Updated: Feb 18, 2021
This month is monumental and important to remember and more importantly celebrate black excellence along with the impact of black history and its significance and weight to this day. Every year in February we put our focus into something that should be focused on every day, and shed light on how far we've come while not forgetting how far we have to go. In the sense of celebration, it's important to recognize the cultural impact black actors, filmmakers and other talented POC in the industry have made throughout the history of film. Some of the best movies of all time were bolstered by incredible black performances or direction. Sidney Poitier, Billy Dee Williams and Spike Lee all worked life-long careers in front of and behind the camera in some of Hollywood's biggest projects, even against white opposition. While these are examples of much recognized roles and projects such as In the Heat of the Night and Star Wars I want to shed some light on lesser known films that should be held in equal degrees of importance. These films celebrate black culture and characters in original true visions, some light and fun while others expose the troubled reality of the reality we still live in.
1. SHE HATE ME (2004)
This one is going to be a controversial choice, but Spike Lee's bold choice to make a movie where an unemployed ex-businessman creates a living impregnating lesbian women to cut the middle man out of the sperm donations is... yeah. Controversial. That being said Spike Lee is no director to hide from controversy, with unflinching takes on racism in films like Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing and overwhelming white audience members with the wildly underrated social satire Bamboozled. Anthony Mackie in an early role pre super-spandex confidently carries this messy film in the direction of humor and charisma it needs to work. I lived Mackie in this role as a kid, and had a feeling how well he was going to do with the right roles. This film was negatively received almost universally, and to some degree was reflective in decisions Lee chose to bury this movie in his overall body of work. That being said She Hate Me is a wild and silly approach to the ridiculousness of a young black father and his journey to re-discovering his passion with his ex (and her new girlfriend.)
2. TSOTSI (2005)
Probably the roughest title in this list, Tsotsi follows the story of a misguided South African youth who lives his life by quick scores from thievery. When a violent shooting leads to the theft of a young woman's vehicle, David (nicknamed Tsotsi or Criminal in the aforementioned film's title) discovers he has shot a mother and stolen her baby. The film is as vibrant and transcendent as it is gritty and bleak. The film has a loud and memorable soundtrack from a collection of artists in the style of electronic house-type music production called Kwaito. It's lead performance is nailed by young actor Presley Chweneyagae and the direction by Gavin Hood does nothing to shy us away from the violence and reality of David's under privileged life. The film is positively reviewed and won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2005. That being said, not much is talked about Tsotsi today. Roger Ebert in his review puts it best:
"How strange, a movie where a bad man becomes better, instead of the other way around. I was surprised to find that it leads toward hope instead of despair; why does fiction so often assume defeat is our destiny?" - Roger Ebert
Tsotsi is a lesson about the nature of destiny and the nature of redemption in the face of evil and misfortune.
3. DOPE (2015)
Dope is another film by a black director who exudes the same confidence and style as Lee has in his filmography while having a much smaller resume. Rick Famuyiwa, in his most successful and critically recognized film, highlights the lives of Malcolm Adekanbi (a perfect-graded Harvard applicant student) and his two best friends who get unwittingly wrapped up in the world of crime despite their nerdy and wholesome character. It's kind of a reversal of the Tsotsi tale, with three very inexperienced and innocent high-schoolers submerged into the less sunny-side of L.A. and it's drug scene. While under the pressure of shady dealers and gangsters they take advantage of their knowledge of internet commerce to start making bitcoin off of drug sales on an extremely successful website. This venture makes its way unknowingly through internet servers at their school and despite their low social status repaints them into more confident and inspired versions of themselves. It's fun and funny, and while it's not completely an independent choice on this list, it certainly deserves a re-watch. It's got a killer soundtrack and despite its success, the director is underappreciated and hopefully bound for some awards.
4. THE FITS (2015)
I wouldn't call The Fits anything less than a revelation. It's one of my favorite movies in fact. The power and magic of this film resonates not only in its break-out talented young star, but the unforgettable imagery of its modest urban school setting and some bigger than life choreography. This film, unlike my other three choices, focuses on the young adolescent life of a black girl who desperately tries to stay physically strengthened to fit in with her tough neighborhood and older brother's respect. It isn't until she is compelled to start dancing with an older student's dance team that she starts to question her strength and identity among her many classmates. The film follows a series of "fits" that occur with exclusively young women who seem to fall prey to ambiguous seizures that cause a scare at the school. The film is directed by Anna Rose Holmer, who establishes herself as an incredible debut artist with this film, highlighting the beauty of finding racial and gender-based identity through an art-form like dance. This film beautifully highlights the less than idyllic spots of Cincinnati, OH and the culture of black excellence that exists in the next generation of black students. It's elegant and optimistic, as we should be of future generations of young black men and women.