Here are a few of our favourite movies by Black filmmakers, including several Canadian titles, to add to your watchlist
As protestors across the U.S. and Canada hit the streets to demand an end to police brutality and anti-Black racism, there’s been a surge in interest in books and films by Black authors and artists, as well as works that specifically tackle racism. In response, streaming platform Criterion Channel and VOD service Cineplex have made films by Black director or about Black subjects available for free. Here are a few of our favourite movies by Black filmmakers, including several Canadian titles, that you should add to your watchlist.
(Director X., 2015)
X.’s first feature stars Scarborough’s own Stephan James as a hockey prodigy (Stephan James) who finds his prospects jeopardized by the drag of his older brother (Shamier Anderson, James’s real-life older sibling)… and by the racial tensions simmering at his high school. It’s not a new story, but James’s magnetic performance and X.’s eye for detail bring it to vivid life. This movie isn’t interested in playing down its uglier aspects in order to draw a mass audience. It just shows us the world in which these characters are trapped, and leaves us there with them. Norman Wilner
(Cory Bowles, 2017)
Expanded by writer/director Bowles from his 2016 short, this clenched, nervy drama is just as relevant – and just as angry – as it was when it first premiered. Star Trek: Discovery’s Ronnie Rowe Jr. is terrific as the unnamed protagonist, a beat cop in an East Coast city who impulsively spends a day treating white civilians the way white cops treat Black people: with unnecessary hostility, physical threats and even violence. Rowe’s mercurial performance brings an edge to the character’s most innocuous interactions, while Bowles shoots the action from multiple angles and scores the film with furious hip-hop and angry talk-radio callers to create a sense of the conversation unfolding in the background. But the movie’s most daring creative decision is to risk dividing audiences by arguing that there’s really only one side to this issue. NW
(Julie Dash, 1991)
Set in the Gullah community of the coast of South Carolina in 1902, where a family assembles to bid farewell to one of their own, Dash’s gorgeous, dreamlike drama spent almost a quarter of a century in limbo before Beyoncé and director Melina Matsoukas referenced its evocative imagery for the Lemonade visual album. The resulting attention gave Daughters Of The Dust the chance to claim the cultural status it always deserved, and for a new generation to discover Dash’s meditation on how the scars of slavery stretch across the African diaspora. NW
Available to stream on Netflix and the Criterion Channel.
(Sudz Sutherland, 2003)
Structurally speaking, Sutherland’s first feature is a pretty standard romantic comedy about a flawed but essentially decent guy (Hill Harper) who falls for a terrific woman (Marlyne Afflack), only to find their happiness undermined by his own neuroses. But the world Sutherland constructs around his characters is remarkably specific and authentic, capturing a sense of multicultural Toronto at the turn of the millennium. And yes, that’s Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson as Harper’s good-natured white buddy who tries a little too hard to fit in – which I’m sure is Sutherland’s reversal of the “one black friend” sitcom trope. NW
(Charles Officer, 2008)
Officer’s stylized character study follows three characters – played by Karen LeBlanc, Clark Johnson and Daniel J. Gordon – as they cope with isolation and illness and slowly form a bond. Visually striking and emotionally delicate, it’s a movie more interested in simple truths than complex plotting. And the actors are more than capable of delivering those truths: LeBlanc (ReGenesis, Cracked) is positively magnetic and Johnson (Homicide: Life On The Street) gives one of the best performances of his long career. Officer spent the subsequent decade working in television and documentaries, making the stirring Toronto studies Unarmed Verses and The Skin We’re In as well as the lyrical Little Prince exploration Invisible Essence, but we still hold out hope he’ll make another feature. Watch this, and you will too. NW
Available for rental and purchase on iTunes.
(Carl Franklin, 1992)
Franklin spent decades as a character actor before getting behind the camera for a couple of forgettable straight-to-video pictures. One False Move was supposed to be his third, except that it turned out to be a key film in the American neo-noir wave: a perfectly calibrated thriller about a group of thieves (Michael Beach, Cynda Williams and some unknown screenwriter named Billy Bob Thornton) on a collision course with a small-town Arkansas sheriff (Bill Paxton). You can watch it for the masterful suspense and sharp characterization – the first sign that Thornton and his writing partner Tom Epperson were destined for greatness – or you can look a little deeper and see the potent knots of race and class twining through the narrative. Franklin would explore similar threads three years later with his exquisite adaptation of Devil In A Blue Dress, but you’ve probably seen that movie already. Catch up to this one. NW
(Stella Meghie, 2020)
Canadian writer/director Meghie’s lushly realized romance stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield as two New Yorkers who fall for each other just as their lives slip into separate upheavals – she’s just lost her mother, and he’s contemplating a move to London. A moody, beautiful film that slips back and forth in time to craft a thoughtful story about the way children’s lives contrast with their parents’, The Photograph has the vibe of an independent movie while taking full advantage of its studio trappings. And Meghie takes full advantage of Rae and Stanfield’s amazing chemistry, too. NW
(Clement Virgo, 1997)
With his short film Save My Lost Nigga Soul and his first feature Rude, Clement Virgo made a name for himself as a transgressive, confrontational Toronto filmmaker. So it came as quite a surprise when he announced his next project would be a CBC adaptation of Virginia Hamilton’s young-adult novel about a piano prodigy (Martin Villafana) growing up in the inner city. The resulting movie – co-adapted by Virgo and then-NOW film writer Cameron Bailey – is one of Virgo’s best, an empathetic drama in which the hero’s racialized status is always just beneath the surface. NW
(Ernest Dickerson, 1994)
Dickerson was already an acclaimed cinematographer before he turned to directing, having given Spike Lee’s first six features their vibrant, distinctive look. As a director, he revealed a deep love of genre, investing action-comedies, thrillers and horror movies with a sense of self-aware fun. (Check out Tales From The Crypt Presents Demon Knight sometime.) This one – a riff on The Most Dangerous Game that casts Ice-T as a homeless man who turns the tables on the cabal of wealthy white sadists who’ve decided to hunt him for sport – finds Dickerson serving up some barbed social commentary amidst all the chasing and bleeding. A quarter of a century later, most of it still lands. NW
(George Tillman, Jr., 2018)
With its allusions to Black Lives Matter, subtle white racism, police brutality and Tupac’s THUG LIFE tattoo and activism, Angie Thomas’s YA novel feels as timely today as it did three years ago when it was published. The film version catches much of its power. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a young Black girl who finds herself the sole eyewitness in the police shooting of her childhood sweetheart (Algee Smith). She’s unsure whether she should reveal her identity and testify against the white cop or stay silent. Things are complicated by the fact that the local drug lord – who’s also her half-brother’s father – wants her hushed, and her privileged white friends at school have wild misconceptions about the crime.
Screenwriter Audrey Wells and director George Tillman, Jr. struggle to fit all the novel’s strands into the film, resulting in some underdeveloped characters and an overly lengthy running time. But Tillman, Jr. handles key scenes – including the shooting and other examples of police brutality – effectively, contrasting them with inspired bits of comic relief. And he gets solid work from the cast, especially the charismatic Smith, Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby as Starr’s supportive parents and Stenberg, whose transition from conflicted girl to angry and empowered activist is thrilling to watch. Glenn Sumi