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5 must-watch powerful films by Black directors

February 28, 2023
<p>Photo Illustration with photos courtesy of WarnerBros, Searchlight Pictures, Amazon Studios and Netflix.</p>

Photo Illustration with photos courtesy of WarnerBros, Searchlight Pictures, Amazon Studios and Netflix.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

In Hollywood, an industry historically dominated by white males, the success of movies directed by and starring Black artists are exceptionally important to representation and the formation of identity. 

Here’s a list of five impactful films by Black directors that highlight important perspectives and moments of history.

1. “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Directed by Shaka King, “Judas and the Black Messiah” focuses on the true story of Black Panther Party Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. The film follows Hampton’s rise in power as the Black Panther Party is infiltrated by Black FBI agent Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. The intertwining stories of O’Neal and Hampton ultimately lead up to the latter’s assassination by the FBI in 1969. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which received nominations and wins at the Academy and Golden Globe Awards, is notable for showing the Black Panthers in a different light. The film delves into how the Panthers were actively involved in their communities, creating many supportive programs and projects for Black youth. 

For so many years, most mainstream movies centered around Black issues catered to white audiences, emphasizing white savior, feel-good endings. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” however, maintains the importance of Black voices and emphasizes their strength.

2. “One Night in Miami”

Adapted from the original screenplay by Kemp Powers, “One Night in Miami” is Regina King’s astonishing directorial debut. The film is a fictionalized account of a real-life meeting that occurred on February 1964 at the Hampton House, between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke — played by Kingsley Ben Adir, Eli Goore, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Junior, respectively. 

At the meeting, the four influential figures discuss the nuances and complexities of being Black leaders during the civil rights movement. What makes “One Night in Miami” so eloquent is its commentary on social responsibility and how it navigates the various facets of freedom — within institutional and business independence, religion, sexuality and exploitation.

King creates a crackling dynamic between the four leaders in this intellectual thriller whose themes surrounding fame, politician action and obligation echo powerfully into the present.

3. “13th”

This 2016 film’s title refers to the 13th amendment of the United States constitution, which abolished slavery in the country. The documentary directed by Ava DuVernay features several activists, political and public figures, such as Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Stephen Colbert and Michelle Alexander, as they delve into the loophole clause of the 13th amendment that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. 

“13th” opens with an audio clip of Barack Obama stating that the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. In addition to the perspectives of liberal activists, DuVernay includes those of conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. The shots of each interviewee dissect how prison churns out the free labor that the abolishment of slavery supposedly dismantled.

However, “13th” does not just navigate racism in the past: DuVernay’s direction discusses the present-day Black Lives Matter movement and sends a message that trauma does not solely define Black identity. The depiction of joy and hardship in Black experiences makes “13th” a must-see.

4. "12 Years a Slave"

While movies like “Django Unchained” approached slavery with satire and humor that some perceive as a way to make white viewers more comfortable, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is somber, reflective and stoic. Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film, the historical drama first shows his early life as the son of two freed slaves and then his kidnapping and enslavement. 

In “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen shatters the mythical images of slaves that have historically been pushed by Hollywood, such as in films like “Gone with the Wind,” which portrays slaves as cheery, intrinsically faithful people. Rather, the film exposes American slavery as an ongoing system that doesn’t end in relief or tearful preachings. 

“12 Years a Slave” is a film which ensures that audiences can never deny the evil and terror of slavery that has seeped into souls, institutions and social hierarchy.

5. “Da 5 Bloods”

Though perhaps faster-paced than other movies on this list, “Da 5 Bloods," directed by Spike Lee, is equally poignant in how it depicts the experience of Black veterans in the Vietnam War, a perspective that is significantly lacking in Hollywood. “Da 5 Bloods” stars Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as four retirees — “Bloods” — who travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to recover the body of their leader Stormin’ Norman, played by the late Chadwick Boseman. 

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“Da 5 Bloods” is dynamic and frenzied, providing commentary on unacknowledged PTSD, the exploitation of Black veterans and prejudice. With scenes like one where Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, wears a MAGA cap and complains that immigrants are taking jobs from Black people, and another where Norman rests in a crumbling, shallow grave, the movie strengthens these themes. 

While not explicitly based on any specific true story or person, Lee uses the 2020 war film as a way to credit the Black veterans whose stories were never told. He garners the same effect from evocative dialogue and complex gazes as he would from audible punches or ricocheting explosives.

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