At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
This month we explore, for the first time, a theme rather than a specific figure’s work. As February is Black History Month, we delve into films released since the Civil Rights Movement either directed by African-American directors and/or related to topics such as black representation in media, personal identity, racism, and the continued struggle for acceptance and equality. The films and directors included are but a few of the many pertinent titles relating to this month’s theme. We also recommend the work of Dee Rees, Steve McQueen, and Ava DuVernay, among others.
Foxy Brown (1974)
Matt Schlee– Foxy Brown is a crime film that follows the titular Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) as she seeks revenge on a group of mobsters for killing her government-agent boyfriend. One of the most iconic blaxploitation films, Foxy Brown is filled with fun and excitement, and does offer some interesting commentary regarding justifiable fears of police violence and the effects of drug culture on the African-American community in the 70s. However, like many of its genre-counterparts, there is reason to question whether the film does more harm than good.
Writer and director Jack Hill took the helm on a number of influential blaxploitation films, but given the stereotypical character portrayals and the fact that Hill himself likely didn’t have a particularly interesting personal insight into black culture, contemporary audiences frequently wonder just how empowering a film like Foxy Brown could be to black audiences in the 70s. While blaxploitation films did promote the use of black actors in movies and the creation of films for predominantly black audiences, few black crew member were offered the opportunity to contribute to Foxy Brown‘s voice which is ultimately where social commentary would have the greatest potential to come from.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Dalton Mullins– Do the Right Thing is, quite simply, an explosive film. Filled with borderline uncomfortable closeups and rants, it comes right out and says exactly what is on its mind. Spike Lee reveals racism in the modern day and how the anger that it causes can boil over and erupt in one scorching summer. Though it doesn’t provide the best answer for racism, Do the Right Thing contributed greatly in regards to African-American representation in film. With the cast being mainly black, this film helped show that blacks could play other roles besides those that were violent or hypersexualized (gangsters, prostitutes, etc). Do the Right Thing is also revolutionary because it showed, on film to a mainstream audience, what an African-American neighborhood is like and how racism, amongst members of every race, still exists in the modern day. Do the Right Thing makes a strong case for being the most influential film for Black Cinema for this reason, despite there being black directors decades before its release and some black actors already winning Oscars. Additionally, Do the Right Thing helped to reverse stereotypes about African Americans conveyed in blaxploitation films of the 1970’s.
Malcolm X (1992)
Ben McDonald– Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a biopic of epic proportions. Clocking in at over 200 minutes, there’s an incredible sense of sweeping scale to its titular figure’s life. Knowing embarrassingly little about Malcolm X myself, I found myself thoroughly engaged by his life message after viewing this film. At the forefront of African American filmmakers in the 90’s, Spike Lee was perhaps the best choice to adapt his life. Though Lee is often known for his flashy presentation and camerawork, his work on this biopic is much more restrained, even reverential. As a whole, reverential is really the best word I can think of to describe the film.
What I found so fascinating about Malcolm X’s life was how complex and constantly changing his worldview was. As an audience member, we see his perspectives in life begin narrow, stuck in a land of petty crime and drug abuse, transitioning to a general hatred towards white America, and finally ending as a more accepting and humble human being. Though the film isn’t without its problems (some of the pacing feels off, especially for a 202 minute runtime), and I don’t know how true to history its content is, it’s undeniable that Malcolm X is a stunning accomplishment in biographical cinema and a loving tribute to the incredibly influential Afro-American.
Ian Floodgate– Though Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his performance in Philadelphia, Denzel Washington‘s performance is equally exceptional, in particular in his conveyance of the journey his character makes. Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is dismissed from a law firm and believes he was dismissed because he is a homosexual and has AIDS. Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), also a lawyer, refuses Beckett’s case when he asks him to take it and he openly admits his own prejudice against gay men.
Philidelphia crafts a parallel between discrimination people of color have faced and discrimination homosexuals have faced, and it appears Miller is unaware at first of this relation. However, Miller does begin to empathize with Beckett and be sympathetic to his case as the film progresses. Whilst at a public library, Miller sees the discrimination Beckett faces with his own eyes. He realizes how easy it is to give in to prejudices and decides to help Beckett with his case. Miller not only puts his beliefs aside, but they are changed as he learns that Beckett is like any other human being. When he intends to prepare Beckett for his cross examination, Miller is brought close to tears as Beckett passionately talks about opera. Philadelphia is credited by many gay rights activists to have been the first Hollywood film to tackle the AIDS epidemic, increase awareness about it, and remove some of the stigma surrounding the disease, similar to the transformation of beliefs experienced by Washington’s character.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Ian Floodgate– Hotel Rwanda shows its audience what can happen when racial hate consumes and dictates the actions of a population. Set in 1994 when the Rwandan Genocide occurred, tensions rise between two sets of people, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, is the hotel manager at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali when Hutu extremists decide to start killing Tutsi’s. This immediately worries Rusesabagina as he is Hutu and his wife, played by Sophie Okonedo, is Tutsi. His initial instinct is to protect his family which eventually finds him negotiating with extremists for the safety of others with money and alcohol, and leads to many people seeking refuge in his hotel.
Cheadle delivers a performance that is courageous and instills the audience with hope despite the horrific situation the Rwandan genocide was. Even when Rusesabagina is confronted with how many Tutsi people have been killed, this would be enough for anyone to fear the worst but he is credited in limiting this number through saving the lives of over 1,200 people. For its capture of a period of great horror, Hotel Rwanda serves as an eye-opening reminder of how much hate, violence, and prejudice is prevalent on the international stage.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Kevin Jones– The feature-length debut of now-acclaimed director Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station feels especially pertinent to revisit during Black History Month. Not only is it a film directed by and starring incredibly talented members of the black community, but it is a film that is concerned with one of the major conflicts in contemporary society: the treatment of black people by the police. Telling the true story of Oscar Grant, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, who was shot and killed at the Fruitvale district station by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, Fruitvale Station is undoubtedly a thematically-heavy film. Detailing the senseless shooting as well as the events that ultimately led up to the tragic event, Fruitvale Station is a film that is not as political as it could be. Rather, it establishes who Oscar Grant was with regards to his lifestyle, his daughter, and his life with his girlfriend. The film even makes the point of showing intimate details in Oscar’s life such as his reconciliation with his girlfriend due to his infidelity. Fruitvale Station is a film that presents Oscar as a flawed man rather than simply as an angel. By the time the shooting occurs, the audience has been given a full portrait of this man and we see shortly thereafter the repercussions of Grant’s death within his community and his family.
Though an incredibly somber watch, Fruitvale Station stands as a testament to an issue experienced by black Americans today. It is a film that captures the look, the feeling, and the emotion that goes into such a tragedy. This recounting of Grant’s fatal shooting exposes the divide between officers and the communities they serve that has fostered the “us vs. them” mentality held by both parties, which is a sentiment that Fruitvale Station brings to the surface. The film is a tragic story and one that shows just how far America has to go in regards to race relations.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Matt Schlee– Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished manuscript written by prominent author and civil rights icon James Baldwin, detailing his memories of his friends, civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr, who were all assassinated following their prominence in the Civil Rights Movement. The film utilizes Baldwin’s prose, read by Samuel L. Jackson, as well as video of Baldwin himself giving speeches and interviews through archival footage. It is a powerful documentary which chronicles the evolution of racial tensions from the Civil Rights Movement to modern times.
I Am Not Your Negro‘s mixture of modern sensibilities with cultural elements of the 60s creates a unique atmosphere that underscores the idea that racial relations haven’t changed that much at all in the last 50 years. It is a compelling and important documentary which came at the perfect time in the social conversation on the African American experience. The film also reinvigorated public interest in the writings of James Baldwin, one of America’s most renowned social critics.
Alex Sitaras– Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is a coming-of-age story that chronicles the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, & Trevante Rhodes) whose exploration of- and eventual discovery of- his personal identity acts as the prime directive of the film. Chiron was raised in Miami by his mother (Naomie Harris), his father absent throughout his childhood. Chiron finds a father figure of his own, Juan (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali: that felt good typing), when hiding from bullies. Though Juan is a drug dealer and Chiron’s own mother is addicted to drugs, a friendship between the two forms and Juan advises Chiron to follow his own path in life. Chiron comes to realize shortly thereafter that his the path of his life is different that many of his peers’ because of his homosexuality. Over the course of his adolescence and early adulthood, Chiron seeks to mask and contort his personal identity, unable to accept his homosexuality. Chiron finally shedding his apprehension and accepting his identity makes for some of the best, and most heartwarming, scenes put to music in recent years.
Director Barry Jenkins breaks new ground in Moonlight, considering youth and masculinity in a way that is rare to American cinema, not just African-American cinema. His upcoming projects, adaptations of Colson Whitehead’s and James Baldwin’s novels The Underground Railroad and If Beale Street Could Talk, respectively, will continue to tell stories about African-American characters to a wide audience and explore concepts related to black identity.
Get Out (2017)
Ben McDonald– Comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out was one of the biggest surprises of 2017, but also one of the smartest films made about modern race relations. Though there are countless other movies about the issue, none explore it quite so uniquely as Peele. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a black photographer who travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents. Rose hasn’t told her parents that Chris is black, causing him much concern over how they’ll react. When he does meet her family, they’re receptive and welcoming, but something still seems off. The fact that Chris is black is a topic that lingers uncomfortably in seemingly every conversation. Get Out builds in suspense as the walls close in on Chris, perpetually in paranoia as he begins to doubt the family’s seemingly good intentions.
Horror is at its best when it is able to address personal and societal anxieties through its subject matter. Alien’s perverse imagery of rape, It Follows’ monster symbolic of the fears around adolescent sexuality, and The Babadook’s clear metaphor for grief are all exceptional examples of cinema exploiting our deepest dreads and fears through the genre of horror. Get Out is no different, but explores issues present in African American lives that Hollywood frequently neglects. Peele’s script brilliantly weaves in the racist microaggressions found in modern America with a sense of paranoia that many African Americans experience today. He takes what must be a common source of anxiety: a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and dials it up to 11. I first saw Get Out back in February with some friends and immediately had to see it again the next weekend. It’s a fantastic piece of cinema addressing the African American experience, and without a doubt a highlight of last year’s cinema.