Recommendations for Black Cinema

June 11, 2020

Our current moment has seen a swell of self-reflection and education. In both our art house cinema and nonfiction film festival, Ragtag Film Society is committed to highlighting and interrogating the role of film in shaping our understandings of our world and each other. As history may or may not repeat itself, it is sure that cinema’s form and function does not. The following titles span a century of struggle against the state for black liberation in America, and represent a wreckoning with both history and filmmaking as an artform.

    While Black Lives Matter was formed as a rallying cry following the murder of Trayvon Martin, the movement became internationally recognized in the face of the staggering repression dealt by the police and Missouri National Guard in response to the Ferguson Uprising. Whose Streets?, comprised of local voices and primary-source footage, situates itself on the ground during the uprising and interrogates the relationship between the black community and an increasingly militarized and dehumanized police presence. 2013’s Let the Fire Burn, similarly built exclusively on primary-source footage, proves that coordinated, state-sanctioned violence isn’t without precedent as the film details the 1985 standoff that concluded with the firing of more than 10,000 rounds of police ammunition and the literal bombing of a residential block in Philadelphia. Both of these titles serve to create historic documents of place and time. 

    Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, however, exists in the realm of the personal, and sets its historic and narrative frame much wider, as it crafts a sweeping vision of the black experience in America. Peck utilizes the unfinished writings of James Baldwin to make his own statement on the progression of black liberation over more than 50 years. The filmmaker, here, gives himself a voice— and renders an emotional and highly personal experience. Seemingly contradictory, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, formally, is a non-linear, avant-garde, non-fiction feature about a black community in the American South. However, the film manages to evoke similar emotional and highly personal effects, despite shedding nearly every common presumption of what a documentary should be

    Moving beyond the personal: two films, French-New-Wave director, Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers and Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, are obviously the products of outsiders— but they both exercise editorial restraint, allowing black voices to speak for themselves (particularly striking are dialogues from Huey Newton and Angela Davis, respectively), free from interpretation or utilization in the crafting of a story arc.

    Looking to narrative drama, we see two films that directly confront the legacy of racism in the film industry itself. An unfortunate truth in the history of feature filmmaking is the outsized influence of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation— the film that heroicized, and indeed gave way to the rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan. 1920’s Within Our Gates is an all-black production that serves as a direct rebuttal to Griffith’s epic of white supremacy, and tells the tale of self-determination in the face of white terror, and grants its characters with an agency usually stripped from historical subjects. The Watermelon Woman, aside from being the only independent comedy on this list, is a formally-playful, film-within-a-film that dives into the burying of (especially queer) black faces and stories in old-Hollywood.

    Finally, to return to the present, we look to 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which is perhaps made more effective through today’s lens. Remarkably, the discourse surrounding the film may actually say more about America than the film itself. On its release, Do the Right Thing was decried as irresponsible and was pushed to be banned by critics who believed that it would cause black audiences to riot. The film’s conclusion, specifically, still draws criticism and confusion among some white audiences for its moral stance on the destruction of private property. It may be that right now, more than 30 years on, more of America may be ready to place life over a broken window. -Ted Rogers

We present the full list below with where to find each film, as well as six questions to guide your viewing and facilitate thoughtful discussion.

Whose Streets? (2017); Dir. Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis; available on Ragtag Virtual Cinema via Magnolia Pictures until June 30th (Link to Ragtag at Home resource)

I Am Not Your Negro (2016); Dir. Raoul Peck; available on Ragtag Virtual Cinema via Magnolia Pictures until June 30th (Link to Ragtag at Home resource)

Let the Fire Burn (2013); Dir. Jason Osder, available on Kanopy

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018); Dir. RaMell Ross; available for rent or purchase on Vimeo

Black Panthers (1968); Dir. Agnes Varda; available via the Criterion Channel

Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011); Dir. Göran Olsson; available via Prime Video, rental via Google Play.

Within Our Gates (1920); Dir. Oscar Micheaux; available via the Criterion Channel

The Watermelon Woman (1996); Dir. Cheryl Dunye; available via the Criterion Channel, Kanopy.

Do The Right Thing (1989); Dir. Spike Lee; opening at Ragtag Cinema for members June 12, and for general admission June 19.

Discussion Questions to Consider:

  • What does the filmmaker want people to know or remember? How is that communicated in the film?
  • How does the message of the film fit with your lived experience in our community, country, and world? How does it differ?                   
  • What is your reaction to this film and what do you learn about yourself from your reaction or interpretation?
  • Think about a moment or scene in the film that you found particularly moving. What was it about that scene that was especially compelling for you?
  • What did you learn from this film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?
  • What questions do you still have? How will you go about answering them? 

*The above questions were compiled from the following resources: PBS’s POV (Point of View) Media Literacy Questions, AMDOCS, & The Center for Media Literacy’s resource: Media Literacy: Expanded Questions 

Youtube playlist of trailers.