Of the many realizations the U.S. has had in 2020, the past few weeks have highlighted how marginalized some voices can be, and have been for many years. Incidents of police violence against black people have become so prevalent, that the same incidents are often used as punchlines in TV and movies as a way of defanging the gross reality.
The beauty of film, or any art form for that matter, is that it can give the viewer a new perspective they normally don't get. I know that's what exposure to movies like the ones listed below did for me. I can't speak for anyone else's experiences, but as a caucasoid film dork, I can recommend movies that spotlight black voices and don't get much of that previously mentioned spotlight.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover brought us this 2011 documentary broken up into nine chapters. Thanks to 16-mm footage captured by Swedish filmmakers who traveled abroad to document the Black Power Movement, Olsson's film provides us with footage of key figures Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver at their least reticent and more intimate. This is a raw time capsule piece that should be a relic but unfortunately isn't.
Sorry to Bother You
Two years ago, Boots Riley, the man who co-founded one of rap's most underrated acts, The Coup, made a sensation at Sundance with this slice of whoknowswhat. When Riley's weirdness finally made its way to us normies, it made an $18-million splash and went away pretty quickly. While the story of a telemarketer Cassius Green (Get Out's Lakeith Stanfield) adopting a white voice is already bizarre, that only skims the surface of what Riley has in store for the audience. Much like his musical output, Riley's satire wears its political beliefs on its psychedelic sleeve. It's a breath of fresh, cynical air.
Da 5 Bloods
Speaking of directors who proudly wear their beliefs on their sleeve, Spike Lee has become the embodiment of such. This space could be used to mention the race relations drama Do the Right Thing, the epic biopic Malcolm X or the 20-year-old satire Bamboozled. I could mention those but instead I'll mention Lee's latest film, Da 5 Bloods. On its face, it's a tale about four Vietnam veterans (Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters) trying to reclaim their commander's remains and a buried treasure. Underneath, like many of Lee's works, it's amazingly (and depressingly) timely with many of his signature moves that delve into current political tensions. It's also one of his best.
If you weren't a zygote in 1989, you may recall Batman shirts as far as the eye could see or maybe even Marty McFly going Back to the Future again. In the midst of all the summer sequel hullabaloo, little movies popped in video stores and art house theaters. Little movies like Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories. In his debut film, Lane's story takes its inspiration from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. In this iteration of the classic silent film, a homeless street artist (Lane) becomes a guardian to a little girl after her father is murdered. Like Chaplin's film, it's equal parts comedy and drama. It's also in black and white and nearly silent for the duration. As unappealing as it may sound, considering the ADD world we live in, Sidewalk Stories is engaging and quickly sweeps you up in its tale. It's the definition of an undiscovered gem.
On the subject of undiscovered gems, the reason Franco Rosso's 1980 film isn't as well known has more to do with the controversy it courted upon its release in the U.K., being seen as a movie "likely to incite racial tension" when, in reality, it's essentially a British Mean Streets that speaks just as loudly today as it did then. The story is about a young dancehall DJ named Blue (played by Aswad frontman Brinsley Forde ) pursuing his musical passion in South London while trying to traverse rampant xenophobia, the National Front and police brutality prevalent during the Margaret Thatcher years. Forty years later and an ocean removed, it's a shockingly relevant film that captures violence born from frustration and the power of rebel music.
While Babylon brings barely-fictional chaos, Ava DuVernay's documentary brings a deceptive stillness, taking an exacto knife to the 13th Ammendment ("Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.") From the outset, it starts with prison stats, then follows the history of slavery and racist legislation post Civil War that created the racial inequality we see today. The film argues that mass incarceration is basically a coded form of slavery. By its close, the film has succeeded in calmly and succinctly stating its case, however exhausting it may be.