This is by no means a comprehensive list of films that encapsulates the Black experience. I personally think this list may serve as a jumping off point to help us reflect upon what we perceive as heroic, permissible or acceptable of the Black experience. This list spans a lot of different genres, includes both narrative and documentaries, and may include some surprising entries. I’ve included little blurbs for each entry because I feel the need to explain why Die Hard with a Vengeance deserves your attention.
I’ve thought about the placement of Black bodies in cinema and in different genres throughout history. Keep mind that genre was constructed for marketing purposes during the first Golden Age of cinema, therefore, genre is a tool of capitalism. Furthermore, so is cinema. Cinema has the ability to bring the most humble lives into nobility. Cinema also has the ability to destroy one’s sense of self. I am committed to the project of cinema as a reflective tool, a medium that most definitely is the message. The fact of the two most pivotal technological advances in cinema also depicted violently racist ideology and imagery is not lost upon me. Birth of a Nation introduced unseen advancements in editing and scope of story and set pieces; later, The Jazz Singer featured minstrel entertainment and blackface while introducing sync sound. Essential as these films are to the cinema we know today, these will not be featured on this list even if their images DO contribute to the cinematic Black experience.
What is on this list are a collection of films that show the variety and multitudes of the Black experience in America. My hope is that this list of films will help in seeing the complexities of being Black in a world that equates our darkened skin to evil, worthlessness and object of fascination.
This film, from director Haile Gerima, centers on the life of a Black mother in Watts during the 1970s. I specifically use the word ‘mother’ to describe her, as she approaches the obstacles of poverty and gender bias from the responsibility of being a mother. The wounds left from Vietnam go deeper in Black and Brown communities and this sentiment underlines many films of the 70s and set in the 70s. Gerima also directed the lyrical slave narrative Sankofa (1993) and is apart of the revolutionary group of Black filmmakers from UCLA, The LA Rebellion (and includes the likes of Julie Dash and Charles Burnett; see: How the LA Rebellion reinvented Black cinema).
In this Lovecraftian horror film a young interracial couple goes to the country to meet her White liberal parents. There our hero is thrown deeper and deeper into a rather ‘peculiar institution’ indeed. Horror and blackness has been an interest of mine for sometime now and this film encapsulates many points I’ve strived to reach, mainly the fact that being Black in America is a horror story. I have also included this film because we must divorce the White liberal’s rhetoric from their actions. Sure, Amy Cooper donated to Obama and supported Buttigieg, but we must stay aware of White liberals’ knowledge to use their Whiteness to wield power over Black bodies.
Set in Oakland this buddy dramedy focuses on the last three days of probation for the Black half of a biracial decades long friendship/brotherhood. Together they have braved gentrification, the pressures of being authentic, all while living one paycheck away from poverty. These pressures put their relationship into the cooker, so to speak, culminating in a standoff between them and the external pressures looming over the entire film (re: racist violent police).
This may be a surprising entry but hear me out! This film is inspired by the images and values that we idolize. Belly is famed and revolutionary music director Hype Williams’ debut feature film and everything you know and love about his distinct style shines here—it is gorgeous and Black. Although there are some (harmful) distinctions between ‘types’ of Black people, it ultimately attempts to explain the Black ‘hood’ mentality of capital-driven nihilism. Belly also has an unexpected insight into the surveillance of Black bodies by White bodies underwritten in its climb to climax. When you watch it, try to count how many crime saga references scatter the dialogue and mise en scène. Then ask yourself: are you ever worried of negative depictions of White people due to violent crime sagas?
Tangerine piqued my interest because of the sheer ingenuity of how it was made: it was entirely shot on an iPhone 5! Besides that revolutionary means of filmmaking, the story also broke boundaries by featuring transgender women in the leading roles. The events of the film occur over the course of one exciting and surely exhausting day in search of finding the cis-gendered woman one half of our duo protagonist’s boyfriend is cheating on her with. Honestly, the narrative is so engrossing that I forgot to maintain my critical eye. The film’s pursuit of de-mystifying trans-bodies, vernacular, and experience is just refreshing.
I Am Not Your Negro
Essential viewing from a voice of the past resonating even louder in the present. This documentary centers on the last work Baldwin wrote about the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The experience of witnessing all of his heroes and friends assassinated in the name of maintaining peace illuminates the fact of the inevitable death of the Black hero: “a young White revolutionary remains, in general, far more romantic than a Black man.” From his musings I have also confirmed my own obsessions with mass visual culture, for he too was exposed to those alluring images at a young age and they helped shape his world view. Indeed the role of witness functions in several ways in the documentary by indicting all that watch but do, nor feel, nothing. I Am Not Your Negro also reminds me that art is a revolutionary act.
Queen & Slim
Almost too on the nose for this list, however, in my research of other lists, this film is a glaring missed entry. The film’s premise is centered on a giant misunderstanding complicated by Blackness, systemic racism, and the insistence of police violence. Directed by Melina Matsouka, the director of some of the most iconic music videos of the 21st century, Queen & Slim expands the Black aesthetic. The mise en scène underscored by saturated colors and floating cinematography creates a transcendent quality to the film. The inclusion of how the media depicted Queen and Slim is paramount in understanding how the White gaze situates our bodies as dangerous and fearful.
Speaking of glaring omissions, Homecoming celebrates the experience of being young, Black and proud in America. A riveting concert inter-cut with behind-the-scenes footage of hundreds of dancers, singers, musicians and artists focuses on the magic of HBCU marching bands. The marching band is a cornerstone in understanding the sheer talent and pride of a lot of our youths. From about age six until age eighteen my family and I went to the Circle City Classic and every year I looked forward to nothing else but the Battle of the Bands. It’s bombastic, it’s alive and most strikingly it is SO BLACK. This joyous entry is essential. To quote a beautiful message I received from my friend last week, because I hope “this moment [doesn’t] break those it’s meant to lift up.”
Die Hard with a Vengeance
It’s a cop story, I know, but I am including this movie because my studies focus on the Black body and the effect of our placement in images. When a Black body is placed on a screen it immediately becomes a part of our collective narrative and experience. White bodies in films equates humanity and love and all the other familiar Big Themes. When it’s a Black body these Big Themes become prefixed by Black. This is not a bad thing, however, Black bodies are routinely othered and distanced from White society by judgement. The whole project is to see the color, value the color, recognize the color as a part of collective humanity. You know how we keep insisting that Black history is American history—that’s the level of inclusion we’re striving for; a world where qualifying slogans are no longer needed. All this to say Samuel L. Jackson’s role in this movie franchise creates a tension I had never experienced in a giant blockbuster genre movie! Our White hero has to see his Whiteness in order to see his new partner’s Blackness, and it is the accountability we did not know we needed in our action heroes.
Black Panther shocked me in how a Marvel picture could be so deeply steeped in not only Black American culture but the multitudes of African cultures! Seeing such disparate depictions of Black bodies and Black ideology and culture in arguably the biggest movie series in history of the world can not be understated. The significance of Black anger, loneliness and hurt being heard—it was deeply satisfying. I’ve also never gotten over the tragic villain Killmonger’s last words being uttered in a Marvel movie: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
Speaking of Black heroes, in the first 31 minutes of Selma you know and understand why taking to the streets is so important. This is an essential viewing to understand how protests move progress forward. The gravity of the last speech of the film underscores the work White people need to do for themselves. To ensure White supremacy they must feed lies to poor Whites to maintain hegemonic White power. If your entire reign is supported by lies, do you need to be there? I also thoroughly enjoyed how the film is framed through FBI notes, highlighting the constant surveillance King (and by extension all black people) was under. One of my favorite speculations of the film is how White people speak about us when we are not in the room. This film begs the White liberal to understand that their allyship is essential to the revolution.
I know, I know, I’m partial to the remake! Hairspray is a bubbly musical that centers on a full-figured teen trying to get on a local dance show. This movie is basically a how-to guide for White allyship. It also shows you that if you follow your heart, perhaps those around you will trust you enough to see your passions. The double-entendre from the White leading man “I just think this adventure is a little too big for me” to our “pleasantly plump” heroine points to the White liberal that is ‘not racist’ but also not actively anti-racist. Hairspray also aligns being cool with being Black, to which I’ll use the iconic words of Amandla Stenberg: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” With musical numbers punching up the rhetoric of Black equality and the weary that comes from constant struggle, Hairspray is a light and entertaining lesson in heavy subjects.
This film is a sleeper. It bucks and weaves so much it’s all hard to keep track of, but isn’t that usually the case of marriage, relationships and race? It focuses on four very different women who have all found themselves in a place where robbing someone blind makes more sense than getting a ‘good job.’ Sometimes opportunities present themselves differently, and this film presents a series of opportunities to not only these women, but the web of people accidentally-on-purpose connected to them. This film tackles a lot of -isms of our modern world: sexism, racism, classism, and offers no answers. Instead it’s an incendiary film designed to induce some uncomfortable conversations.
I’ve never seen cynicism done so optimistically. Dave Chappelle must have watched this everyday. Although it’s of the times (homophobia and sexism can be perpetuated by Black people too), this film blatantly points out the subtle racism of Hollywood. The shuffle, of course, refers to the fungible or interchangeable nature of the Black body. It’s such a biting critique of Hollywood and employs a number of stereotypes that may make some uncomfortable, but that’s kinda the point.
I saw this documentary on the campus of Indiana University when it was released. It resonated with me because I was into the metal and hardcore (to a lesser extent) and THIS IS IT. This short documentary illuminates an obscured perspective of Black bodies in a Whitewashed subculture. It also highlights the Black suburban experience without being “exceptional” which is all too rare in popular media. “I’m here and I’m Black but not here to be Black” was a quote that resonated with me because there are some very interesting Black dissonances within the scene. I’ve always wanted other Black people in the room, but my personal awkwardness would keep me from engaging with people outside my friend group. Even though it was made almost 20 years ago, this film remains relevant.
A Note from Coye
As a young and optimistic pre-teen, I thought I would become a filmmaker. By the time I reached college the dream had dried, or better put, it transformed into an overall interest in mass media. At Indiana University I double majored in Communication and Culture and African American African Diaspora Studies (when asked I typically said Media/Film & Black people). Professors in the media department encouraged me to pursue post-graduate work so I did, years later, at Ohio University where I studied and eventually taught film studies. I earned my Masters of Film Studies just last year after completing my thesis about blackness in horror. Sounds lofty, but it’s not, I promise.