The Citizen Dame 5: Essential Films from Black Artists

The Citizen Dame 5 is back! This week, Black History Month might have ended, but we are keeping the conversation going with essential films from Black artists. From the early days of silent film to a very recent love story, all of these movies are available for streaming now.

Lauren’s 5

1. Uptight (1968) — Criterion

Directed by Jules Dassin and written by stars Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield along with Dassin, Uptight is a reworking of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informant for 1968. The film uses the (very recent) assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as the backdrop for a film about a Black revolutionary leader betrayed by a member of his inner circle.

The film depicts a battle of emotions and ideologies in Black counterculture directly following the assassination of King. The informer in this case is Tank (Mayfield), a supporter of King’s nonviolent movement, who finds himself at odds with fellow revolutionaries now advocating for an armed uprising. The culmination forces Tank to choose between loyalty to the cause, his own ideology, and the underpinnings of cowardice and greed. Uptight is a searing film, made more so by the urgency of the narrative and the intense central performances.

2. Thomasine and Bushrod (1974) — Prime Video, Criterion

Billed as a blaxsploitation Bonnie & Clyde, Gordon Parks Jr.’s wildly enjoyable Thomasine and Bushrod gives the outlaw lovers genre a socially aware twist. Thomasine and Bushrod (Vonetta McGee and Max Julien) are rough-riding outlaws who rob from rich whites and give back to the poor (Black, white, and Indigenous). They’re pursued by a vicious sheriff furious over the number of times they’ve humiliated him. While not quite as iconic as Bonnie & Clyde, in many ways Thomasine and Bushrod is a more necessary film.

3. Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) — Shudder

On balance, I prefer Scream, Blacula, Scream to the original Blacula, mostly due to Pam Grier, who comes on board as a researcher naturally adept at voodoo with whom Prince Mamuwalde/Blacula (William H. Marshall) falls in love. This one is deeply satisfying as both a showcase for Grier, who is obviously having a lot of fun, and a use of the vampire mythos as a pushback against the way that drug dealers and cops cannibalize Black people. It’s a delicious, socially conscious vampire movie, and perhaps my favorite of the blaxsploitation vampire flicks.

4. The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) — Criterion

One of Oscar Micheaux’s lesser-known works, The Symbol of the Unconquered deals directly with the violence of the KKK alongside nascent critique of the white violence inherent in capitalism. The plot is a similar one to The Homesteader and Within Our Gates: a young woman heads home (this time going from the South to the North), where she faces violence and racism, and is saved by a prospector who helps her to protect her land. The film deals directly with Black characters who invest in the white status quo, and is remarkable for actually depicting the KKK as on-screen villains. While the climax of the film is lost, this is a marvelous companion piece to Within Our Gates.

5. Bamboozled (2000) — Criterion

Bamboozled is Spike Lee’s most direct take on Hollywood’s long history of racism. It’s about a Black TV executive who attempts to get himself fired by producing an all-Black minstrel show, only to find that his white producer loves it and the show, in 2000s America, is a rollicking success. The film includes a none-too-subtle jab at Quentin Tarantino, among others, but clearly interacts with the anger and sense of impotence when faced with overwhelming systemic racism in media. Bamboozled was one of the first films that forced me to directly deal with the reality of racist depictions in some of my favorite old Hollywood films, but it also turns the camera directly on the continued use of racist caricatures in film and media today.

Karen’s 5

1. I Am Somebody (1970) — Criterion

Pioneering documentarian Madeline Anderson takes viewers into the heart of a labor dispute in this short documentary originally made for television. Anderson is adept at finding the compelling stories in the middle of important moments, and I Am Somebody is a powerful example of her strength as a documentarian and an editor. Following 400 hospital workers from South Carolina, we are immediately drawn into the experiences of Black women in the late 1960s and their fight for fair wages in a system that is designed to keep them in poverty. In just 30 minutes, we get to know them as individuals and as a group, as well as the victories and setbacks that keep them going.

2. Underworld (1937) — YouTube

One of Oscar Micheaux’s later films, the best version of Underworld I’ve been able to find is on YouTube, and is in desperate need of restoration. It is the story of Paul, a recent graduate from a Historically Black College in the South, who finds himself mixed up in the seedy Chicago underworld. Through a series of set ups and entrapments, Paul is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. There are gangsters and nightclubs and Bee Freeman giving Mae West a run for her money. The quality of the film may have been lost over the years, but the performances make this film well worth the effort.

3. Black Girl (1966) — HBO Max

Ousmane Sembène made his feature debut with this international film about a young woman from Senegal who travels to France to take a domestic job with a white family. The film starts as Diouana arrives by ship, ready to enjoy the promises of a good job and a comfortable house in an idealized locale. And while her white employers do live well in their beautiful home, her hopes are quickly dashed as reality sets in. She isn’t a maid or a cook or a nanny. She is all of those things. Diouana is a servant in every sense of the word. Black Girl is a stirring commentary and a devastating drama about the impact of colonialism and the attitudes that allow oppression to continue.

4. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) — Hulu

If you somehow still haven’t watched Barry Jenkins’ exquisite adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, you owe it to yourself to do so immediately. The visual poetry crafted by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton welcomes us into a vibrant, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful love story that leads us from rage to satisfaction, fear to joy. It is beautiful art and an entrancing tale at once, with stunning performances all around.

5. Sylvie’s Love (2020) — Prime Video

TESSA THOMPSON as SYLVIE PARKER, NNAMDI ASOMUGHA as ROBERT HALLOWAY, AJA NAOMI KING as MONA and REGÉ-JEAN PAGE as CHICO SWEETNEY in SYLVIE’S LOVE

Eugene Ashe writes and directs the most sumptuous 1960s romance in recent memory. Starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, Sylvie’s Love is an achingly beautiful romance complicated by timing and separate life goals. Ideas of race and gender discrimination do exist in Ashe’s 1960s New York, but they are not the central focus or driving forces behind the plot, making this a timeless Black love story in which the only thing keeping them apart is not the outside world, but their inability to get out of their own way.

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