Black Films To Watch (That Aren’t White Savior Narratives)

When looking at Netflix today, Tate Taylor’s popular film The Help (2011) was in the Top 10. To a lot of people this will make sense. It’s a film that multiple age groups have enjoyed and they feel good when they watch it. I’ve seen countless people post the image of Viola Davis comforting the child version of Emma Stone’s character in the film by saying “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” While that is a positive message that everyone can use to boost themselves up, the film is a symptom of a long and tired trope in Hollywood: the white savior film.

In talking about films that deal with race, some of the first films that white people will bring up are films like The Help, Driving Miss Daisy (Beresford, 1989), and now Green Book (Farrelly, 2018). This is very troubling. What these films have in common is their need to share the Black experience through the white perspective. Each of these films has a main character that is white and through their experiences with the Black people in the films, we see them develop and serve as the “woke” white person who no longer sees race as a barrier to friendship. These films continue to be made where white people become friends with Black people IN SPITE of their being black. The incredible actress Viola Davis has even gone on record for saying that Black voices were not heard in The Help. And when you watch that film, it is incredibly true. The focal point in this battle against racism is the white Emma Stone stepping in to help the Black maids who can’t stand up for themselves until she makes it accessible for them.

You might be asking, why is it a bad thing to show friendship between white and Black people? Technically, it’s not. It’s a great thing. We should be seeing all sorts of diverse friendships in film. The problem lies in the filmmaker and the audience members. These films serve as a point of validation for both. Much like the oft-used expression, “I have Black friends, I can’t be racist,” people can justify themselves by saying, “I went and saw Green Book this weekend.” And when they say that phrase, it carries a cache of social ideology, hinting to their friends that they are, in fact, not racist. This theme of overcoming racism to become friendly is such an outdated and frankly offensive message to be sending at this point in US history. With the Black Lives Matter movement being active for such a long time, white audiences need to be seeing Black narratives told from the Black perspective, not a preachy film made by and for white people to make themselves feel better. In understanding these experiences, white audiences will begin to become conscious of the silenced voices that have paved the way for the Black Lives Matter movement, and will get a tiny insight into the Black experience.

For me, film has always been my favorite way to gain insight into a culture. With films made within that culture, you get access to narratives that you don’t get in white cinema, you get music made within the culture, and so much more. For two hours, you are seeing a new perspective. As a white man, it’s very easy for me to see white narratives play out in literally every film that comes to the local movie theatre. That privilege is not given to any other race. People of color are given secondary characters to connect with or one leading actor in a predominantly white cast.

So, with The Help trending on Netflix, I felt the need to highlight some films that feature Black narratives from the Black perspective. If you’re wanting to learn about Black culture, go to the source, not a white-washed Hollywood film that erases the Black voices from the narrative.

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

The importance of this single film cannot be overlooked. The fact that this film is 31 years old and somehow is even more relevant today than it was in the 80s is very telling. The film comments on protesting racism, highlighting the history of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. If you’re going to watch one film to understand the boiling point of the cultural moment that we currently in, give this one a go. It showcases how little jabs of racism build up to a larger scale and how it affects a Black community, while also showing how the white Italian-Americans contribute to it. Do The Right Thing is an absolute must-watch.

Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

This film focuses on Black representation in media. We watched it in my Minorities in Film class in college and it has always stuck with me. It’s classified as a comedy on IMDB, and while it does have comedic elements, it also is just a striking blow at the racism that is inherently visible in mainstream US culture. It features great performances from both Damon Wayons and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well.

Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)

The film that beat La La Land out for Best Picture is such a vital and rare look into queer Black masculinity. This is an identity that is so rarely explored in mainstream film. Barry Jenkins delivers one of the most beautifully shot and meaningful stories of journeying from childhood to adolescence to adulthood in this masterpiece. We see the same character grow through the film known as Little as a child, Chiron as a teenager, and simply Black as an adult. This feeds into the point that so many protestors have been making with their signs at marches, “When do I go from being cute to a threat?” Jenkins showcases this by having Black portrayed by the muscular and intimidating Trevante Rhodes. This characterization is countered by the quiet and really tender performances by both younger actors. The moment when Black is reacquainted with his former love interest proves that this mask is just an act to conceal his gay identity, however.  I can’t stress enough how great and important this film is.

Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)

Many would categorize this as a simple romantic comedy, which it definitely does feature many of the elements of that genre. But it is also more authentic and genuine than the candy-coated films that we usually get. We see the complicated relationship between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) and their shared love of basketball. The film also deals with very gendered elements of Black women in a sport that is targeted towards men. Definitely a less intense watch than some of the other films on this list, but it is a very fun and emotional film that will satisfy anyone that likes a good romance.

Barbershop (Tim Story, 2002) and Beauty Shop (Bille Woodfruff, 2005)

The Barbershop series is simply a trilogy of fun films with a Queen Latifah headed spin-off. All four films feature great ensemble casts that keep the laughs coming throughout and highlight simple everyday moments within these communities. If you’re looking for a fun time look no further.

BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)

One of Lee’s more recent films, BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington), the first Black detective in 1970s Colorado Springs, who attempts to expose the KKK group in town. This film highlights racism within the police system, the KKK itself, and how Black protestors were continuing to fight for equality. The film was released a year after the infamous “Unite the Right” protests, i.e. the ones with the Tiki torches, and proves that the point that the Black community has been fighting the same fight for such a long time. Definitely a must-watch.

Lemonade (Beyoncé, 2016)

This simply couldn’t not be on this list. Many people have listened to this important album, but a lot aren’t aware that there is a 45-minute film made of the connecting music videos. This experimental piece highlights Beyoncé’s talent for combining music and visuals. The film incorporates stunning images of Black history, protest, and Beyoncé’s inclusion of so many different presentations of Black female identities.

The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

This film serves as the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian woman. It is a semi-autobiographical story as Cheryl plays herself making a film about a black actress from the 1930s who is modeled after Hattie McDaniel who played Mammie in Gone With The Wind. It is a comment on how Black women are erased from film history and the ones that do remain are in racist stereotype roles. It goes on to point out that queer Black women have had no space in film history, at all. This thought-provoking film is definitely worth a watch!

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)

For my last film on this list, I’m including this very interesting and strange film. Sorry to Bother You is a very bizarre sci-fi film that deals with race and a new concept of futuristic slavery. I won’t spoil anything from this one, because it is just such a highly original and well-made film. I’m so excited to see what Boots Riley does next. It features great performances by LaKeith Stanfield (who is one of my favorite current actors), Tessa Thompson, and Armie Hammer. If you’re wanting something weird and meaningful, this definitely fits the bill.

So, there you go. There are 12 films that you can watch instead of The Help that feature authentic Black voices and narratives instead of a white perspective on the Black experience. This list is meant to give white people a jumping off point into Black cinema, which is full to the brim of great films and filmmakers that are sadly not given the spotlight that they deserve.

Black Lives Matter!

Until next time!

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