The year in film from Black filmmakers

“From ‘One Night in Miami” to “Miss Juneteenth,” it has been a noteworthy year.
This image released by Amazon Studios shows, from right, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge in a scene from "One Night in Miami."
This image released by Amazon Studios shows, from right, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge in a scene from "One Night in Miami." [ PATTI PERRET | AP ]
Published Feb. 5, 2021

Though the Golden Globe nominations announced earlier this week would suggest otherwise, it has been a remarkable year in cinema for Black filmmakers. And when I say “year” I’m extending that time frame into this month, when some additional and noteworthy awards contenders are getting a release.

The first thing you notice is the variety: From Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (adapted from the August Wilson stage play that takes place during a 1920s blues recording session) to Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee’s mediation on the American war in Vietnam) to Jingle Jangle (a Christmas movie centering Black characters set in Victorian England). The first two feature the final performances of Chadwick Boseman, and all three are available on Netflix.

There’s also the animated feature Soul on Disney+. And over on Amazon you can watch One Night in Miami (an imagined confab between singer Sam Cooke, the boxer then known as Cassius Clay, football player Jim Brown and activist Malcolm X) as well as Steve McQueen’s five Small Axe films (about the lives of London’s West Indian community) and the romance period piece Sylvie’s Love.

This image released by Disney-Pixar shows the character Joe Gardner, voiced by  Jamie Foxx, left, and Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett, in a scene from the animated film "Soul."
This image released by Disney-Pixar shows the character Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, left, and Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett, in a scene from the animated film "Soul." [ Disney Pixar ]

Next week on HBO Max comes Judas and the Black Messiah (the story of Chicago’s chapter of the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton’s murder), and later this month Hulu will premiere The United States vs. Billie Holiday (about the undercover sting operation targeting the famed singer).

Almost all of these movies are set in the past. I asked freelance critic Valerie Complex why she thinks these films get greenlit more than others. “I just don’t think people want to deal with what’s going on right now. That’s the simple answer.”

Robert Daniels, who also works as a freelance critic, has a theory as well: “When it comes to the major studio prestige stuff, it seems like they try to stay away from contemporary introspection as much as possible. White people are very good at calling out obvious racism and stories set in the past, which allows that comfort and that terra firma to talk about race.”

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There are three more films that came out this year — smaller films — that captured my imagination and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that each is a contemporary story with women at the forefront. Each is also from a Black female writer-director:

  • Radha Blank’s The 40-year-Old Version (which will speak to anyone with an interest in hip-hop music and/or theater; it’s very funny and one of my favorites of the year, available on Netflix)
  • Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth (about a young mother’s single-minded quest to see her teenage daughter win the pageant of the film’s title; you can rent it on Amazon)
  • Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades (about the high-pressure world of teenage factions and cliques at a fancy prep school; free to subscribers on Amazon Prime).

“Films about revolutions and movements are great and needed, but I think there’s been quite a bit of low-stakes Black cinema that’s come out lately that’s been quite refreshing,” said Complex. “It allows people to just sort of live normal lives without race necessarily being a factor — or it being one of the factors but not the main factor. And it’s a huge sigh of relief that I don’t have to gear up and protect myself from something that’s going to happen on screen.”

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These three films in particular are stories told in close-up, stories that feel meaningful and personal and intimate.

But let me step back and let some of the sharpest Black critics working today offer their insights.

Here’s freelance TV and film journalist Candice Frederick on Sylvie’s Love, starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha:

“One of the many things that stood out to me is what it isn’t — when I watched the film, I kind of went in bracing myself for trauma that never occurred — but what also stood out for me are all of the things that it is: Black joy and Black love. And not just love for someone else, but love for yourself. This is a young Black woman in the late 1950s and early ’60s and it’s really a film about her chasing her own desires, professionally as well as personally. That’s not something we see very often, certainly not set in that era. It is so beautifully shot and aesthetically pleasing on so many levels, I thought it was just very charming. It doesn’t tick some of the boxes people expect, like ‘What is it like to be a Black woman in Harlem in that time period?’ Those specificities are present, they’re just not overt, and the overt nature is what we’re so used to.”

Costar Asomugha (in his first major role to gain wide notice since retiring from the NFL; he is married to Kerry Washington) has talked about some of the roadblocks they encountered “just trying to get the film made and going through this process of going to studios and financiers and having everyone say that they don’t believe in it because they don’t believe there’s an audience for this film.”

The Help from 2011 is more in line with the types of movies Hollywood is typically inclined to make that center the stories of Black people during this period. “They would make 25 more versions of The Help before they do another Sylvie’s Love,” said Frederick.

A movie like Miss Juneteenth, with its Fort Worth, Texas setting of dusty roads and perspiration, works in contrast to Sylvie’s Love, with its cosmopolitan New York setting and production values of a glossy big studio production. But they have parallel themes, of young mothers figuring out their ambitions in life, and where a man may or may not fit in with that.

Here’s Complex talking about Miss Juneteenth, starring Nicole Beharie:

“I love that it’s just low-stakes and it avoids tropes. If you took this Black family and replaced them with a white family, this movie would be getting all kinds of recognition — and we’ve seen those types of movies with white folks over and over. But ‘Miss Juneteenth’ is something special because it’s a Black woman; she exists inside this impoverished, broken system, but you can tell that’s there, the movie doesn’t need to spell it out or harp on it. I remember I saw the film at Sundance and one of the things I heard a lot when people were coming out of the theater was, ‘Ah man, that was too slow.’ And I was thinking, there were a whole bunch of other films that were too slow that you said you liked, so I’m not really sure what that means.” Or put another way: Struggle — which is very real in this story — does not have to translate into on-screen trauma.

Here’s Daniels on One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King:

“Kemp Powers wrote it (Powers is also the co-writer and co-director on Soul) and what I love about this film, what he gets so right, is that it’s basically an extended barbershop scene. It’s these four men having these very frank but loving conversations about the advancement of Black people. But it’s also about how much they care about each other. And for me, it was just so refreshing to see Black politics talked about without Black bodily trauma. And for it be done so irreverently, so hilariously — there are some killer one-liners in this film — and the four leads, they’re so tight knit and have such great chemistry on screen. King’s direction is really good and probably isn’t getting as much publicity because it’s not flashy, but she knows the strength of her film, which is the dialogue and these actors.”

And here’s Complex on Selah and the Spades:

“I really liked this movie because we are seeing a side of high school life with a character you don’t normally see. There’s a little noir mixed in with a coming-of-age story. I like what it represents from a creative standpoint. And from a no-trauma standpoint.”

It’s also notable that director Poe cast Lovie Simone, an actor with darker skin, in the title role. Colorism remains an ongoing, frequently unaddressed problem in Hollywood, where all too often it is female actors with lighter skin who are cast in starring roles. Here’s how Frederick put it: “I think it’s refreshing to see a dark skinned Black woman in a villainous role that actually has depth and complexity, rather than being the sidekick with an attitude problem.”

Looking at the breadth of genres represented in the last year or so, “I feel like that’s how it should be, and then add some more on top of that, " said Soraya Nadia McDonald, a Pulitzer finalist last year and the culture critic for The Undefeated. “2020 was actually a weirdly good year for film overall, which is kind of strange considering the fact that movie theaters have been shuttered. But the silver lining to that is that you have these smaller films that haven’t been drowned out by bigger releases.”

Something she’s been thinking about: “What does the future hold for these directors like Tayarisha Poe and Radha Blank and Channing Godfrey Peoples? You’re sort of holding your breath, hoping it won’t be years before these women have the opportunity to make their next film — that they will be able to progress in their careers, and it’s a cliché at this point to mention someone like Colin Trevorrow (after the release of his indie “Safety Not Guaranteed,” he was hired to write and direct Jurassic World) and I don’t necessarily mean they need to go to a blockbuster, but they should have opportunities lined up for them.”

Both Peoples and Poe have development deals to adapt their films into TV series. I have no doubt they’re interested in exploring these characters more deeply, but I also hope they’re not being pigeonholed by executives who might be thinking: We liked your movie and want more of that, but we’re less inclined to give you money and support for a brand new story about something completely different.

Some Black filmmakers these critics recommend keeping an eye out for in the coming year:

  • Janicza Bravo: The director and co-writer of Zola, which is based on a epic Twitter thread about a Black woman from Detroit who finds herself in the company of some dubious characters during a spontaneous trip to Florida. (The film’s release was delayed due to COVID and is currently slated for June 30.)
  • Nia DaCosta: Director and co-writer of the forthcoming Candyman film (which was shot in Chicago; it also had its release delayed and is currently set to open in theaters in August.)
  • Shatara Michelle Ford: The writer-director of Test Pattern (which will have a PVOD release on the 19th), a film that is part psychological horror, part realist drama about an interracial relationship (she’s Black, he’s white) in the wake of a sexual assault.
  • Numa Perrier: The writer and director of the semi-autobiographical film Jezebel, about a 19-year-old Black woman who starts working as a cam girl. (Available on Netflix)