and discrimination are right there with the building of highways and denied FHA loans. A sparkling noir that’s satisfying in a way Franklin has never quite achieved since, its the type of picture that begs for a sequel in an era full of sequels that no one ever asked for.
Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997)
A chaotic, ultimately tragic summer for a bourgeois black family on the Louisiana bayou is recounted in Kasi Lemmons’ directorial debut. Named by Roger Ebert as his favorite film of 1997, the movie has proven reliably profitable despite its relatively low profile, but amongst a certain type of cinephile who came of age in the late 1990s it has undeniable cachet. Featuring some of the best work actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith and Lynn Whitfield ever did, it’s the type of film that easily mixes Creole mysticism and Deep South grandiosity into a narrative that proves as surprising as it does hard to shake long after it’s over.
Mississippi Damned (Tiny Mabry, 2009)
A narrative of great complexity, Tiny Mabry’s Mississippi Damned takes places over two time periods (the mid eighties and the late nineties) with over a dozen intimately intertwined characters involved in key relationships; it’s the type of low-key ensemble drama that doesn’t often get made in any milieu these days; it stares unflinchingly, and with great lyricism thanks to ace cinematographer Bradford Young, into a a rundown, backwards Mississippi community filled with unrepresented but omnipresent racism, misogyny, alcoholism, intra-communal homophobia, man-on-boy and boy-on-younger-girl sexual abuse, diet-related illnesses and many other manifestations of malaise engendered by dead-end, working class, Southern black life just above the poverty line. That this is also a place where one will find great acts of love and sacrifice, glimpses of beauty and tenderness, moments of ribald humor and hard luck smiles, is an obvious truism and shouldn’t be surprising, but Mabry’s film is such an unexpected gift, it’s hard not to leave it feeling a little shocked that it even exists. Here’s hoping for a follow up.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
What else is there to say about Steve McQueen’s retelling of Solomon Northup‘s journey into bondage and back out of it? Albeit less formally audacious that his previous features, or his video installation work, McQueen’s star-studded meditation of the dehumanizing travails of slaves in the Deep South and one man’s determination to find his way back to his family is remarkably moving. It didn’t make any compromises on its way to an Oscar win. It courageously glimpses the moral abyss of our a country built of labor that was built of the basest forms of coercion and fear and asks the viewer to level with it in ways the American cinema has always more or less been designed to obscure.