This week, our country has reached a tipping point. Hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter protests have organized and marched in dozens of cities across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Between media coverage and the videos and testimonials of protestors circling the internet, it’s become clear how strongly perception influences perspective.
It’s not just in news coverage that perception influences our perspectives, however. The films and TV we watch influence us, too. But not everyone views a film through the same lens; our own personal and cultural experiences color what we see, the messages and themes we take away from films, and how we interpret them. Reading the writing of marginalized film critics is critical to gaining a fuller, more well-rounded understanding of the movies we watch and the world in which we live.
This week, I wanted to round up a few thought-provoking and excellent pieces of film criticism from Black film critics. Most of them are pieces exploring film and TV shows centered on the Black experience, but there are a few pieces of thoughtful writing on other movies, as well. Here are some of the best.
1. Robert Daniels – The Fairytale Of Homeownership In ‘The Last Black Man In San Francisco’
In this informative piece, Robert Daniels explores Joe Talbot’s poignant, powerful The Last Black Man in San Francisco and the historical context of protagonists Jimmie and Montgomery reverently caring for Jimmie’s family’s ancestral home, now owned by white people:
“Gentrification thrives today due to decades of desperate Black families forced into the vulnerable system of renting, where the chances of eviction rises with each prevailing hardship. To understand Jimmie’s quest to regain his family home, one must first understand the nefarious results of the GI Bill as they relate to his grandfather, and the importance of homeownership within the Black community.”
2. Carolyn Hinds – ‘Bad Hair’ Is A Misrepresentation Of Black Women And Our Hair Culture
Black women have specific burdens that Black men will never know, grappling with not just racism but misogyny in how they are portrayed. Carolyn Hinds explores how even the best of intentions can be derailed when these further complexities of gender are ignored when making films about the Black experience:
“After generations, we are again reclaiming and defining what is beautiful to us, starting with our crowning glory. Whether we wear weaves, braids, head wraps or have it blown out, it’s up to us to determine what we do with it, but when there are films and shows by Black people that portray protective styling as evil and something that makes us horrible monsters and eventually sellouts of our own race, that’s problematic.”
3. Tambay Obenson – ‘Fast Color’: The Gugu Mbatha-Raw Superhero Drama Deserved a Better Release
It’s not always in on-screen portrayals where Black people are undercut and shortchanged. Tambay Obenson explores how it all too often happens in the marketing of black films, as well, and why that needs to change:
“As the rare motion picture to center black women superheroes, “Fast Color” is immediately distinct. So why did the film fail to draw major distributor interest before Codeblack came to its rescue? It’s a familiar and dispiriting story that falls in line with “black films don’t sell” — the long-standing trope that resists repeated debunking. In fact, the current environment likely couldn’t be better suited and more accommodating for a film like “Fast Color” to find an audience.”
4. Steven Thrasher – Why ‘Get Out’ Is The Best Movie Ever Made About American Slavery
The history of the Black experience in America is a cyclical one; the literal ownership of Black people in the Antebellum South has given way to white people’s metaphorical ownership of Black people in modern times. Steven Thrasher explores how Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a stunning exploration of this institutional nature of slavery in America:
“In Peele’s hands, I found my eyes looking at Chris’s floating body and thinking about stolen Africans who were experimented upon (or thrown overboard), Henrietta Lacks’ stolen HeLa cells, Emmett Till’s little 14-year-old lynched body, music and sports stars being extracted from Black neighborhoods for white profit, the government not treating syphilis in hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee to study them—and, back to Chris, about to be lobotomized.”
5. Jamil Smith – The Revolutionary Power Of ‘Black Panther’
It’s not just indie movies that tackle narratives of racial marginalization, the misappropriation of culture, and social justice. Blockbusters can, too. And they can often be even more powerful when they do because of the sheer number of people who see them. Jamil Smith dives into the power of seeing the unapologetically Black, Afrocentric story told in Black Panther:
“Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.”
6. Tonja Renée Stidhum – Rob Morgan Is A Leading Man
When we think “Black leading man,” most people jump to Denzel Washington and then after that…it might be a struggle. White actors are allowed to be leading men across a spectrum of roles, but those opportunities dry up for Black actors and other actors of color. Tonja Renée Stidhum sat down with Rob Morgan and spoke to him about his astonishing turn in Bull and why he deserves to be a leading man:
“Somehow, even when in scenes opposite distinct powerhouse leads—such as in This Is Us, Mudbound, Just Mercy, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco—Morgan always manages to snatch our attention. He takes full advantage of every single frame with an unrelenting command that leaves you wondering, ‘Who is this guy?!'”
7. Carl Broughton II – Black Storytelling In 2019
Last year was an excellent year for an array of Black stories across film and television. From streaming documentaries to quirky TV series, big horror tentpoles to heartwarming animated shorts, there have rarely been years for Black storytelling like 2019. Carl Broughton II takes a look at just how important last year was for Black stories on screen:
“In short, Black storytelling and Black Lives Matter are one and the same. Black storytelling has been my people’s way of showing us that Black lives matter for hundreds of years, as the origin of black storytelling was to preserve our culture and traditions and to remind us of how far we have come. But 2019 was a special year for Black storytelling in the form of Black cinema and television, as storytellers grappled with the complexity of what it means to portray Black lives on screen and how that portrayal can change the narrative of how Black people are viewed in society.”
8. Ciara Wardlow – ‘Take Shelter’ Tackles Fear With Fearless Eloquence
The nature of fear as depicted in movies is a fascinating one. When it comes to fear of vulnerability, it’s rare to see it explored with honesty and nuance in a male character. Ciara Wardlow dissects how Take Shelter explores white male introspection that doesn’t devolve into whiny navel-gazing and victimhood:
“As FDR so famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but most evocations of this hugely popular quote scrap the rest of the sentence, where Roosevelt elaborates on how “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” is the thing to be feared because it “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Fear is intoxicating; it clouds our judgment, freezes us, sabotages any efforts we might make to combat it. Fear is one of the greatest obstacles we face, and its suffocating nature makes it a singularly difficult subject to tackle, particularly with any sort of nuance or artistry.”
9. JM Mutore – ‘Burning Cane’ Review: A Beautiful Crossroads
New Orleans has always been a quintessentially black city, full of jazz and voodoo and Baptist churches, Creole cooking and Black vibrance. New Orleans native Phillip Youmans wrote, directed and shot Burning Cane when he was just 17 years old. JM Mutore dives into the love letter it sends to the city of New Orleans:
“Burning Cane is a beautiful looking movie that recalls Charles Burnett in several moments. Youmans, working both as director and cinematographer, captures rural New Orleans and Baptist Church interiors in evocative terms. Close-ups and shot-reverse-shot are present here, but characters are just as often cordoned off to segments of the frame to convey the extent of their isolation. Very few plot beats are depicted the way you would expect them to be in a more conventional film, but the care and purpose behind most shots are very obvious upon close inspection.”
10. Angelica Jade Bastién – It Doesn’t Take Much To Be Seen As An Unruly Woman
Women are always held to a different standard than men. We’re expected to never be too aggressive, too outspoken, too confident, too loud. The qualities admired in men are considered uncouth in women – in short, we’re expected to behave and not be unruly. Angelica Jade Bastién takes a look at Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey and how she’s the prime example of an unruly woman – and all the more fascinating for it:
“Here’s the thing about being an unruly woman. It doesn’t take much to gain that distinction. Talk too much, too loudly, and that’s enough. As Rachel Vorona Cote writes in her book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, “A weeping woman is a monster. So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter. Women who are one or more of these things have heard, or perhaps simply intuited, that we are repugnantly excessive, that we have taken illicit liberties to feel or fuck or eat with abandon … A woman who meets the world with intensity is a woman who endures lashes of shame and disapproval, from within as well as without.” What makes Harley Quinn so thrilling is that she provides another option — one where the unruly woman is allowed to cut loose and triumph over the emblems of misogyny in her life.”
11. Mekeisha Madden Toby – 40 Years Later, It’s Clear ‘Fame’ Will Live Forever
Certain movies have cultural staying power, even if they’re not as spoken of as other “classic films.” Fame is just such one of those movies. Forty years after its release, Mekeisha Madden Toby looks back at Fame‘s enduring cultural legacy, impact, and how it still resonates today:
“For many young artists, seeing Fame for the first time is life altering. Alan Parker’s classic 1980 film succinctly validates the boundless hope and promise of aspiring actors, dancers, singers and musicians and makes them feel seen, appreciated and loved.”
12. Candice Frederick – After 60 Years in Hollywood, Glynn Turman Is Still Trying New Things
It’s hard to find someone in Hollywood who has been in the game as long as Glynn Turman. It’s hard to find an actor who has meant more to Black cinema. And it’s hard to find someone as just damn cool as Turman. Candice Frederick sat down to talk to the legendary actor about jumping into the world of producing after 60 years in the business and why his passion still burns bright:
“There’s a reason why Glynn Turman still can’t walk down the street in Chicago without someone shouting at him out about his inimitable performance as Preach in the 1975 classic, Cooley High. The 73-year-old thespian has captivated audiences ever since he was a child in the original 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. Since then, he’s gone on to immortalize iconic characters like Lew Miles on Peyton Place, Colonel Bradford Taylor on A Different World, and recently, Nate Lahey Sr. on How to Get Away with Murder, for which he earned a Primetime Emmy nomination.”
13. Rebecca Theodore-Vachon – Interview With Kelvin Harrison Jr. For ‘The High Note’
There’s something exciting about seeing young, black talent emerging on screen and truly coming into their own in the industry. One of those actors is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has already had an impressive career for someone still in his mid-20s. Mudbound, It Comes at Night, Luce, Monsters and Men, Waves and now The High Note. Rebecca Theodore-Vachon spoke with him on her podcast about the remarkable career he’s already had and his latest for Netflix.
14. Tananarive Due, Ashlee Blackwell, Robin Means Coleman, Xavier Burgin – Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
Okay, so I might be cheating here a bit. But some of the most thoughtful critical commentary of Black cinema isn’t always built around the written word. Shudder’s original documentary Horror Noire is an essential piece of viewing if you want to understand Black cinema, especially Black horror, a genre that, until Jordan Peele, we’ve tended to think of as a predominantly white space. But the history of Black horror goes back a century. An incredibly talented team took Robin Means Coleman’s book of the same name and turned it into one of the best documentaries in years. Everyone behind it is passionate and dedicated, but it’s particularly heartening to see some of the biggest names in Black horror cultural studies co-writing and producing it: Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters, Tananarive Due of The Twilight Zone and Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Coleman herself and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Xavier Burgin directing.
The beautiful diversity of experience and history makes criticism that much better when we seek out other viewpoints, different voices, and new concepts to ponder. What pieces would you add to this list?
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