As far back as the silent era, 110 years ago, there were Black actors and crew members working in the movies. From Oscar Micheaux to Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee to Ava DuVernay, Black directors have been working both inside and outside the Hollywood studio system. Their creativity often went unrecognized, and sadly remains so today.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we examine a few movies by Black directors that are well known, and some that have just recently been rediscovered.
We are often moved when we emotionally share common experiences with those portrayed on the big screen. In the film “Fences” (2016), based on the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, the headstrong father, played with fervor by Denzel Washington, engendered many of the characteristics I found in my own father. The story, set in the 1950s Hill District of Pittsburgh, explores the dynamics of a Black family: a 10-hour-a-day low-wage garbage collector, a downtrodden housewife and a rebellious teenage son. Washington, playing 53-year-old Troy Maxson, has been dealt an unfair hand based on his race and upbringing. His only escape from the pressure of providing a roof over their head, clothes on their backs and food on the table is his Friday night bottle of gin. Maxson doesn’t realize his wife of 18 years, Rose Lee, depicted by the incomparable Viola Davis, is the glue that holds their family together. The conflicts and tragedies that overtake this family are often self-imposed, but also the consequences of a much grimmer narrative about access and education for Black families. The film, directed by Washington, was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actress. Viola Davis won the Oscar, making her the only Black actress to have won an Oscar, a Tony Award and an Emmy Award.
Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) is an examination of a single sweltering summer day in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood and the racial tensions between the African-American residents and the Italian-American owner of a small pizzeria that is the lifeblood of the neighborhood. If that sounds like the setup for a controversial and incendiary picture, just you wait… As the day progresses, you can feel the sultry heat and frustration grow, and no credible way to avert the violence and tragedy that awaits the neighborhood. Lee’s creation of this slice of life, much like the slices sold by Sal, is greasy, sweaty and unappetizing, but its status as a landmark of Black cinema is undeniable. Featuring a dazzling cast including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, John Turturo, Samuel L. Jackson and Rosie Perez in her first film.
One of the most important movements of Black filmmakers outside of Hollywood was the L.A. Rebellion. Centered around UCLA and its filmmaking department in the 1970s, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were blatantly anti-commercial, and were sharply critical of the Hollywood system that shut them out of directing opportunities. Perhaps the most notable filmmaker of this era was Charles Burnett. His black-and-white film “Killer of Sheep”(1978) was rereleased in 2007 and was immediately considered a forgotten classic. It holds extraordinary power to this day. Shot like an Italian neorealist film from the ’40s or ‘50s, Burnett’s film is about a hardscrabble family, as seen through the eyes of a young Black boy. Full of devastating yet believable images (including an infamous one that appeared on an album cover by rapper Mos Def), matched with compelling performances by the cast. In one stunningly tender moment, two characters dance to Faye Adams’ “This Bitter Earth” in their living room, and we challenge any viewer to keep a dry eye.
Kathleen Collins was the first Black woman to make a feature film (except for a brief handful of films in the early 1920s) when she made “Losing Ground” in 1982. Unfortunately, she died in 1988 and never saw her finished product released. It wasn’t until 2015 that her daughter, Nina, brought the film to the public, and it has made waves ever since. It’s focused on the story of a well-to-do Black couple (played with a pitch-perfect performance by Seret Scott and underground horror maestro Bill Gunn) vacationing in upstate New York and the marital/ extramarital drama that ensues. The film is a light, playful comedy that suggests something extraordinary in how simply ordinary it is.