Critic's Picks: 10 Great Underseen Films About Black America

6:45 AM 6/14/2020

by Beandrea July

From docs about literary heroes and the L.A. riots to a romantic two-hander that launched an auspicious career, a quietly groundbreaking 1964 indie to a rollicking biopic, here are 10 terrific — and timely — movies about Black people in America that deserve more attention.

'Nothing But a Man,' 'The Interrupters,' 'Medicine for Melancholy'
'Nothing But a Man,' 'The Interrupters,' 'Medicine for Melancholy'
Photofest; Cinema Guild; IFC Films

The vast majority of Hollywood films over the past hundred years were made by, about and for white people. The industry’s first blockbuster — 1915’s The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith — was a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film featuring white actors in blackface.

It’s also true that until very recently, the vast majority of white viewers simply have not had to develop the skill that Black people (and members of many other under-represented groups) have practiced from birth: the ability to identify with a character who doesn’t look like you in an onscreen world that often doesn’t even acknowledge you exist. This discrepancy is known as the “racial empathy gap,” a term coined by researchers to describe the fact that white audiences tend to have a much lower tolerance for viewing Black films than Black people do for seeing majority-white films.

One way that non-Black people can affirm that Black lives matter as a regular practice is by seeking out movies that center Black lives. After all, in order for Black lives to truly matter, Black stories (all Black stories) have to matter, too.

While systemic discrimination in Hollywood is entrenched and not even close to being dismantled, few would deny that more Black storytellers than ever are getting the chance to tell their authentic stories to wider audiences. Black storytellers today feel less of a need to artificially insert white characters into their narratives in order to make outside audiences comfortable. Movies steeped fully and unequivocally in the Black American experience have long existed, from filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Spike Lee and others. But many of them never got the studio green lights, theatrical releases or attention they deserved.

Any proper racial reckoning as a country will naturally have to include culture and entertainment — so more white people building the muscle of engaging seriously with films in which white characters are not the heroes is necessary.

Below are ten such films, both narrative and documentary, that hit upon a variety of aspects of Black life in America; presented in alphabetical order, most of them are smaller-budget movies that may have flown under the radar. I hope you will watch them all. (And if you are white, please consider resisting any temptation to call your Black friends and tell them that you did.)

  • 'The Apollo' (2019)

    HBO

    'The Apollo'
    'The Apollo'
    Courtesy of HBO

    This well-made documentary from Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams chronicles the history of iconic Black American music venue the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It features the usual round-up of talking heads, but it’s not overly academic. With the impressive amount of archival footage Williams manages to present, this is practically a concert film showcasing many of the most notable Black entertainers of the last century. The result is an enjoyable and unapologetic celebration of a legacy that includes giving artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder some of their first major opportunities to perform.

  • 'Brother to Brother' (2004)

    Amazon Prime

    'Brother to Brother'
    'Brother to Brother'
    Wolfe Releasing/Photofest

    Director Rodney Evans' Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning debut moves back and forth in time between New York City in the early aughts and the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. In one of his earliest film appearances, Anthony Mackie plays a young gay artist who is kicked out of the house by his family and ends up exploring his identity under the guidance of an elder (Roger Robinson) as the latter relives his time with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. It’s an inventive and reflective watch.

  • 'I Am Not Your Negro' (2016)

    Amazon Prime

    'I Am Not Your Negro'
    'I Am Not Your Negro'
    Courtesy of TIFF

    Even if you’ve heard of — or already seen — this Oscar-nominated documentary from Raoul Peck, it’s the kind of film that warrants multiple viewings. (Try watching it once with the sound off to allow the imagery to sink in deeper.) Through a combination of affecting film clips and archival and present-day stills, it is at once a portrait of the great Black novelist and essayist James Baldwin, a chronicle of the Black American struggle for liberation and a stunning visual essay on misrepresentations of Blackness in cinematic history. It’s a film much like Baldwin himself: timeless, hyper-relevant, meticulous in form and function, and truly one-of-a-kind.

  • 'The Interrupters' (2011)

    PBS, Amazon Prime

    'The Interrupters'
    'The Interrupters'
    Cinema Guild

    Though it was made a decade ago, Steve James’ doc seems like just the story we need to be paying attention to right now in light of current discussions about defunding the police. The Interrupters is about a group of community mediators who intervene to prevent conflict in Chicago’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, putting their bodies on the line and building relationships with the young men on the block who have fallen prey to the cycle of violence. The film has the effect of an action movie full of suspenseful twists and turns, yet also forces viewers to interrogate their assumptions about what it really requires to end crime. If it makes you uncomfortable, take a breath; you’re right where the film wants you to be.

  • 'Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992' (2017)

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    John Ridley’s work is one of a number of docs about the Los Angeles riots of 1992.  But this one has more staying power than most because of the way it reveals the backstories of its wide range of subjects, refusing to either sanctify or denigrate the protesters, looters, police and bystanders. Ridley wants you to be less concerned with whose side he’s on and more focused on questioning what you think you already know about this racial flashpoint in American history. It makes for a suspenseful, eye-opening watch.

  • 'Medicine for Melancholy' (2008)

    Amazon Prime

    'Medicine for Melancholy'
    'Medicine for Melancholy'
    IFC FIlms

    Barry Jenkins made his feature debut with this movie about Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who have what is initially assumed to be a one-night stand but end up spending a day together traveling around their rapidly changing hometown of San Francisco. Filmed in black and white on location, Medicine for Melancholy boasts a visual language that is quiet yet piercing, speaking volumes about gentrification and Black love without explicitly naming either. From the shot of the couple’s dancing feet in a club to the way their bodies are framed in the doorway of Micah’s tiny studio, the film showcases the origins of the exquisite collaboration between Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton.

  • 'Nothing But a Man' (1964)

    YouTube

    Photofest

    Shot in black and white and set in a small town just outside Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s, director Michael Roemer’s film ponders what living with basic human dignity is worth to a Black railroad worker (Ivan Dixon) who settles down with the local reverend’s daughter (Abbey Lincoln), but refuses to play by the rules of deference to white people. It’s a visually spare yet moving meditation on the pitfalls of Black respectability and the horrors of white lawlessness. But what makes the film truly special is that while it’s certainly meant to raise questions about American racism, it’s actually not about that; rather, the story decidedly rests its stakes on love — of self, family and community. 

  • 'Talk to Me' (2007)

    Vudu, Hulu

    'Talk to Me'
    'Talk to Me'
    Focus Features/Photofest

    In this 2007 biopic from Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s BayouHarriet), we follow the evolution of a working-class Black man into the beloved Washington, D.C., radio host and personality known as Petey Greene (Don Cheadle). The film coasts along on a stream of laughs and ladies’-man antics that are entertaining enough, but the real interest here is that we also get to see Greene’s inner workings. With help from his “respectable Negro” manager Dewey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Greene wrestles with both his demons and his responsibilities as a public figure in the Black community. The film makes us question what success really means for a Black man in America. 

  • 'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am' (2019)

    Hulu

    'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am'
    'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am'
    Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

    The prize of the first feature-length doc made about late author Toni Morrison with her permission is the dazzling presence of Morrison herself. Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Trans List) combines archival photos of Black life in America dating back 400 years and contemporary Black art to stunning visual effect that perfectly echoes Morrison’s recounting of her story. We don’t get to hear much about her personal life; the focus is on her work, namely her early struggles to be accepted by the ultra-white literary world. Still, her blend of honey-inflected vocal tones and incisive commentary is sublime.

  • 'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality' (2019)

    HBO

    'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality'
    'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality'
    Nick Frontiero/HBO

    If you’re curious about Brian Stevenson, the man behind the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, this companion documentary to last year’s Michael B. Jordan starrer Just Mercy is well worth a watch. Directed by Peter Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt and George Kunhardt, the film divides its time between the history of the criminal justice system and Stevenson’s life story. It is intentional about preserving Stevenson’s privacy, but includes endearing footage of him at home playing the piano and laughing with his siblings, nieces and nephews. These small windows into who Stevenson is — outside of being a modern crusader for criminal justice reform — allow us to connect with him as an everyday human being who doesn’t go to sleep at night on a pedestal.