In this series of posts, we are focusing on contributions from African American artists to the world of film. We’re going through the decades to highlight everything from the early pioneers up through contemporary artists – all available to you for free with a WPPL card. Some films are physically in the collection (DVD/Blu-ray) and some are available to stream instantly on Kanopy.
Whereas our first blog post was looking at breakthroughs for African Americans in getting roles in films and our second post featured a number of firsts for artists behind the camera, this selection of films from our current era (2000 to the present) showcase the diversity of genres and storytelling that are being created by contemporary artists.
Love & Basketball (2000)
Gina Prince-Bythewood is a graduate of UCLA’s Film School and spent the first few years of her career writing for the shows A Different World and South Central. Her feature film debut as a writer and director, Love & Baskeball, is based on her personal experiences. She developed the screenplay through the Sundace Institute’s directing and writing lab. The film follows a young African-American couple as they navigate the tricky paths of romance and athletics. Quincy and Monica grew up in the same neighborhood and have known each other since childhood. As they grow into adulthood, they fall in love, but they also share another all-consuming passion: basketball. Since 2000, Prince-Bythewood has gone on to direct The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights as well as a number of TV shows.
Yes, we’ve made it all the way to 2001 without mentioning Will Smith. While Smith established himself as a global box office superstar in the 1990’s (Independence Day, Men in Black, Enemy of the State and let’s not forget TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air.), it was Ali that finally brought him critical acclaim and his first Oscar nomination. The film follows Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) over a 10 year stretch of his life; from 1964 and his championship debut through the Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Forman.
On a somewhat similar career trajectory to Will Smith, Jamie Foxx was known for TV comedies prior to 2004. Ray marked a dramatic turn for Foxx and it won him the Best Actor Oscar. This biopic profiles nearly the entire life of legendary musician Ray Charles. Despite humble beginnings and the loss of his eyesight due to glaucoma at the age of six, Charles, would nonetheless become an icon in both the music industry and the civil rights era. While the film delves into his problems with drugs and women, the bulk of the story details his music career. Among the career highlights are 12 Grammy awards and 11 R&B chart-toppers, such as “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Georgia,” “Doin’ the Mess Around,” and “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So.”
Lee Daniels’ second feature film was an adaptation of author Sapphire’s best-selling novel about an overweight, illiterate African-American teen from Harlem who discovers an alternate path in life after she begins attending a new school. There, with a little help from a sympathetic teacher and a kindly nurse, the young girl receives something that most teens never get – a chance to start over. The film won the Audience Award when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and would go on to receive six Oscar nominations. Mo’nique took home the gold for Best Supporting Actress and screenwriter Geoffry Fletcher won for his adaptation of the novel.
Dee Rees made Pariah, an award-winning short film, as her thesis project in 2007 while in grad school. She would go on to intern with Spike Lee and convince him to executive produce a feature film version of the short. The feature film explores the family and friends of 17-year old Alike. At home, she is a sweet and soft-spoken girl who tries to follow the wishes of her straight-laced mother. When with her best friend Laura, Alike slips out to downtown dance clubs where she feels free to be open about her sexuality. Alike is torn between living the sheltered life her parents want for her, the club-hopping lifestyle Laura has already embraced, or something that lies in between. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Excellence in Cinematography award.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
In 2013, Afro-British director Steve McQueen directed what some film critics have hailed as the greatest plantation film ever made. Based on the true 1853 narrative by Solomon Northrup and adapted by John Ridley, the film would go on to win Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay (Ridley), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Picture. Northrup, a free black man, makes his living as a fiddle player. He is kidnapped by two white men and sold into slavery. Solomon bides his time, attempts to preserve a modicum of self-respect, and waits for the chance to reclaim his freedom, rightful name and return to his family.
While earlier biopics like Ali and Ray took a look at large portions of their subjects’ lives, Ava DuVernay’s film Selma focuses on one particular event in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1964. While specific in its focus, the film has a wide scope as it covers everything from Rev. King receiving the Nobel Peace prize, President Johnson’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, Governor Wallace demanding that segregation continue, surveillance of Rev. King by the FBI and all of the planning and work that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) put in to creating a successful march.
Dear White People (2014)
The path to getting Dear White People made is the kind of success story that filmmakers hope for. Justin Simien began writing the script in 2007 and in 2012 used his tax refund to make a trailer for that script. The trailer went viral and the Indiegogo campaign he set up raised $40,000. The script won IndieWire’s Project of the Year award which lead to Simien being invited to the Tribeca Film Festival’s Filmmaker/Industry program where he secured independent funding to produce his script. The result is a sharp and funny satire about a group of African-American students as they navigate campus life and racial boundaries at a predominantly white college. The film expertly explores racial identity in ‘post-racial’ America while weaving a story about forging one’s unique path in the world. The film was so successful that Netflix hired Simien to adapt it into a TV series.
Denzel Washington has been a force in the world of film since his debut role in Michael Schultz’s comedy Carbon Copy way back in 1981. Since that time he’s acted in 60 films that have grossed over $4 billion worldwide. Fences marks one of his four directing credits and also highlights an often overlooked portion of his career, his stage acting. In this film, Washington and Viola Davis are both reprising their Tony Award winning roles from the 2010 revival production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. Fences tells the story of a garbage collector named Troy Maxson, who in 1950s Pittsburgh is bitter that baseball’s color barrier was only broken after his own heyday in the Negro Leagues. Maxson is prone to taking out his frustrations on his loved ones, mainly his son. The film received four Academy Award nominations and Davis would go on to win the Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
Four days after graduating from Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts, Barry Jenkins went to Hollywood to pursue a film career. After several years of unsatisfying production assistant work, Jenkins took charge of his own career by making a few short films. In 2008 he put together a budget of $15,000 and made the film Medicine for Melancholy, featuring an up and coming comedian who had just started working as a correspondent for The Daily Show, Wyatt Cenac. The film caught the attention of critics more than the public and eight years passed before Jenkins would direct another film. For this film, he worked closely with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney to adapt his short drama school project, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Now shortened to Moonlight, the film opened up the play and followed the main character Chiron through three stages of his life; as a 10 year old loosing his mother to addiction, as a teenager exploring his sexuality and as a man in his twenties trying to reconnect with his past. The film would go on to universal critical success (98% on Rotten Tomatoes) and also win Barry Jenkins and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Don’t miss his follow up film, an adaptation of James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk.
The Land (2016)
Steven Caple Jr. grew up in the Tremont area of Cleveland. After attending Baldwin-Wallace University he packed his bags and moved to California to get his Master of Fine Arts from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Caple would return to Cleveland in the summer of 2015 to film his directorial debut, The Land which was inspired by a group of teenagers Caple ran into in L.A. who were selling drugs and using the money to buy skateboards and shoes. Transferring that story to Cleveland, The Land centers on four teens living in the inner-city who steal cars to support their dream of becoming pro skateboarders. In one car they discover a large stash of pills and decide to sell the drugs themselves, putting them in conflict with a local crime boss. The film debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, but, more importantly to us Clevelanders, it premiered that July here at the Cedar Lee Theatre. Caple’s follow-up feature film was Creed II (2018).
Get Out (2017)
Up until the release of Get Out in 2017, the name Jordan Peele was synonymous with one genre – comedy. As one half of the legendary comedy duo Key & Peele, it felt like a move out of left field that Peele was writing and directing a horror film. By the end of 2017, it would be Peele who had the last laugh. His story of a young black man who meets his white girlfriend’s parents at their estate, only to find out that the situation is much more sinister than it appears would go on to gross over $250 million worldwide and was nominated for four Oscars. Peele won for Best Original Screenplay, a first for an African American writer. He followed this film up with another critical and financial success in 2019 with Us.
Black Panther (2018)
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Black Panther on the world of film and the benchmark it set for representation – on a worldwide scale. At the time of its release, the film was the first Marvel film directed by a black filmmaker. It was also the highest-grossing superhero film of all time with $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office. It was the first Marvel film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and it has the highest rating of all Marvel films on Rotten Tomatoes (96%). All of those stats to say, a LOT of people saw and loved Black Panther (often seeing it more than once). The script drew inspiration from journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates run of the Black Panther comics and tells the story of King T’Challa’s return home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to serve as new leader. T’Challa soon finds that he is challenged for the throne from divisions within his own country and the hero known as Black Panther must join forces with C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross and members of the Wakandan Special Forces, to prevent Wakanda from being drawn into a world war.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
In 2012, the hip-hop group The Coup put out an album called Sorry to Bother You. It was their sixth studio album and was inspired by a screenplay that frontman and lyricist Boots Riley had written. Without funding to make the film, the group put it together as a concept album and borrowed heavily from funk, punk and soul influences to create what Riley had called “an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction.” In 2017, funding was secured and Riley was able to make his directorial debut with his own screenplay. The story centers on Cassious (LaKeith Stanfield), a black telemarketer whose prowess as a salesman skyrockets when he adopts a “white voice.” As he climbs the corporate ladder, his personal loyalties, his activist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and his CEO’s questionable ethics prompt him to examine his conscience. The film also boasts a jaw dropping turn of events in the last ten mintues that we won’t be spoiling here. Just prepare to laugh. A lot.
Horror Noire (2019)
This documentary is based on the 2011 non-fiction book; Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD. The film examines the relationship between African-American history and the evolution of the horror film genre, and the roles that African-Americans have played in the genre’s development. It feature a copious amount of film clips and interviews with actors, directors, film critics and Dr. Coleman herself. Watch this one with a pen and paper handy as it will undoubtedly inspire you to find some of the films discussed.
One Night in Miami… (2020)
In 2013, Kemp Powers debut play was produced to much acclaim. Seven years later, actress and director Regina King brought the play to the big screen with Powers adapting the screenplay. It’s a fictional account of the real night of February 25th, 1964. On that night, Cassius Clay (soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown celebrate Clay’s surprise title win over Sonny Liston at the Hampton House in Miami. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and went on to receive three Oscar nominations.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
In October 2019, filming began in Cleveland (standing in for late 1960’s Chicago) for a very unique kind of biopic about Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. The film is unique in that it has a dual narrative that shows the audience the life of Hampton, but also the life of FBI informant William O’Neal. It was O’Neal’s role as an informant that directly lead to Hampton being assassinated by a police tactical unit on the orders of the FBI in 1969. The film was co-written and directed by Shaka King with the blessing of Hampton’s widow (Akua Njeri) and son (Fred Hampton Jr.) who were frequently on set. The film was released in 2021 to critical acclaim and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Hampton.