Cinema & the African American Experience

I have never experienced what black people must go through every day in this country. I can read about it. I can listen to interviews. And, of course, I can see films about it.

Here are 10 films about the African American experience worth watching. There are far, far more. I admit that several other critics, black and white, have written similar articles in the last few weeks; but I finally got to doing mine.

But I’m adding something different. I’m closing this article with a list of four films clearly made by people who knew nothing about the African American experience.

The good films

A+ Do the Right Thing (1989), Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu

Spike Lee’s masterpiece just may be the best film about race relations in America. For a more than 30-year-old film, it feels very much like the here and now. By focusing on a single block of Brooklyn over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things right) about race relationships in America. And yet this beautifully made film is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. Read my Blu-ray review.

A+ Hoop Dreams (1994) Kanopy, HBO Now, Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple
I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. This cinéma vérité story of two inner-city teenagers hoping to win basketball scholarships, offers charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting characters, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense–just like the best narrative features. The filmmakers followed both boys through high school, and over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story and their families. The picture is really about the American dream, and how society works to disqualify certain people from attaining that dream. Read my Blu-ray review.

A 12 Years a Slave (2013), Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu

In 1841, con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup – a free-born African American living in upstate New York, and sold him into slavery down south. This film, based on Northup’s memoirs, shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. The film easily earned its Best Picture Oscar. Read my full review.

A Moonlight (2016); Netflix, Kanopy, Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu

Barry Jenkins’ second feature follows a resident of the inner city from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, examining three stages of his life. Three different actors play Chiron, a young man unsure of his sexuality who must learn to at least appear macho to survive in the tough streets. Mahershala Ali carries the first act as a drug-dealer who is also a gentle and kind father figure. Read my full review.

A Killer of Sheep (1978), Milestone Films

Shot in 16mm in 1977, Charles Burnett’s neorealist non-story examines the day-to-day life of an African-American slaughterhouse employee struggling with poverty, family problems, and his own depression. Hauntingly made with a mostly amateur cast, Killer of Sheep takes us into a world most of us know about but have never actually experienced.

A Fruitvale Station (2013), Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu

The experience of seeing this independent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.

A Get Out (2017), Amazon, Apple, Vudu

Writer/director Jordan Peele took the concept of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and turned it into a comic horror movie. When a young, successful, and black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his white girlfriend’s parents, he finds something very strange about every African Amercan he encounters. Soon trapped, he must find a way to escape from the privileged folks who want to turn him into yet another zombie slave. Funny, scary, and with a very sharp point.

A 13th (2016), Netflix

The 13th amendment freed the slaves. Or did it? In the 150 years since emancipation, state and local governments have turned prisons into slave labor camps filled primarily by the decedents of those freed in 1865. And in our time of mass incarceration, it’s only getting worse. Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary gets not only to the heart of the problem but also to its bowels. This isn’t an easy movie to sit through, but every American should see it.

A- Just Mercy (2019), AmazonYoutube, Google Play, FREE

Can true justice prevail for a black man in rural Alabama? Maybe, but he’ll need a gifted, well-trained, intelligent, and altruistic lawyer. Michael B. Jordan plays that lawyer in this riveting, based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama. Jamie Foxx plays the convict on death row who finds new hope thanks to the lawyer’s work. But clear evidence of innocence doesn’t mean much in Alabama courts. Read my full review.

A- The Hate U Give (2018), Vudu

A teenage girl navigating both black and white worlds finds herself at the center of controversy in this powerful, endearing, frightening, but also somewhat Hollywoodish film. Starr (Amandla Stenberg in an excellent performance) lives in a tough, crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood, but she goes to a predominately white private school. Her life goes upside-down when she witnesses the police murder of a friend. The Hate U Give deals with many aspects of the African American experience, including black-on-black crime, drug dealing, poverty, and living in two different worlds. Read my full review.

The bad films

These films reflect the African American experience through a distorted mirror. I’m listing them from bad to worse, but I’m recommending them only as historical curiosities. Some of them may require a strong stomach.

Free State of Jones (2016), Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Vudu: Matthew McConaughey plays an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. It’s an interesting piece of history – largely fictionalized, of course. But it comes out as a white savior movie. My report.

The Transfiguration (2016), Kanopy, Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu: This movie offers a unique and interesting twist to the vampire genre, but it also leaves a bad, racist taste in your mouth. The protagonist is a black teenager preying on white people, and most of the African American characters are stereotypical thugs. Read my report.

Gone with the Wind (1939), Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu: The most commercially successful film of its time is extremely racist even by 1939 standards. It looks back nostalgically at the “good old days” of slavery and suggests that emancipation was at best a tragic mistake. You can read my essay.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Kanopy, Fandor, Kino Now: Much as we would like to, we can’t ignore or underestimate this film’s artistry, impact, and commercial success. This was the picture that made people look at movies seriously – as an art and a business. But it’s also the film where the Klu Klux Klan rides in to “heroically” save the day by subjugating the newly-freed slaves. Read my report.

There are plenty of other great films, and, unfortunately, far more bad ones.

2 thoughts on “Cinema & the African American Experience

  1. I read the linked review of Gone With the Wind. I just watched Netflix’s Hollywood series (perhaps you did, too?) and was heartened by the Quentin Tarantino type revenge extracted by the Hattie McDaniel character in which she gets the last word on being a black actor in Hollywood.

  2. Yeah, I saw Hollywood. Fun, but very much a fantasy. At first I thought it would be a sordid tale about sexual exploitation in the 40s film industry. But then it had all those happy endings. It was like as if all of the best cultural improvements in America over the last 70 years happened in a year.

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