(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we give a nod towards Black History Month with a look at some of the best, little-seen films from black filmmakers.)
Great films and filmmakers are worth celebrating all year round, but we live in a world that likes to categorize and quantify, meaning February has been designated as Black History Month (and Women in Horror month too for those of you keeping track). The films in this column are recommended viewing any time, but I’m willing to play along with the convention if it gets more eyeballs on the smart, engaging, and entertaining cinema these directors have to offer.
Black filmmakers are continuing to increase in number and prominence alongside Asian, Latino, and female directors, and cinema is richer for it. More voices mean more stories, and that can only be a good thing. Films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Eve’s Bayou (1997) broke barriers and demand to be sought out, while the new documentary Horror Noire (2019) explores the world of black horror films in ways that fascinate, enlighten, and entertain. The six films below haven’t reached the same level of awareness, but they most definitely deserve more than they’ve received.
Keep reading for a look at some of the best films you’ve probably never seen from black directors.
The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)
Under stress and pressure from outside observation and criticism, the C.I.A. opens its doors to welcome African American recruits for the first time. The idea is that none of them will make it through the training leaving the agency able to claim that at least they tried, but one black man graduates with flying colors. He has his own agenda, though, and after years of playing nice, he leaves to start a training program of his own.
There are some humorous beats here as the film pokes fun at the deluded, racist mindsets of the white men running the C.I.A., but the main throughline of the narrative is very serious. The film’s antihero — not so subtly named Dan Freeman — plays it calm, obedient, and patient before putting his plan into motion training black resistance fighters in guerilla warfare tactics for their fight against the racist authorities. Small skirmishes build towards an all-out war in Chicago, and it’s a story that manages to thrill and challenge in equal measure.
Few genre films lean as subversive as this action/drama from the early 70s, and it paid the price for years by being shelved, buried, and otherwise hidden from view. Director Ivan Dixon, best known for his role on Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1970), had a long career directing for television but made his most memorable mark with this adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s angry novel. It feels dated today in only the most superficial ways and instead seems every bit as relevant as it was upon release. To that end, the novel was optioned again in 2018 by Tyler Perry with plans to bring it to television as a series, and while I’d still rather get a sequel that might be just as satisfying.
Losing Ground (1982)
A college professor and her artist husband leave the city behind for a small town vacation, but rather than bring them closer it pushes them further apart. He finds female interest elsewhere, she finds someone more challenging back in the city, and angry questions lead to angrier answers.
There’s a definite rawness to this low budget drama, but its mere existence trumps some of its surface inadequacies. These characters in this kind of story were previously unheard of, and while the artist’s dalliances are expected the female professor’s growing independence and self-interests surprise and energize the narrative. As groundbreaking as a black female lead is the character’s profession stands out even more — she’s allowed to express her intelligence as a teacher while still being able to grow as a woman. She relaxes, trusts herself, and finds a strength she didn’t know she needed. The actors behind the men in her life add weight to the film’s place in black cinema history as Bill Gunn directed 1973’s Ganja & Hess and Duane Jones starred in Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Writer/director Kathleen Collins‘ film was not only one of the first — if not the very first — features directed by a black woman, but it was also, unfortunately, her very last. It was filmed on a shoestring budget in 1982, earned some minor acclaim on the festival circuit, and then disappeared from view. Collins passed away in 1988, but her daughter Nina salvaged the original 16mm negative and together with an interested, forward-thinking label (Milestone Film & Video) the film was restored and released on DVD.
To Sleep With Anger (1990)
Gideon and his wife Suzie are a working-class couple in Los Angeles with a son who continually seems one step removed from real trouble. Their other son adds to the occasionally conflicting dynamic as well, but it’s the arrival of an old family friend that sends them all into an increasingly fractured spiral.
There are a casual tone and pace to this drama that gives the family time to earn viewers’ affection and interest while the plot slowly builds around them. They’re transplants from the South who’ve made the bustling city their home, and like any family, they want stability both financially and emotionally. Danny Glover’s arrival touches a live wire to their lives that tests their limits of hospitality while challenging the ways in which they’ve changed and grown in the city they call home — which in no way resembles the South they’ve all left behind.
Charles Burnett found critical acclaim with his feature debut Killer of Sheep (1978), but his third film as writer/director feels every bit as relevant while succeeding better on the accessibility front. This is a warmly realistic family, and while there’s humor in some of their interactions it’s the growing unease that takes center stage. Glover’s character is a troublemaker, but it’s not immediately clear if it’s built on loneliness or maliciousness. He rattles them either way, and the resiliency that has brought the family this far is forced to stand up to this new challenge in dramatic ways. The film manages to be both a general look at familial traditions/behaviors and a specific one about the additional challenges often faced by black families climbing the same ladders.
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