Julie Dash launched her career with the widely acclaimed “Daughters of the Dust” in 1991 and has only made one movie since. Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” made a huge splash in 1978 but he has struggled to complete a handful of features since then.
Dash’s lyrical fable and Burnett’s tough-minded drama are nothing alike, but they do have one thing in common: Both overlooked filmmakers are Black.
Even getting their debut features into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, which lists just 775 movies of historic and artistic importance, hasn’t made it easier for those two in Hollywood, and they’re not alone. Only in the past few years have directors such as Regina King (“One Night in Miami,” in theaters now and streaming Friday), Barry Jenkins (the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and others begun to chip away at inequities demonstrated by a 2019 study that found that only 6% of the movies in the previous 12 years were directed by Black artists. (Sixteen of 2018’s top 100 films were made by Black directors, a high-water mark that doubled the previous peak.)
In other words, it has never been easy for a Black artist to make a career as a director in Hollywood. If their name wasn’t Spike Lee, it was impossible until quite recently — and if the filmmaker was a woman, the situation was even worse. Of the 1,200 movies included in the study, five were made by Black women.
That lack of representation hurts artists, obviously, but movie fans are also missing out on the stories that they could tell. In more than 50 years on screen, Morgan Freeman said he’s only played a couple of love scenes. Where is Viola Davis’ romcom? Burnett hasn’t made a feature in 14 years (although he’s currently at work on a doc called “After the Lockdown: Black in L.A.”). And the idea of a Black James Bond such as Idris Elba or Rege-Jean Page remains controversial.
We’ll never know what Dash would have produced if she’d been able to make features instead of shifting to commercials that paid the bills. What we do know is that against the odds, Black directors have produced many singular works, way too many to note in this space. In addition to those named above, here are seven greats worth getting your hands on.
‘Fruitvale Station’ (2013)
Ryan Coogler has made three features, all starring Michael B. Jordan and all landmarks (the others are “Black Panther” and the terrific “Rocky” sequel “Creed”). His toughest and most political work, this Sundance award winner finds a measure of hope in the fact-based, sickeningly suspenseful account of the last day of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by police at an Oakland light-rail station in the first hours of 2009.
‘Eve’s Bayou’ (1997)
Another entry in the National Film Registry, “Eve’s Bayou” introduced moviegoers to Jurnee Smollett, who was 10 when she made it and most recently starred in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” Kasi Lemmons’ supernatural-tinged family drama uses its bayou setting to bring a mythic quality to the story of Eve, whose child’s view of the world is shattered by a series of confusing events. The standout cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Diahann Carroll, Debbi Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Penumbra Theatre artist Roger Guenveur Smith and Branford Marsalis.
If anything, Ava DuVernay’s nonfiction movie, which can be viewed for free on YouTube, is more relevant now than when it was released. Named for the amendment that abolished slavery, it contends that slavery has continued to flourish in the form of the prison system, which disproportionately punishes Black Americans and allows for a newer form of involuntary servitude.
‘Lovers Rock’ (2020)
Is “Small Axe,” Steve McQueen’s five-part project for Amazon, a quintet of movies or a TV series? I lean toward the former, since the parts are separate stories, but let’s just call it “great.” The best is this ecstatic romance, nearly all of which takes place at a 1980 house party where Black Brits dance, eat, sing “Silly Games” and smooch. It’s one of last year’s sexiest movies, and particularly in a scene choreographed to “Kung Fu Fighting,” one of its most joyful.
‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991)
One way to gauge the impact of a movie: Virtually everyone involved in it ended up becoming a star, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett, Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Regina King, Nia Long and writer/director John Singleton. The late Singleton’s first film, a riveting drama about the toll racism takes on a Los Angeles community, also made him the first Black person nominated for the best director Oscar.
‘I Like It Like That’ (1994)
A vibrant debut like this romantic comedy/drama would usually lead to conquering the movie business, but Darnell Martin has made just three features since becoming the first female African American director ever hired by a studio. That could be her choice — she’s been incredibly successful directing TV, including “Law and Order” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” — but the movies could use more of the fresh, quirky energy she gave the tale of Lisette (the extraordinary Lauren Velez), who realizes she must take the reins of her struggling family.
‘Tongues Untied’ (1989)
Google “gay Black filmmaker” and you get Marlon Riggs. The late writer/director was way ahead of his time in depicting the racism and homophobia that affect Black men who love each other. “Tongues Untied” is a poetic essay that uses literary and conversational excerpts as a free-flowing kind of narration. It’s a documentary, if you need to classify it, and Riggs’ experimental moviemaking has heavily influenced later works such as the Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” and even Blood Orange’s song “With Him.”
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