If you’re even a little bit savvy about the latest streaming services, you can easily find blockbusters like Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” films on Disney+, Jordan Peele’s “Nope” on Peacock, or Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation” on AppleTV+. But major streamers also offer movies by Black filmmakers that are more off the beaten track. Below is a list of films that any cinephile should add to their viewing roster, several of which remain pivotal moments in the amplification of Black voices in cinema. It’s far from comprehensive, but they’re all available now.
“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (1968)
Many laud directors like David Lynch and Werner Herzog for their surreal takes on modern life, but documentary filmmaker William Greaves got the jump on them with this bold, existential take on capturing real/reel life via an increasingly stumped Central Park film crew wondering what film they are actually making. A supremely underdiscussed entrant in WTF cinema and quite amazingly made in 1968 (when there were few major opportunities for Black documentarians), the film is tantalizing and mysterious.
Now available on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel
“Losing Ground” (1982)
Kathleen Collins’ relationship drama was a turning point in presenting Black adults in a multi-dimensional, day-to-day existence — and was the rare film from that time to be directed by a Black woman. Starring theater actress Seret Scott and indie film stalwarts Bill Gunn and “Night of the Living Dead” legend Duane Jones, “Losing Ground” was recently selected by the National Film Registry and is at long last getting the wider attention it deserves.
Now available on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy
“Sign ‘o’ the Times” (1987)
Time has only been kind to this rousing concert film directed by Prince, currently enjoying a much-deserved renaissance. Watch the Purple One blaze through some of the best songs he’s ever done, including “U Got the Look” (with guest star Sheena Easton), “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and the title track.
Now available on Peacock, Roku, Pluto, Tubi and Freevee
“School Daze” (1988)
Sandwiched between his 1986 breakout “She’s Gotta Have It” and his 1989 masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” is Spike Lee’s musical comedy about race and class wars on a heated Black college campus. Brassy and colorful with a blue-chip cast (Laurence Fishburne, Tisha Campbell, Giancarlo Esposito), it’s as vital as anything Lee has ever created for the screen. And it’s the birthplace of “Da Butt” too, by the way. (Bet Glenn Close didn’t know that!)
Now available on Pluto
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992)
Frustrated with the dearth of truthful tales of young Black women, writer-director Leslie Harris crafted this tale of a brash, bright Brooklyn teen (searingly played by Ariyan Johnson) making her way through the mean streets of New York City in an effort to create a better future. Sadly, it remains Harris’ first and only feature, but it’s gritty and gutsy just like its lead character.
Now available on Paramount+, FuboTV, Pluto and Showtime
“Fear of a Black Hat” (1993)
A sort of “This is Spinal Tap” for the hip-hop world, Rusty Cundieff’s often uproariously funny dissection of 1990s rap (the title itself is a nod to a classic Public Enemy album) is a lesser known gem of the Black comedy canon. The scene of band member Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott) showing off his gun collection is as good as any amplifiers that go to 11.
Now available on Peacock, The Criterion Channel, Roku and Tubi
“The Watermelon Woman” (1997)
Cheryl Dunye’s funny, searching film about an aspirational video-store clerk (Dunye) hellbent on discovering the true story of a “mammy” character actress from long ago is essential viewing from the 1990s Queer Cinema movement. Now a classic, it also remains one of the few films made by and starring a queer Black lead and counts among its fans Dee Rees (see “Pariah,” below).
Now available on Paramount+, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy
“Medicine for Melancholy” (2008)
Before his Best Picture-winning “Moonlight”, writer-director Barry Jenkins made this jewel box of an indie picture for only $15,000. Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins star in this look at Black men and women in San Francisco as they adapt to a major city with minor Black representation. It was clear from this sensitive film that Jenkins would go on to be a major presence in cinema.
Now available on AMC+, Tubi, DirecTV and Mubi
Dee Rees made her powerful film debut with this look at a 17-year old NYC girl (the wonderful Adepero Oduye) grappling with her burgeoning attraction to women. Just last year it became the most recent film to be added to the National Film Registry.
Now available on Prime Video and Starz
“Sorry to Bother You” (2018)
Musician-filmmaker Boots Riley’s dark comedy has a gloriously iconoclastic attitude and features terrific lead performances by Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson as a young couple thrust into a nefarious telemarking empire. Armie Hammer’s wild supporting turn as a megalomaniacal CEO plays more chillingly these days.
Now available on The Roku Channel
“Till” director’s Chinonye Chukwu’s previous film announced the arrival of a vibrant new artist, and much like her Mamie Till biopic, it featured a great Black actress in a tremendous starring role who did not receive the accolades she should have. This drama starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden suffering a crisis of conscience is exactly the kind of mature story for grown-ups that everyone complains nobody makes anymore.
Now available on Kanopy
Another Sundance fave that fell through the cracks upon release last year, this breakout film from director Carey Williams about a pair of undergraduate Black students unwittingly transporting the body of a drunk white girl around town deserves more eyes on it. The film strikes an intriguing balance of societal horror and comedy, ideal for anyone who enjoyed Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out.”
Now available on Prime Video
“Is That Black Enough For You?!?” (2022)
Esteemed film critic Elvis Mitchell refocuses his gaze for this documentary chronicling the rise of Black film in the 1970s and how the filmmakers and stars of that era remain woefully underheralded. Lots of great talent lend their voices, including Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Dee Williams, just for starters.
Now available on Netflix
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