From ‘Get Out’ to ‘Fences’: The essential movies by black filmmakers
We’re all looking to be allies to the Black community as they fight for racial equality & stand up to police brutality. It’s harder said than done as privilege doesn’t allow a lot of us to fundamentally understand the Black experience. That’s why Black filmmakers, for years, have used their medium to give us a way to walk in their shoes.
From Spike Lee to Ava DuVernay, directors have brought Black stories life on the big screen and many have taken the opportunity to speak their truth about injustice. While these films are about the Black experience, they’re also just about humans living their lives with fear, happiness, sorrow, and love.
Here are a few essential films about Black lives made by Black filmmakers. Watch these films to understand a bit better about the issues people are facing but also watch these films because they’re quality stories.
Twice as Nice
Not only the first black woman to direct a film, but to direct two feature length films, Jessie Maple has been paving the way for black female filmmakers since the 80s. So it’s no wonder that she chose to shine a light on two female basketball players vying for a spot in the NBA.
Twins Carmen and Camilla Parker (Pamela and Paula McGee) are young college basketball stars at Columbia. But as they navigate the usual college issues, the two are fighting to be chosen as the first female NBA pick. Set years before the WNBA was even a thing, it’s really interesting to see such personal moments become as exciting as can be.
A horror film by Jordan Peele reveals the more insidious nature of covert racism as a method to paralyze & reprogram Black people. While the plot is definitely theatrical, Get Out holds up a mirror to the alarming reality of racial relations in the US.
The story of Get Out follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) as they visit Rose’s white-middle class family, the Armitages. Chris, a Black photographer, notices strange behavior from any Black people he meets in the Armitage household and later finds himself the victim of a strange, twisted plot to steal his body.
Directed by Denzel Washington who also played the lead role of Toy Maxson, Fences is a quiet but powerful story of stolen dreams due to racial barriers. The bitterness we see in Maxson as he watches a life unfold that he wanted for his own is a relatable story for anyone.
Fences is about Maxson, once a talented basketball player, now working as a garbage man after he was rejected from any major leagues due to his race. Maxson’s son Lyons (Jovan Adepo) has his own chance at an athletic career but Maxson, due to the fear & resentment he still carries, refuses to support his son’s ambition.
This true story film directed by Spike Lee is a look at brazen racism in the US stemming from the modern-day practice of the Ku Klux Klan. The film serves a hard-hitting message of racial unrest alongside a generous helping of satiric wit.
BlacKkKlansman is about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black cop hired in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Stallworth one day casually infiltrates the KKK over the phone but due to his appearance, is forced to work with a white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover. The film follows the detectives as they dismantle a chapter of the KKK.
If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk depicts a case of racism in the 1970s that derails the lives of a Black family. The film, directed by Barry Jenkins, is soft-spoken in its delivery but nevertheless offers huge impact in its masterful storytelling & acting.
The story of If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young couple Tish (KiKi Layne) & Fonny (Stephan James) as they build their lives together. However, when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Tish has to try to clear his name while facing discrimination at every turn.
Written & directed by Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale station is a biographical film about the death of Oscar Grant in 2009 by a BART police officer. Fruitvale Station was heavily praised for its storytelling & message.
The film tells the story of the last day of Grant’s life as the young man looks forward to a new year and moves on from a past life of crime. Grant spends the day with family & friends in San Francisco for New Year’s Eve only to encounter tragedy as he waits for the BART train to go back home.
Do the Right Thing
Another film on the list directed by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing, released in 1989, has had an enormous impact on film history and is often listed as one of the greatest films of all time. The film depicts racial tension between the Black & white communities of a neighborhood.
Do the Right Thing is a snapshot of daily life in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where pizza parlor owner Sal (Danny Aiello) operates in a primarily Black community. The pizza parlor honors famous Italian-Americans on their wall, a point of contention for Black customers, especially Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who view the wall as discriminatory. The dispute over the wall escalates into a violent outburst.
Boyz n the Hood
This influential film directed by John Singleton, depicts the life of a young, Black man and his brush with ganglife in LA. Boyz N the Hood was praised for the weight of its story as well as its brilliant acting & writing.
Boyz n the Hood is about Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) as he goes to live with his father Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) in South Central. Tre finds himself making friends with local neighborhood kids, all of whom are wrapped up in the gangs that run the streets. Tre learns the struggles of growing up in ghetto life and how difficult it can be to escape it.
This documentary directed by Ava DuVernay takes a look at the relationship between the penal system & race within the US. The documentary also looks at the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in America and argues that Black people have faced slavery in the guise of being painted as criminals.
13th explores the American prison system and interviews activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated Black men & women to paint a picture of the criminalization of Black people in the US.
The Hate U Give
This film is a heartbreaking but powerful story of a girl torn between the two worlds of a poor, Black community and an affluent, white prep school. Director George Tillman Jr. brings the issue of police killing into the light of everyday reality.
Starr (Amandla Stenberg) lives among two cultures and finds a way to reconcile herself with both of them. Then she witnesses the shooting of her Black friend by a cop after leaving a party. Starr struggles to find her voice as she faces pressure from both sides of her life.
Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim, brought to us by director Melina Matsoukas, portrays an injustice in Black life that quickly escalates into a life-and-death situation. The film acts out on frustrations & fear held by a community and brings it to the world’s attention with the help of two unwitting heroes.
Queen (Jodie-Turner Smith) & Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) have an awkward first date that goes from bad to worse when they’re pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Slim is forced to shoot the police officer when the scene escalates and the couple are labeled as “cop killers”. Queen & Slim go on the run to find a way to bring the truth to light and discover that they’ve become a symbol for those facing discrimination & oppression.