Black History Month is over, but these movies are forever

Mark Harris / Mark Harris

Last month, I had the good fortune of revisiting one of my creative projects I’m most proud of: The Black Film Canon, a collection of great and culturally significant films by Black directors as voted on by esteemed film critics, scholars, and filmmakers. Not long after it was originally published in Slate in 2016, my co-author Dan Kois and I were already talking about updating the list – mere months later came the releases of “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” just for starters. (Fun fact/humble-brag: When I interviewed Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight” for my old podcast Represent he deemed our inclusion of his debut feature “Medicine for Melancholy” in the canon as “the highlight of [his] life.” Fortunately, I’m pretty sure he’s had several moments since then that have far surpassed this honor.)

Seven years later, Dan and I finally got around to expanding the list, and we published The New Black Film Canon earlier this week as a collaboration between Slate and NPR. We asked a bunch of experts, including Gina Prince-Bythewood, Robert Townsend and W. Kamau Bell, to send us their top five Black-directed movies released since 2016; we also sought out suggestions for any pre-2016 films they felt we missed out on the first time around. Some of the picks we received were hardly surprising – as you might’ve guessed, the aforementioned “Get Out” and “Moonlight” came up on our participants’ lists over and over again).

But among the happy outcomes of curating a list like this are the surprises and discoveries that accompany it; while I studied film in college and grad school and have made it a point throughout my career to seek out as many kinds of Black films as possible, there are plenty of movies I still haven’t seen or haven’t even heard of. How is it that it took me so long to watch RaMell Ross’ mesmerizing documentary “Hale County This Morning, This Evening?” Well, thanks to it landing on several of our participants’ lists, I finally have.

And that’s been the driving force behind our assembling of this list of 75 films. It’s not necessarily about anointing the “definitive” list of the “best” Black-directed films, itself a fraught and totally subjective exercise. We’ve viewed The New Black Film Canon in the same vein as something like the National Film Registry – a way of preserving art that’s made a notable impact within Black culture and popular culture writ large. It’s both a celebration of the big hits and a way of saying, “Hey, look over here!” while pointing people toward movies they may not stumble upon otherwise. That’s why we’re proud to have a list that runs the gamut from “low-brow” (“Friday”) to prestige (“Do the Right Thing”), from the experimental (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One”) to the absurdist (“Sorry to Bother You”) and the utterly obscure (“Looking for Langston,” a movie that remains difficult to find streaming 30+ years later).

If you haven’t already, I welcome you to peruse the list and check out our corresponding Pop Culture Happy Hour episode. While putting this whole thing together, I got to thinking about how I might program a series around it … which led me to imagine some sick double features I’d love to see. Give these pairings a try this weekend, or beyond (all streaming info is here):

“Cane River” (1982) and “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008)
Theme: Walking and talking while philosophizing and romancing
Both movies feature a pair of strangers who flirt and dig deep into existential questions against the backdrop of their culturally rich environments (Natchitoches, La., and San Francisco, respectively).

“Black Girl” (1966) and “Nanny” (2022)
Theme: Bad bosses
Nearly six decades separate these two films, yet in their own unique ways they each offer up biting critique of a system that inherently preys upon immigrant domestic workers.

Chameleon Street” (1990) and “Sorry to Bother You” (2018)
Theme: Getting weird
Some of my favorite stories come from creators who embrace the utter absurdities of racial constructs and what it can feel like to be Black in America. These films are zany yet pointed in their social commentary, ending in the most unexpected of ways.

House Party” (1990) and “Lovers Rock” (2020)
Theme: Keep the party going
I wish I could say that I’ve ever been to a house party as awesome as these, but alas, I’m not that cool. At least I can live vicariously!

“Daughters of the Dust” (1992) and “Alma’s Rainbow” (1994)
Theme: I’m every woman
One movie is set in the Gullah Geechee community of South Carolina in the early 20th century, the other in 1990s Brooklyn. Both explore girlhood and womanhood across multiple generations tenderly and expressively.

One last thing I’ll note: There are two movies I caught at Sundance this year I’m already convinced deserve a spot on the list, but they haven’t been released yet, so we didn’t include them in our update. Is it possible that a few years from now, we could expand yet again to bring you The New-New Black Film Canon? I wouldn’t rule it out.

This piece first appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what’s making us happy.

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