by Countable | Updated on 9.14.18
It has been almost a year since Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture. This awards season, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Dee Rees’s “Mudbound” have received multiple nominations and accolades, optimistic signs that black filmmakers are receiving more opportunities in the movie industry. Soon these titles will be joined by two of the most anticipated releases of the year: Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” the first Marvel superhero movie from a black director, and Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” the first movie with a $100 million budget directed by a black woman.
The critical and box-office success of “Get Out” and the very existence of big-studio productions like “Black Panther” are good reasons to revisit the remarkable, complex story of black filmmaking in America. For Black History Month, we have selected 28 essential films from the 20th century pertaining to African-American experiences. These aren’t the 28 essential black-themed films, but a calendar of suggested viewing. We imposed a chronological cutoff in an effort to look back at where we were and how we got to here.
We begin in the 1920s with Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), a novelist and bold, prolific independent filmmaker. Micheaux along with black directors like Spencer Williams made “race movies,” low-budget films with all-black casts for black audiences (some from white producers). During the Jim Crow era, the color line ran through movies, including into segregated theaters, and most Hollywood films depicting black life were produced by whites, including musicals, like “Cabin in the Sky,” with all-black casts of well-known singers, dancers and musicians. From the early 1930s to the late ’50s, the mainstream industry’s Production Code specifically banned representations of sexual relations between black and white people.
When African-Americans in Hollywood were not singing or dancing, they were often cast as maids, butlers, porters or other servile, peripheral figures. There are exceptions, including “Imitation of Life,” a 1930s melodrama with a storyline about a black character who “passes” for white, as well as “Intruder in the Dust,” a 1940s parable of white conscience. Both are worth viewing because of the power and integrity of their featured black actors — Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington and Juano Hernandez — who with the humanity of their performances challenge and movingly subvert the mainstream industry’s racism.
Race movies disappeared shortly after World War II, and soon the mainstream industry turned toward social issues. Yet even as the civil rights movement gathered force, black characters and their experiences were seen through a white lens, often myopically. Consider this sobering fact: Between 1948 (when Micheaux’s last film appeared) and 1969 (when Gordon Parks’s “The Learning Tree” arrived on the big screen), almost no movies directed by African-Americans were released commercially in the United States.
Our selections for subsequent decades are exclusively the work of black directors. For the later 20th century, we have chosen titles that represent waves and countercurrents: Blaxploitation, the independent film scenes in Los Angeles and New York in the ’70s and ’80s, the flowering of commercial and independent movies in the ’90s. There are comedies and crime stories, historical epics and slices of ordinary life, socially conscious dramas and sublimely silly comedies. Taken together, they do not offer a unified theory of African-Americans in cinema, but a great multiplicity.
See the list here!
Every day, you can stay updated on what’s happening in government and take meaningful action. It’s never been simpler to follow key developments on issues you care about and make your voice heard.
Using the Starbucks Action Center it’s now easier than ever to learn about the issues that matter most to you, connect with your lawmakers, and join a vibrant community of civic action-takers. This is today’s version of reading the paper, listening to public radio, and writing a letter to your representative. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat or Independent – make your voice heard.