Over the past few years there has been a renewed push for representation of black voices in Hollywood. With recent online campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite, and more physical movements like Black Lives Matter, and the backlash against continuing police brutality against minorities in the United States, the British Film Institute has lined up potentially one of their most timely, topical and exciting seasons of films to date: ‘Black Star’. The first half of the season, which is now underway, mixes critical darlings old and new, with award winning turns by black actors, actresses and directors. Here are some of the standouts from the BFI’s inspired piece of programming:
1. Boyz N The Hood
The obvious first choice, and the BFI’s centrepiece of the season. John Singleton was fresh out of film school when he wrote and directed one of the most influential films in modern African-American cinema. A social realist film defined as a ‘teen hood drama’, Boyz N The Hood examines life in the neighbourhoods of Crenshaw and Compton in Los Angeles. Cuba Gooding Jr and Ice Cube turn in iconic performances as Tre and Doughboy respectively, as violence intersects with their lives in tragic ways. The film was met with universal acclaim, and to the studio’s surprise, even made it to Cannes in 1991. The importance of this film cannot be overstated, and its nationwide return to the cinema is more than welcome.
Screening regularly at the BFI Southbank from 28 October. Returning to cinemas nationwide on 1 November
2. Malcolm X
The starring vehicle for what I hear is one of the most obviously robbed Best Actor Oscar to date, Spike Lee (of Do The Right Thing/25th Hour/hating Quentin Tarantino fame) directs Denzel Washington as the one-time leader of the Nation of Islam and second figurehead of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X. Spike Lee dramatizes the key events in Malcolm X’s life, including his time leading the Nation of Islam and his later disillusionment with the movement, along with events in his childhood perceived to be particularly formative. A 3-hour epic that surprises with its lightness and humour, and stuns with its passion and wonderful direction. Denzel Washington was definitely robbed.
Screening on 22 October
A distant relative to Malcolm X, Ali is a Michael Mann-directed biopic epic starring Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. The film stands as both lasting proof that Smith could do serious character studies, and a testament to the recently deceased professional boxer, Olympic Champion, and political activist. As such, the film covers events in Ali’s life, and the political turmoil that surrounded it. With some interesting casting choices (LeVar Burton as MLK Jr, Giancarlo Esposito as Malcolm X’s dad), Michael Mann behind the camera, and an acclaimed early Will Smith performance in a film that for once he doesn’t do an official track for, Ali is bound to impress.
Screening on 23 October
4. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Jim Jarmusch is not known to ever put a foot wrong when it comes to making slow, thoughtful indie films – but Ghost Dog was proof that Jim Jarmusch could not only do slick drama, but slick action as well. Starring Forest Whitaker as the titular mafia hitman known only as ‘Ghost Dog’, who follows the code of the samurai as outlined in the Hagakure (link). The film (scored by none other than the RZA, the authority on blending martial arts with hip-hop) is an indie critical darling – mixing genres, African American and Japanese culture with a number of other references, and typically slick direction from Jurmusch. And the BFI Southbank is screening it on 35mm film, so you best not miss it.
Screening at the BFI Southbank on 6 November
5. Paris is Burning
An absolutely crucial documentary, Paris is Burning explores the culture of drag queens in 80s New York City – a disco-scored odyssey covering the origins of everything from voguing to the elements of drag culture we see today in mainstream media. With a mixture of drag queens both famous (Willi Ninja, pioneer of voguing) and otherwise, many of the interview subjects have seen real struggle, and go to the competitions not just as part of a livelihood or an exercise of their sexuality, but as an escape from the prejudice that they find in most other places. An entertaining and often tragic telling of the history of a subculture that thankfully has found mainstream recognition, Paris Is Burning is essential watching for documentary fans and fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race alike.
Screening at the BFI Southbank on the 29/30 November.
6. Shaft (screening presented by Richard Dyer)
Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
(Shaft) Can you dig it?
Isaac Hayes – Theme from Shaft
Probably the most instantly recognizable figure of ‘blaxplotation’ cinema, Shaft is the granddaddy of the genre, birthed by American photographer-turned filmmaker Gordon Parks. Richard Roundtree plays the iconic black detective John Shaft, leaving behind not just a lasting legacy on African American cinema and a spin-off film starring Samuel L Jackson, but an entire genre unto itself that even today inspires mainstream cinema (Django Unchained, Black Dynamite) and television (Luke Cage). As the first black actor in a feature film backed by a major studio, Shaft had a significant role in opening up opportunities to black actors and actresses in Hollywood – but arguably also contributed to an exaggerated ‘blackness’ that permeates the genre of Blaxploitation. This isn’t a serious film about blackness, but it’s important – and at the very least, entertaining.
Screening on 10/11 November.
7. Devil in a Blue Dress
Based on Walter Mosley’s novel of the same name, Devil in a Blue dress is a noir detective mystery that focuses on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘who’ of the ‘whodunit’ central hook. Devil In A Blue Dress follows Denzel Washington as ‘Easy’ Rawlins, a recent layoff from an aircraft manufacturer who attempts becoming a private investigator to pay the bills, despite not really knowing anything about it. Director Carl Franklin presents the film in a classic noir style, subverting cliché and expectations of the genre to make a noir detective film unlike any other – the film uniformly praised for it’s striking visual style, and great acting – from Don Cheadle in particular.
Screening on 14 and 16 November
8. Foxy Brown
Admittedly, to my shame, this list is severely lacking in black heroines – but this is a big one. Foxy Brown is the film that both made Pam Grier a heroine of blaxplotation, and undesired by Hollywood, as the role caused her to lose work as the genre of Blaxploitation died down towards the end of the 1970s. As with Shaft, Foxy Brown has been both criticized and hailed for its representation of black people, black women in particular – shown as vengeful, or in the case of black women, perhaps overly sexualized. However the film, and Pam Grier in particular, have been embraced by feminist critics – so it’s up to you to watch it and make your mind up. Either way, it’s a major part of a pivotal movement in African American cinema.
Screening on the 7/8 November
Honourable mentions: Jackie Brown, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, In the Heat of the Night, Car Wash, Carmen Jones. Go watch everything else when you can as well, look at the program here.