While there are still too few African-American voices being recognized in Hollywood, recent films like Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus speak to a vital tradition of black independent filmmakers. Even controversial creators like Tyler Perry hail from a long line of filmmakers that includes the directors and stars of the “race films” of the 1920s and 1930s. Many pioneering African-American directors, like Melvin Van Peebles and Julie Dash, were trailblazers who found money for their fiercely idiosyncratic visions. They defied expectations and proved that there was an audience for films about black characters as told by black artists.
From now until February 19th, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986, an exhaustive survey of unsung movies about African Americans. In celebration of the retrospective and Black History Month, Flavorwire has compiled a list of 50 essential African-American independent films.
Spike Lee’s first fiction feature, She’s Gotta Have It was shot without retakes on a strict budget of $175,000 over the course of 12 days — but the film went on to gross more than $7 million. Lee’s frank portrayal of one woman’s relationship with three prospective lovers almost earned an X rating from the dreaded MPAA. The film also helped revitalize the ailing community of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the film’s setting, after attracting an influx of artistic tenants.
Written, produced, and directed by Charles Burnett, this slice-of-life drama was, for a long time, impossible to see because the filmmakers didn’t have the music copyright clearances to screen it. It was restored by UCLA, Burnett’s alma mater (he created the film as part of his thesis on a $5,000 budget). After its completion, Burnett won a Guggenheim grant. Killer of Sheep follows a butcher as he goes through the paces of his job and daily life. The film is set in Watts, Los Angeles — the part of LA that would come to prominence in August 1965 due to the infamous race riots. Killer of Sheep was one of the first 50 films to be inducted by the Library of Congress into their National Film Registry.
Selma director Ava DuVernay was inspired to create Middle of Nowhere after thinking about what life was like for the wives of felons living in Compton. The film follows a woman whose husband is sentenced to jail for eight years. She drops out of med school to take care of him. The film garnered a Best Director award for DuVernay at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Winner of the 1990 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this story of a professional impostor — played by writer-director Wendell Harris Jr. — was based on the real-life story of William Douglas Street Jr., a con man who impersonated everyone from a Yale student to a surgeon (he performed 36 hysterectomies, all successful). Despite the film’s accolades, it was not picked up for distribution after Sundance. Instead, Harris was insulted by talk of a remake, one involving everyone from Sinbad to Arsenio Hall. Chameleon Street is a satire that asks what a black man must do to get ahead.
In some ways, Medicine for Melancholy is an African-American answer to Before Sunrise, in that it follows a day-long, post-coital romance. Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ debut feature film tackles racial integration/miscegenation in modern American society and gentrification in San Francisco.
Written, directed, and produced by the pioneering Oscar Micheaux — who is widely considered to be the first major African-American filmmaker — Within Our Gates is a sophisticated romantic drama made five years after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s considered by many to be a corrective to Griffith’s film, in that it shows the violence that accompanied the resurgence of the KKK, particularly during the scenes where Micheaux portrays a lynching and attempted rape. The film preaches racial tolerance and co-existence as a protest to Jim Crow legally enforced segregation and disenfranchisement.
Richard E. Norman’s post-World War I black-and-white silent boasted “an all-colored cast.” It was also made by a white filmmaker. The Flying Ace follows a decorated fighter pilot who returns home from the war and resumes his position as a railroad company detective. The character is supposedly based on Bessie Coleman, the black female American fighter pilot (though its protagonist is a man). Norman’s production studio was one of the rare companies making silents with all-African-American casts — and not simply for the money. The Flying Ace was a milestone in that it helped contemporary audiences to see how capable real black actors are in so-called “race films.”
Cornbread, Earl and Me was the second feature for director Joseph Manduke, based on Ronald Fair’s novel Hog Butcher. The story follows the aftermath of an accidental shooting. A 12-year-old boy, the first in his neighborhood to receive an athletic scholarship, is gunned down after being confused for a wanted criminal. Look for a young Laurence Fishburne.
This short film made by a British filmmaker and distributed by the British Film Institute mixes dramatic reenactments with documentary footage set during the Harlem Renaissance. The film is about the gay African-American experience, using Langston Hughes’ life as symbol of insularity, even within the black community. Hughes’ estate tried to stop the film from being release on ground of copyright violation (surrounding the use of Hughes’ poems), but Looking for Langston became the winner of the Teddy Award, an LGBT-specific prize, for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989.
This 1989 documentary focuses on the marginalized nature of the black gay community and how its members define themselves against the white gay community and black straight community. Tongues Untied was controversial when it screened on PBS as part of their P.O.V. series. The film was famously used by Pat Buchanan to accuse President George H.W. Bush and the National Endowment of the Arts of funding “pornographic art,” due to the film’s frank portrayal of nude men engaged in sexual acts.
The Story of a Three-Day Pass is writer-director Melvin Van Peebles’ debut feature and an adaptation of his own novel, La Permission. Made in 1967 and inspired by French New Wave filmmakers, the movie follows a black army man with a three-day service pass in Paris. While on leave, he shares a romance with a white woman — and the film explores the character’s ensuing guilt and the complexities of a mixed-race relationship during the time period.
New Jack City is the debut feature of Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son. Made in 1991 and starring Ice-T and Wesley Snipes, the latter of whom had broken out in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues a year before, New Jack City follows the rise and fall of a drug crime lord — based roughly on Detroit crime bosses like the Chamber Brothers. The film became the biggest independently financed movie of the year.
Julie Dash’s 1991 drama was the first theatrically released independent feature directed by an African-American woman. Set in turn-of-the-century South Carolina, the film follows three generations of women as they prepare to move north. The movie was chosen by the Library of Congress to be part of National Film Registry.
Kasi Lemmons’ lauded debut feature is set in the ’60s and stars Samuel L. Jackson as an adulterous doctor whose infidelity is witnessed by his daughter. The film explores how his reputation is ruined based on gossip caused by Eve’s traumatized testimony. Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1997, stating: “If it is not nominated for Academy Awards, then the academy is not paying attention.” Sadly, Titanic swept the Oscars that year.
Written, directed, and starring Cheryl Dunye, this 1996 drama centers on a black lesbian played by the filmmaker. It was the first feature film directed by an openly gay black woman. The Watermelon Woman delves into the parallels between mixed-race lesbian couples then and now, and asks how much has really changed.
Written and directed by documentarian William Greaves — and produced by his own company in 1968 — Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One earned a cult reputation after initially showing exclusively in museums and during film festivals. Almost 35 years later, a semi-sequel project entitled Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2 finally brought Greaves’ original movie back to prominence. In Take One, Greaves auditioned acting students for a fictional drama (called Over the Cliff), while simultaneously shooting the camera crew that was filming the audition, and then filming those filmmakers with a third camera crew.
Written and directed in 1973 by Bill Gunn, who previously worked as a screenwriter on such films as The Landlord and The Angel Levine, Ganja & Hess stars Night of the Living Dead lead Duane Jones as an archaeologist who turns into a vampire after being stabbed by his assistant (Gunn). He falls in love with his assistant’s wife, Ganja. Artistically captured, innovative, and with a psychedelic edge, Ganja & Hess was recently remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Written and directed by Kathleen Collins in 1982, Losing Ground “is one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman and a groundbreaking romance exploring women’s sexuality, modern marriage, and the life of artists and scholars.”
This 1981 drama is credited as the first movie independently financed and directed by an African-American woman, writer-director Jessie Maple. The director was the first African-American woman inducted in New York’s camera operators union. Will was an attempt to show what life in ’80s Harlem was like without sensationalism — in this case, through the story of a basketball coach trying to kick a drug habit.
Madeline Anderson’s 1969 documentary short captured 400 African-American South Carolina nurses as they stumped for a wage increase. Their peaceful protest was met by the National Guard and treated like a riot. Anderson was the first African-American woman to make a half-hour documentary.
The Long Night, Willie King Jr.’s 1976 drama about a boy who spends one night traveling around Harlem, trying to collect $27 he owes his mother, was a big hit among black-centric theater circles and helped found the New Federal Theater in New York in 1970. It was an attempt at showing a realistic portrait of life in contemporary Harlem.
A Dream Is What You Wake Up From
Larry Bullard and Carolyn Johnson’s 1978 documentary short juxtaposes vérité footage and dramatizations of a family doing their daily routines, with voice-over narration of the family members describing their aspirations and beliefs. A Dream Is What You Wake Up From‘s focus is on women and their role in a black family.
Co-directed and co-produced by Camille Billops and James Hatch, her husband, the 1992 doc Finding Christa reunites the filmmaker with her daughter, who was put up for adoption 18 years before filming. Finding Christa “offers another view of the African-American family as seen through the lens of a mother who was criticized for ‘abandoning’ her daughter and pursuing her career in art and a new life with her husband, who is not Christa’s father.” The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Camille Billops’ documentary portrait from 1982 “profiles a young black woman’s struggle to confront the legacy of a physically abusive father and her headlong flight into drug abuse.”
A 1982 character study about a black Vietnam vet, now disillusioned, Ashes and Embers was a breakthrough film for Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, a founding member of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.
Chicago-based documentarian Yvonne Welbon shares a history of African-American filmmakers in this documentary — part of an ongoing project that includes a website and upcoming book. Welbon was inspired to create Sisters in Cinema by her lack of knowledge of other African-American filmmakers.
A breakthrough film for director Carl Franklin, who would go on to direct Devil in a Blue Dress and episodes of House of Cards, One False Move was Gene Siskel’s favorite film of 1992, and was thankfully rescued from a straight-to-video release by advance praise. Produced by the same folks who brought us Eraserhead and Rubin and Ed, the thriller (starring Bill Paxton) follows a drug deal gone bad and the police who investigate it.
Actor-playwright Ossie Davis’ second directorial effort after the smash hit Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) centers on a young woman who wants to pursue a career as a dancer, but is pressured not to by her family. Based on J.E. Franklin’s play of the same name, Black Girl has been compared to A Raisin in the Sun.
A debut work from writer-director Rodney Evans, Anthony Mackie stars in Brother to Brother as an art student who befriends a homeless man. The stranger shares his life story as someone who struggled as a black gay writer during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Brother to Brother won the Special Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance in 2004.
Through a Lens Darkly is based on Deborah Willis’ book Reflections in Black. The doc focuses on representations of blackness through photography by white and black photographers, and how black subjects were given voices by black photographers. The film features interview footage from pioneering filmmaker/photographer Gordon Parks and photographer Carrie Mae Weems.
Pariah is a celebrated lesbian coming-of-age story written and directed by Dee Rees. It started life as a much-buzzed-about title from the Sundance Film Festival, though it only won the Excellence in Cinematography prize there. An aspiring teen poet (Adepero Oduye, in a breakout role) must decide if she should stay with her disapproving family and continue to internalize her feelings of sexual guilt, or leave home and start over.
Written, produced, and directed by Jamaa Fanaka, Penitentiary is about a black man falsely accused of murder who must survive in prison. A 1979 blaxploitation film that is a semi-serious attempt at showing what life behind bars was like, Penitentiary was made with grant money during Fanaka’s time at UCLA and was produced by the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers/LA Rebellion. The group is most famously associated with filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Larry Clark.
A breakthrough film for co-writer/director team the Hughes brothers (Albert and Allen Hughes), Menace II Society is a portrait of life in a ghetto and two young men who try to escape a sure path to prison. Tupac was initially cast in the role of Sharif (which went to Vonte Sweet), but the rapper famously got into a fight with Allen Hughes and was imprisoned for assault. Menace II Society was the City of God of its day, but set in South Central LA. The film managed to evade an NC-17 rating due to its extreme, sensationalized violence.
The debut feature of writer, director, producer, and editor Dennis Dortch, A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy fights stereotypes about sexually active African-American characters through stories told in six narrative episodes.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s debut feature was produced by Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company. The romantic drama about two childhood friends/rivals who bond over a mutual love of basketball and their parents’ proximity starred Sanaa Lathan, who was cast partly because she could play basketball, one of the requirements for producer Lee. Prince-Bythewood cut her teeth prior to this as a writer on TV shows like South Central and A Different World.
Yelling to the Sky was American Horror Story star Gabourey Sidibe’s second role as an actress. She plays a school bully who antagonizes Zoë Kravitz’s character — who has to fend for herself against a distant, traumatized mother and violent father. Writer-director Victoria Mahoney’s movie was nominated for the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011.
Stanley Nelson’s 2010 documentary about the freedom riders busing movement includes interviews with several original freedom riders and won three Primetime Emmy Awards.
Terence Nance’s experimental narrative asks how much of our identities are defined by our experiences. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty includes animated segments to tell its metaphysical romantic-comedy tale: Guy gets stood up by girl, wonders why it upsets him, and makes a movie to explain to her how he feels. The film features music by trip-hop guru Flying Lotus.
Michael Roemer’s 1964 drama follows a couple from different social backgrounds in the racist contemporary South. Nothing But a Man was awarded the San Giorgio Prize at Venice Film Festival, a prize that honors “films considered especially important for the progress of civilization.”
Anthony Mackie stars in Tanya Hamilton’s directorial debut as an ex-Black Panther, Marcus, who returns home from jail and is confronted with an unfriendly, unfamiliar neighborhood. He unites with Kerry Washington’s character, Patricia, the widow of Mackie’s former best friend and a fellow Panther. But while Patricia’s neighbors think that Marcus snitched on her dead husband, Patricia is actually responsible for informing on her spouse. A complicated romance forms between them. The film’s narrative is a variation on the standard blaxploitation film’s concern with the future of an all-black community that lacks strong male leadership.
A Spinal Tap-inspired mockumentary about the sad state of hip hop and rap, Fear of a Black hat parodies groups like NWA and Public Enemy with juvenile aplomb (one DJ uses his genitals to scratch records). The film was directed by Rusty Cundieff, who also shot the Spike Lee-produced Tales From the Hood horror anthology.
Dwayne Buckle’s indie comedy The Minority centers on a black man who has never experienced racial prejudice, but then finds himself at the brunt end of it from everyone, including a co-worker and the police. Racial tension surrounds him until he meets and captures a serial killer and is treated like a hero. Buckle’s comedy questions the value of passively integrating in a deceptively hostile white-dominated society.
The indie filmmaking team at Troma released this 1990 horror film written, directed, and starring James Bond III (of School Daze fame). A tongue-in-cheek tale, Def by Temptation fights one stereotype with another — the monstrous, gold-digging woman vs. the sexually fixated black man. Look for Samuel L. Jackson as an exorcising minister.
Black Devil Doll From Hell is one of only two films written, directed, produced, edited, and with sound effects by Chicago-based filmmaker Chester Novell Turner (who was believed to be dead for a while). It’s easily the most memorable blaxploitation horror film, thanks to its DIY charm and perverse premise involving a weed-smoking puppet.
Widely considered to be the proto-blaxploitation film, writer-director Melvin Van Peebles’ urban allegory mythologizes a nigh-archetypal black hero on a journey away from white oppression (scored by Earth, Wind & Fire). Van Peebles was a one-man band of independent cinema. With Sweet Sweetback, he did his own stunt work, unsimulated sex scenes, and editing, as well as producing the film. The filmmaker would later resent being associated with blaxploitation films like Superfly since his movies pointedly avoided stereotypes. But Sweet Sweetback is important for how its financial success led to the understanding that movies about black heroes could make money.
Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary centers on black and Latino subjects during the ’80s drag ball scene in New York City. A portrait of isolated individuals within a community defined by isolation.
A 1941 “race film” written and directed by Spencer Williams (the Andy of Amos ‘n Andy, the TV show), who also starred, The Blood of Jesus is a passion play from an African-American perspective. “Filmed on a ridiculously low budget of $5,000, it was widely popular among black audiences of its era. The film was unknown to white audiences until many years after its first release, but today it is widely considered to be among the most important of its genre,” writes Film Threat.
A documentary about the history of blaxploitation films, BaadAsssss Cinema features interviews with critic Elvis Mitchell, actress Pam Grier, author bell hooks, film critic Armond White, and actor Fred Williamson, amongst others. The film was commissioned by IFC as part of their blaxploitation month of programming.
Critic A.O. Scott on Patrik-Ian Polk’s Punks:
The tender, sexually charged friendship that develops between Marcus and Darby, who appears to be straight, provides Punks with its best and most surprising moments. Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Dunbar convey the erotic subtext of their characters’ relationship without overemphasizing it. Their acting has a relaxed, intuitive rhythm that cuts through the carnival of mannerisms that sometimes surrounds them. Mr. Polk, who wrote and directed, presents his characters’ lives with such matter-of-fact affection that you almost forget how rarely the lives of gay black men have been presented sympathetically on screen.
Fruitvale Station was a Sundance breakout hit for first-time director-writer Ryan Coogler. Winner of the 2014 Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the festival, Fruitvale Station dramatizes the events that led to the brutal killing of Oscar Grant by a San Francisco BART police officer on New Year’s Eve in 2009. The film’s message that black lives matter is a sentiment that still needs repeating, if recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City are any indication.