Upholding Black Voices: An Annotated Table of Contents

The following table of contents contains reviews, interviews and essays both new and republished that have been featured on RogerEbert.com in allegiance with a critical American movement that upholds Black voices. For a growing resource list with information on where you can donate, connect with activists, learn more about the protests, and find anti-racism reading, click here. Click on each of the titles below, and you will be directed to the full article. #BlackLivesMatter.

REVIEWS

Killer of Sheep” directed by Charles Burnett and reviewed by Roger Ebert

You have to be prepared to see a film like this, or able to relax and allow it to unfold. It doesn't come, as most films do, with built-in instructions about how to view it. One scene follows another with no apparent pattern, reflecting how the lives of its family combine endless routine with the interruptions of random events. The day they all pile into a car to go to the races, for example, a lesser film would have had them winning or losing. In this film, they have a flat tire, and no spare. Thus does poverty become your companion on every journey. The lives of the adults are intercut with shots of the children at play. One brilliant sequence shows a kid's head darting out from behind a plywood shield -- once, twice, six times. The camera pulls back to show that two groups of kids are playing at war in a rubbish-strewn wasteland, throwing rocks at one another from behind barriers. A boy gets hit and bleeds and cries. The others forget war and gather around. He's not too badly hurt, and so they idly drift over to railroad tracks and throw rocks at a passing train. All of the scenes of children at play were unrehearsed; Burnett just filmed them.”

Do the Right Thing” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Roger Ebert

Spike Lee's ‘Do the Right Thing’ is the most controversial film of the year, and it only opens today. Thousands of people already have seen it at preview screenings, and everywhere I go, people are discussing it. Some of them are bothered by it; they think it will cause trouble. Others feel the message is confused. Some find it too militant, others find it the work of a middle-class director who is trying to play street-smart. All of those reactions, I think, simply are different ways of avoiding the central fact of this film, which is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time. Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn't that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn't paying attention.”

Daughters of the Dust” directed by Julie Dash and reviewed by Roger Ebert

“Julie Dash's ‘Daughters of the Dust’ is a tone poem of old memories, a family album in which all of the pictures are taken on the same day. It tells the story of a family of African-Americans who have lived for many years on a Southern offshore island, and of how they come together one day in 1902 to celebrate their ancestors before some of them leave for the North. The film is narrated by a child not yet born, and ancestors already dead also seem to be as present as the living. The film doesn't tell a story in any conventional sense. It tells of feelings. At certain moments we are not sure exactly what is being said or signified, but by the end we understand everything that happened - not in an intellectual way, but in an emotional way. We learn of members of the Ibo people who were brought to America in chains, how they survived slavery and kept their family memories and, in their secluded offshore homes, maintained tribal practices from Africa as well. They come to say goodbye to their land and relatives before setting off to a new land, and there is the sense that all of them are going in the journey, and all of them are staying behind, because the family is seen as a single entity.”

Malcolm X” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Roger Ebert

“This is an extraordinary life, and Spike Lee has told it in an extraordinary film. Like ‘Gandhi,’ the movie gains force as it moves along; the early scenes could come from the lives of many men, but the later scenes show a great original personality coming into focus. To understand the stages of Malcolm's life is to walk for a time in the steps of many African Americans, and to glimpse where the journey might lead. Denzel Washington stands at the center of the film, in a performance of enormous breadth. He never seems to be trying for an effect, and yet he is always convincing; he seems as natural in an early scene, clowning through a railroad club car with ham sandwiches, as in a later one, holding audiences spellbound on streetcorners, in churches, on television and at Harvard. He is as persuasive early in the film, wearing a zoot suit and prowling the nightclubs of Harlem, as later, disappearing into a throng of pilgrims to Mecca. Washington is a congenial, attractive actor, and so it is especially effective to see how he shows the anger in Malcolm, the unbending dogmatic side.”

Eve’s Bayou” directed by Kasi Lemmons and reviewed by Roger Ebert

“As these images unfold, we are drawn into the same process Eve has gone through: We, too, are trying to understand what happened in that summer of 1962, when Eve's handsome, dashing father--a doctor and womanizer--took one chance too many. And we want to understand what happened late one night between the father and Eve's older sister, in a moment that was over before it began.  We want to know because the film makes it perfectly possible that there is more than one explanation; ‘Eve's Bayou’ studies the way that dangerous emotions can build up until something happens that no one is responsible for and that can never be taken back. All of these moments unfold in a film of astonishing maturity and confidence; ‘Eve's Bayou,’ one of the very best films of the year, is the debut of its writer and director, Kasi Lemmons. She sets her story in Southern Gothic country, in the bayous and old Louisiana traditions that Tennessee Williams might have been familiar with, but in tone and style she earns comparison with the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman. That Lemmons can make a film this good on the first try is like a rebuke to established filmmakers.”

Down in the Delta” directed by Maya Angelou and reviewed by Roger Ebert

Year after year in film after film I've seen Alfre Woodard at work. She is on that very short list of people who rarely seem to appear in anything unworthy. Films may work or they may not, but you don't sense cynicism in her choices. She looks for roles that look like they need to be played. Woodard says she was more interested in the ‘early’ Loretta than in the later one. Success has many parents, but failure has none, and the early Loretta, going to buy a bottle, is all alone and has little help. But she's not a bad person. Perhaps she was failed by a school system that didn't take care to teach her. Or by a community with few role models. Or by herself. When you are young you can carelessly take a path that branches far off from where you thought you were headed. Woodard plays her without turning her into a case study.”

Love & Basketball” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and reviewed by Roger Ebert

“These bare bones of the plot don't convey the movie's special appeal. Written and directed by first-timer Gina Prince-Bythewood (and produced by Spike Lee), it is a sports film seen mostly from the woman's point of view. It's honest and perceptive about love and sex, with no phony drama and a certain quiet maturity. And here's the most amazing thing: It considers sports in terms of career, training, motivation and strategy. The big game scenes involve behavior and attitude, not scoring. The movie sees basketball as something the characters do as a skill and a living, not as an excuse for audience-pleasing jump shots at the buzzer.”

Tupac Resurrection” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Roger Ebert

I remember seeing Vondie Curtis Hall's ‘Gridlock’d’ at Sundance 1996, soon after Tupac was murdered in Vegas. I'd admired Shakur's acting in ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘Juice,’ and now here, opposite the great Tim Roth, he was distinctive and memorable in what was essentially a two-character study. Consider the scene where his character, desperate to get into detox, tries to persuade Roth's character to stab him in the side, and the two get into a hopeless discussion about which side the liver is on. In the long run Shakur might have become more important as an actor than as a singer (as Ice Cube has). As you listen to his uncanny narration of ‘Tupac: Resurrection,’ which is stitched together from interviews, you realize you're not listening to the usual self-important vacancies from celebrity Q&As, but to spoken prose of a high order, in which analysis, memory and poetry come together seamlessly in sentences and paragraphs that sound as if they were written. Let's assume you are a person who never intends to see a doc about rap music, but might have it in you to see one. This is the one.”

I Will Follow” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Roger Ebert

Beverly Todd, a beautiful woman who has been in countless movies and TV shows since the late 1960s, has an important presence here in many flashbacks, some of them dreamy or fragmented, as Amanda. She easily evokes the magic Maye must have felt, and that gives weight to the present-day scenes. For Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the role of Maye is a great performance, as she embodies emotions the script wisely doesn't spell out. ‘I Will Follow’ is an invitation to empathy. It can't have a traditional three-act structure, because every life closes in death, and only supporting characters are left on stage at the end. What goes unsaid, but not thought, is that we will all pass this way eventually. Amanda's family is African-American. The neighbor and some of the visitors are white. Why do I mention race? I wasn't going to. This is a universal story about universal emotions. Maybe I mention it because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts.”

Pariah” directed by Dee Rees and reviewed by Roger Ebert

‘Pariah’ is probably too loaded a word to be the title of this film. Alike lives in a world where homosexuality is far from unknown, and her problems will grow smaller in a few years as she moves away from home. This story, so tellingly written and acted, is about the painful awkwardness of that process. What makes it worse is that there's repressed hostility between her parents, and Alike's sexuality becomes the occasion for tension with deeper sources.  The film is an impressive debut for writer-director Dee Rees. It's said to be somewhat autobiographical. It began as a 2007 short subject, was brought to maturity at a Sundance laboratory, and one of the film's producers is Spike Lee, whose presence in Brooklyn must have been an inspiration for Rees. On a low budget, she takes advantage of the vibrant photography of Bradford Young, who also shot the original short subject. So what we're seeing here is the emergence of a promising writer-director, an actor and a cinematographer who are all exciting, and have cared to make a film that seeks helpful truths.”

Fruitvale Station” directed by Ryan Cooler and reviewed by Steven Boone

“‘Fruitvale Station’ is about what we can imagine when we cast our gaze across the longstanding divides in this persistently, cancerously segregated American society. […] It has one solid, irrefutable piece of reality on which to anchor its fable-like teachable moments: The protagonist, Oscar Grant (the brilliant Michael B. Jordan ), was a real 22-year-old man. The first thing we see in ‘Fruitvale’ is the fatal moment that will lead to Oscar's death. Camera phone footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit cops beating Oscar and his friends on a subway platform ends with a gunshot. The rest of the film dramatizes what Oscar was up to the day before he was killed, New Year's Eve 2009. I must paraphrase ‘The Elephant Man’ to explain what it all amounts to: Oscar was not an animal. He was a human being. He had dreams and feelings. He cared for many people, and many people cared for him. His death left a giant crater in several lives.”

Selma” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“The prescient timing of ‘Selma’ could not have been planned. Its opening scene is a casual reminder of what life was like before the Voting Rights Act, with poll taxes and absurd literacy tests suppressing the Black vote. […] This is an emotional movie that aims to anger, sadden and inspire viewers, sometimes in the same scene. ‘Selma’ takes no prisoners and, while it welcomes moviegoers of all hues, it has no intention of sugarcoating its horrors for politically correct comforting. This film—one of the year’s best—is an announcement of a major talent in Ms. DuVernay, but its core message will not be lost nor hidden by the accolades it receives. Through the noise, ‘Selma’ speaks to us: From the top of the hill of progress, it is just as easy to slide down backwards as it is to move forward. Attention must be paid.”

3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” directed by Marc Silver and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

“‘3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets’ doesn't move or look like most documentaries you've seen. The movie's meditative quality makes you feel for everyone involved in this tragedy—even Dunn, who seems very much a prisoner of fear and anger. Where a lot of documentaries would try to stir outrage, this one just leaves you shaking your head. The numb feeling comes from the knowledge that what we're seeing onscreen—the racial and generational animosity, the normalization of gun violence, the checklist of reasons why nothing can be done—are just pieces of one more American day.”

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” directed by Stanley Nelson and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“‘Vanguard’ reminded me that every generation has its media-fueled boogeyman, and it’s usually a brown one. The American majority of my parents’ generation was scared out of its wits by the Black Panther Party, an Oakland-based group fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans. Founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers had a multi-point plan and a savvy command of the fine art of media manipulation. They presented a tough, military-style image that ran counter to the suits and Sunday-best attire of protest marches and sit-ins. They published a newspaper, like the Nation of Islam did, that detailed events and delivered news to the Black community. They provided a breakfast program for poor kids. And they used the Second Amendment to great effect by blatantly carrying loaded guns in a state that had an open carry law. Whenever confronted about this by the police, Newton would recite the California Penal Code that made his weapon legal.”

Southside with You” directed by Richard Tanne and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“‘Southside with You’ is at once a love song to the city of Chicago and its denizens, an unmistakably Black romance and a gentle, universal comedy. It is unapologetic about all three of these elements, and interweaves them in such a subtle fashion that they become more pronounced only upon later reflection. The Chicago affection manifests itself not only in a scene where, in front of a small group of community activists welcoming back their favorite son, Barack demonstrates a rough version of the speechmaking ability that will later become his trademark, but also when Barack takes Michelle to an art gallery. He points out that the Ernie Barnes paintings they’re viewing were used on the Chicago-set sitcom ‘Good Times.’ Then the duo recite Chicago native Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem about the pool players at the Golden Shovel, ‘We Real Cool.’ Even the beloved founder of this site, Roger Ebert, gets a shout-out for championing ‘Do the Right Thing,’ the movie Barack and Michelle attend in the closing hours of their date.”

Do Not Resist” directed by Craig Atkinson and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

Fear of terrorism led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and an unprecedented buildup by police departments nationwide—not just in major cities, which suffer serious crime and actual terrorism on occasion, but in smaller towns as well, where there's generally not much going on except Barney Fife fantasies of machismo. Atkinson's film explores this build up of weaponry, but it also shows how police rhetoric has been pumped up on rhetorical steroids. In seminars and tactical rehearsals, we hear civilians referred to as "the enemy." And in one of the film's most appalling scenes, from a Senate committee meeting in 2014, the Deputy Undersecretary of Acquisition for the Defense Department is asked to explain why the military is giving bayonets to local police in the United States. Bayonets are for war.”

13th” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Several times throughout ‘13th’ there is a shock cut to the word CRIMINAL, which stands alone against a black background and is centered on the huge movie screen. It serves as a reminder that far too often, people of color are seen as simply that, regardless of who they are. Starting with D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’, DuVernay traces the myth of the scary Black felon with supernatural levels of strength and deviant sexual potency, a myth designed to terrify the majority into believing that only White people were truly human and deserving of proper treatment. This dehumanization allowed for the acceptance of laws and ideas that had more than a hint of bias.”

I Am Not Your Negro” directed by Raoul Peck and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

Turning Baldwin into a chorus and occasionally a bystander in a story drawn from his own experience proves to be a masterstroke as well. Baldwin is bearing witness in the narration, and Peck turns him into a witness onscreen, too, briefly putting up pictures of Baldwin alongside politicians and artists but never holding them for long, and locating Baldwin within photo montages of important, sorrowful events (such as King's funeral), establishing that he was there but never privileging his grief over the grief of others. This is not a portrait of one man, James Baldwin, but of the nation he wrote about, as seen through his eyes. It's a film that bears witness to a writer bearing witness.”

Step” directed by Amanda Lipitz and reviewed by Susan Wloszczyna

“‘Step’ is both a buoyantly uplifting celebration of African-American womanhood and the dedicated educators who have their backs. The real prize here isn’t a trophy but the assurance that each and every senior will head off to college despite the obstacles they face in their daily lives. Filmmaker Amanda Lipitz, a Broadway producer making her feature-length directing debut and a Baltimore native herself (she and her mother were involved in the founding of the BLSYW charter school in 2009), focuses on three distinctly different members of the Lethal Ladies squad. Blessin Giraldo, with her dimpled smile and innate sense of style (oh, the hairdos you will see), is blessed with movie-star glamour, fierce determination, a palpable physicality and an outsized personality that immediately designates her as a leader.”

Whose Streets?” directed by Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

The fact that the movie contains no interviews with police officers or government authorities has sparked some backlash among film critics who, one assumes, wanted more of an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach. But there are dozens of written and filmed accounts of Ferguson that have already done that. This account is entirely concerned with what activists and ordinary citizens, and ordinary citizens who became activists, saw and felt in the weeks that followed the killing of unarmed Ferguson resident Michael Brown, a black man, by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, a white man. The race and class of the participants is central to the movie, because they help explain not just the point-of-view of the filmmaking, but the movie's relationship to the rest of American media and society.”

Strong Island” directed by Yance Ford and reviewed by Sheila O’Malley

Ford does not open up his gaze in order to loop his brother's story into the national issue of African-Americans not getting a fair shot in the justice system (although it is implied everywhere). He keeps the focus narrow. [..] At one point, Ford's mother, remembering her initial response to the news of her son's death, says, ‘How are we gonna make it without him?’ It's heartrending. There is no full recovery. In many ways, the family did not ‘make it without him.’ In a very poignant way, ‘Strong Island’—painful, probing, intimate—reiterates Mrs. Ford's question so strongly that it hangs in the air as the credits roll.”

Quest” directed by Jonathan Olshefski and reviewed by Sheila O’Malley

“When I hear people cautioning others to not ‘politicize’ certain events, I wonder what world they live in. It's an extremely privileged point of view. Politics is not theoretical, it affects our everyday world in the most intimate ways. Whoever's in charge can impact our lives, our futures, with a swipe of his pen. A school shooting is inherently ‘politicized,’ whatever side of the fence you stand on. ‘Quest’ takes place during Obama's two terms in office, with the Rainey family heavily involved in the re-election campaign, watching as the returns come in. ‘I wish my mom woulda seen this,’ says Christine'a. ‘She'd be trippin’.’ The neighborhood they live in is a close-knit one, but with out-of-control elements, and after a couple of people die in corner shootouts, residents take to the streets, calling for a stop to the violence. The rage is palpable. Late in the film, Chris and Christine'a are shown watching Trump's now-infamous, ‘African-Americans, what the hell do you have to lose?’ campaign speech, and their faces recoil in disgust. ‘How does he know how we live?’ murmurs Christine'a. He doesn’t.”

Blindspotting” directed by Carlos López Estrada and reviewed by Odie Henderson

‘Blindspotting’ sees gentrification as an evil thing and it pushes that as a bigger irritant to Miles than to Collin. The new folks attempting to claim Oakland as their own look like Miles, and he considers that an affront to his own native rights to Oakland as someone who grew up there. Miles is a walking overcompensation, a White guy who sports a gold grill, is prone to reputation-proving violence and pitches his gangsta persona just a few notches higher than necessary in order to ensure his street cred. Casal plays him fully entrenched in this guise, which feels more like a sincere homage than the kind of cultural appropriation Miles fears deep down in his soul. At one point, Miles is driven to violence because someone mistakes him for the kind of gentrifier he despises.”

BlacKkKlansman” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Odie Henderson

‘BlacKkKlansman’ clearly wants to be the anti-‘Birth of a Nation,’ and I’m sure some less-enlightened people will consider it on that same level of racial propaganda. But what else do Lee and his producer Jordan Peele want to accomplish with this astonishing, funny and important film? The answer is most likely in the film’s coda, which shows footage from the incident in Charlottesville that cost Heather Heyer her life. In fact, this film opens on the anniversary weekend of those events. This raw footage, which arrives after perhaps the best use ever of Lee’s trademark people-mover shot, is both a massively effective, righteous trolling and a terrifying reminder that we are not so far removed from the period-piece world we have just witnessed. And Lee, a man who never gave a damn about what anyone thought of his politics, is fearless in speaking truth to power with this film. Lee dedicates ‘BlacKkKlansman’ to Heyer’s memory, writing ‘rest in power’ under a picture of her before ending his film with the only Prince song that could have ended it.”

The Hate U Give” directed by George Tillman, Jr. and reviewed by Monica Castillo

“In my screening of ‘The Hate U Give,’ there were tears, gasps, laughs and cheers. A shiver rippled through my skin when the shots rang out, and I choked back sobs in many more scenes. […] We feel for Starr and we are with her in moments like when she confronts a racist friend or questions a reporter for fixating on Khalil’s checkered past. We get a sense of the isolation she feels in her school’s hallway and when she’s forced to watch her friend bleed to death. If the story ever seems too basic, too ‘intro to race in America,’ it’s because this is the story of a 16-year-old girl who’s learning that the world is even worse than what she knew. In the audience, there will likely be many more girls who will either be hearing a story like Starr’s, or recognizing their own experience onscreen, for the first time.”

If Beale Street Could Talk” directed by Barry Jenkins and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Though ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a series of vignettes, it holds together better than most films of this type. Each separate piece is tethered to the dual running threads of its love story and its tale of injustice. Though there are White cops in the latter story who are clearly villainous, the mistaken rape victim is also a person of color who has escaped back to Puerto Rico to deal with her trauma. This development sends Sharon to Puerto Rico to attempt to bring her back so she can exonerate Fonny. Before trying to find this woman, Sharon contemplates how she should dress. This scene unfolds wordlessly, yet King plays it so physically well that no words are necessary. There’s an unapologetic Blackness to her thought process as she decides whether to wear a wig or her natural hair—it’s the hairstyle equivalent of code-shifting—and what she settles on seems right, at least in that moment.”

Us” directed by Jordan Peele and reviewed by Monica Castillo

Jordan Peele isn’t the next Kubrick, M. Night Shyamalan, Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. He’s his own director, with a vision that melds comedy, horror and social commentary. And he has a visual style that’s luminous, playful and delightfully unnerving. Peele uses an alternate cinematic language to Kubrick, seems more comfortable at teasing his story’s twists throughout the narrative unlike Shyamalan, uses suspense differently than Hitchcock, and possesses the comedic timing Spielberg never had. ‘Us’ is another thrilling exploration of the past and oppression this country is still too afraid to bring up. Peele wants us to talk, and he’s given audiences the material to think, to feel our way through some of the darker sides of the human condition and the American experience.”

Amazing Grace” directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“‘Amazing Grace’ is two days of Baptist church condensed to 90 minutes and injected directly into your soul. Shot in 1972 over a 48-hour period in Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, this stirring document captured the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. At the height of her powers, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys to her credit, she returned to the environment and the music that honed her voice and nurtured her soul. The result became her biggest seller, earning a Grammy and quite possibly more than a few conversions. This film is a powerful love letter to the Black Church, offering a soul-shaking introduction for the unfamiliar and a grandmotherly yank of the arm for those who know—it drags you from the theater straight into the pews.”

When They See Us” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“This is a lot of ground to cover, and DuVernay and her co-writers craft scenes that are horrifying, harrowing, upsetting and infuriating. There are also moments that feel forced or rushed, especially in the fourth episode. But even at its most flawed, ‘When They See Us’ never loses sight of its thesis statement that Black and brown people are presumed guilty at all times, even by White liberals who pretend otherwise. It’s the same thinking that beget ‘superpredators’ and harsher sentences across racial lines; the same thinking that allowed Dylann Roof to get a Whopper after murdering nine people, yet left Michael Brown laying dead in the street for hours. This series is not going to let you forget how the justice system and the press have failed—and continue to fail—people of color.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco” directed by Joe Talbot and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“‘Weird as it sounds, this movie is a love story about me and a house,’ writes Jimmie Fails in the film’s press release. Fails is one of the co-leads, and screenwriters Talbot and Rob Richert based the film on Fails’ life and friendship with Talbot, a relationship that grew from childhood. Talbot spins the tale, expanding it to include sharp commentaries about gentrification, home ownership, toxic masculinity and how Black men are supposed to navigate friendship. But at its core, ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ is a bittersweet romance whose protagonist will go to untold lengths to be with his object of affection. Unlike many tales of amour fou, however, this one is smart enough to consider whether the guy deserves his beloved.”

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and reviewed by Monica Castillo

Throughout the documentary, its subjects explain the impossible barriers Morrison faced in her career, including the literary establishment who undervalued her abilities and the financial challenges as a single mother. White critics lamented her insistence on centering the Black experience, like when the New York Times declared Morrison too talented a writer to ‘remain a recorder of black provincial life’ in its review of her second book, Sula. Morrison is later shown batting away similarly ignorant questions about her work in older interviews. Almost immediately in the documentary, she addresses the white gaze and explains with the patience of a teacher why whiteness was assumed to be the norm and why her work was so threatening to those assumptions. She touches on craft, her writing routine and how she writes about the Black experience for an audience that doesn’t need it spelled out for them.”

Just Mercy” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Since the days of '50s-era message pictures, the majority of films about African-American suffering have always been calibrated the way ‘Just Mercy’ is, with an eye to not offending White viewers with anything remotely resembling Black anger. We can be beaten, raped, enslaved, shot for no reason by police, victimized by a justice system rigged to disfavor us or any other number of real-world things that can befall us, yet God help us if a character is pissed off about this. Instead, we get to be noble, to hold on to His unchanging hand while that tireless Black lady goes ‘hmmm-HMMMMM!’ on the soundtrack to symbolize our suffering. There’s a lot of ‘hmmm-HMMMMM’-ing in this movie, so much so that I had to resist laughing. These clichés are overused to the point of madness. Between this, the equally lackluster ‘Harriet’ and the abysmal ‘The Best of Enemies,’ that poor woman’s lips must be damn tired from all that humming.”

Da 5 Bloods” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Lee is one of the few directors who takes to heart Godard’s comment that ‘In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.’ There is critique here, especially of films like ‘The Green Berets,’ ‘Rambo’ and ‘Missing in Action,’ with one character joking about how Hollywood went back to Vietnam to ‘try winning the war’ on-screen. There’s also commentary on just how White these movies were, with people like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone achieving mythic glory while blithely erasing the fact that 32% of the soldiers in the jungle were Black. It’s this type of whitewashing of veterans that Lee chips at with his cast and his story, the same type that would allow an NFL quarterback to imply that his White grandfathers were more patriotic than the soldiers of color who fought in the war with them, yet came home to inferior circumstances.”

INTERVIEWS

A Conversation with “Selma” Director Ava DuVernay and Actor David Olyelowo by Sergio Mims

[DuVernay:] “The chokehold is illegal; the coroner ruled [Eric Garner’s death] as homicide; there’s video that is as pristine as day—better than any bodycam can give you, and still no indictment. So I think what this is is that we feel that we are in this moment. But what I hope ‘Selma’ does is to illustrate that this is not a moment, this is a continuum. It’s a cycle, a vicious cycle. So when you realize that, then that’s when you stop and you try to figure out a better way. ‘O.K we have done that—NOW what do we do?’ I don’t want ‘Selma’ to advocate necessarily being “on the nose’ with the tactics that were done then. I think that there’s a lot to learn from that time that’s not being executed. The question is how do you take what that was and move it to the next step? Because it seem like we always start over.”

No Safe Place in America: Lucia McBath on “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” and “The Armor of Light” by Matt Fagerholm

We went directly to Charleston and had our prayer call to action on our knees before the Emanuel AME. We have since gone back and delivered to the church over 250,000 digital condolences and three boxes of handmade condolences from our supporters around the country. Visiting the church felt like a complete spiritual awakening. Everyone there was loving and caring and supporting each other. For people of faith, church is the last bastion of safety and love and acceptance and forgiveness. The word of God tells us that we are to love one another and that we are not to be in fear of one another. Evil infiltrating the church is like evil infiltrating the heart of God. That’s the reason why people were so rocked by this. But what we saw at the church was a spiritual love fest. We were singing spiritual hymns and people were crying together. I kept saying, ‘Wow, if only we could somehow [contain] this energy and take it everywhere, we wouldn’t be dealing with these kinds of atrocities.’”

Hip Hop Attitude: Stanley Nelson on “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” by Sergio Mims

“[Mims:] ‘A friend of mine and I were comparing the Black Panthers with the current Black Lives Matters movement and we didn’t see much of a similarity. ... [Nelson:] ‘Well, my understanding is that one of the things with the Black Lives Matter movement is that this is purposeful, that they do not have a real head. That this is one of the ways that they are trying to go about this movement, not to have a clear leader that other movements have had, for better or worse. Who knows if that’s going to work or not? We’ll see. It’s an experiment to see if they can operate without this hierarchy. But I think the problem is that as your media attention needs increase, then you’re going to have to have people who will speak for the movement and then those people become the leaders whether they want to or not. They become identified to the public as leaders and that’s hard to avoid.”

All Your Buried Corpses are Now Beginning to Speak: Raoul Peck on “I Am Not Your Negro” by Matt Fagerholm

The question now is who dictates the narrative. We didn’t own that Hollywood narrative, the narrative was put upon us and was using us. Now you are starting to see all these filmmakers and writers who are capturing their own narrative and looking back and criticizing everything that has been made before, while unearthing the skeletons. As Baldwin would put it, ‘all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak.’ In order to keep doing that, we need to also have the power to decide what is being made. That’s where this whole discussion of #OscarsSoWhite falls short. You cannot just make a very limited and superficial change. You need to change the power structure. That includes the people who give the green light, the people who decide what films will live and what films will die, and what subject is of interest. This is when you will really be able to make actual change in Hollywood and the Oscars.”

We Have a Lifetime of Stories to Tell: Julie Dash on “Daughters of the Dust” by Angelica Jade Bastién

“We dated the costumes to look ten to fifteen years older than 1902 so we could see that they were hand me downs and old things. And she kept saying, ‘What else did they have to wear? I never saw that before. Why would you put them in white?’ She kept insisting the costumes were wrong. I said, ‘Look I got these costumes from photographs that are at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.’ If we had more money there would even have more detail because they also had hats on but we couldn’t afford to make the hats. But she kept saying no because the world view of television and movies [with things like] ‘Gone with the Wind’ always have someone with a sack on or a mammy has something plaid on. This was a special day [in ‘Daughters of the Dust’]. Usually people had two outfits—special clothes which was this white thing for the summer and their work clothes. That’s it. But there are people who can’t accept that.”

To Know Us is To Love Us: Interviews with the Real-Life Wonder Women of “Step” by Nick Allen

“We didn’t have any electives yet at BLSYW because we were part of the founding class, so I was like, ‘God is telling me something. I don’t know what it is but he’s telling me to get involved and do something about this.’ So I went to the principal and she said yes, and then a lot of my sisters supported me throughout that process. We all came in together and we eventually got a coach and it was only up and up from there. And that’s when I fell in love with step, when I realized it had to do with me who I am and how much it taught me about myself as far as discipline, as far as communicating and speaking up for what I believe in. And also appreciating and respecting and continuing to show people to learn about my heritage in Africa and where I come from.”

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis on “Whose Streets?” by Nick Allen

[Folayan:] “This film is mostly for people who ... there’s something in their power that they can do and they need that energy, they need to be activated, they need to see their work in a larger context, they need to see it connected to historical legacy. They need to know that it’s valid. Because a lot of us, especially those who are connecting on social media, people who are young, who are being told that this is not a real movement, and that we’re not doing it like the civil rights movement, and that it’s just a moment, that it’s just a trend. So we just wanted to take the energy of this movement and bring it to ... just represent it in the way that it really is and really feels when you’re engaged and when you’re standing with people who are very thoughtful about it, who are very analytical, very strategic.”

We’ve Heard This Story Before: Yance Ford on “Strong Island” by Christina Newland

The ten-year production and edit really allowed us—well, me—to cycle through a few realizations as a filmmaker. For example, it allowed me to understand the justice system and how Mark Riley got away with killing my brother. The explanation for that is actually quite simple. It was simple in 1992, and it is now: it’s relatively easy to take a black life and not be punished for it. So, at one point there was all this other stuff—but it was like, no, what’s the most essential thing about this experience? The essential thing was the ease with which you can get away with killing someone if you’re white and the victim is black. What is essential is that black victims of crime almost always need to be the perpetrators of their own deaths. You’re the victim of a crime, but somehow you get turned into the criminal.”

A Fidelity to the Truth: Chadwick Boseman & Reginald Hudlin on “Marshall” by Nell Minow

[Hudlin:] “We're at this historical moment where the country’s literally tearing itself apart and it's very easy for people to feel overwhelmed. I watch the news and I can't take it. It feels like we're losing something precious and we're not going to get it back. But what this movie says is: we faced even bigger obstacles and we overcame them. All we have to do is come together as allies and be smart and have a fidelity to the truth. All these characters came to the case with their own baggage, their own -isms but they believed in a fair version of our system that takes their finger off the scale and says ‘but here's the truth and it's messy; it's not clean but here's what happened.’ When truth resonates like that it cuts through the nonsense.”

Amandla Stenberg and George Tillman, Jr. on Bringing Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” to the Big Screen by Nell Minow

[Stenberg:] “I fell in love with the book because of Starr and one of the first things she does is speak so candidly about having these two versions of herself that she presents depending on the environment that she’s in. That was so special to me as someone who has experienced that. I think it’s part of the contemporary black experience that you understand that your success is often conditioned upon how you present yourself. Often showing up all the way as black in white spaces doesn’t really work. So I fell in love with that idea and I already understood it because I had a really similar experience growing up in a black neighborhood but then going to a school across town that was white and privileged and where I presented myself differently and tried to make myself fit in as much as I could.”

Paving the Way: Shola Lynch on “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed” by Matt Fagerholm

Black Lives Matter is a continuation of the conversation that has happened since Emancipation. It is about overcoming the missing two-fifths in the equation of equality and the “American” perspective. […] I think if Shirley Chisholm were in Congress today, she would be active and voicing her opinion regardless of whether or not it was the popular opinion. She would also take heart in the protests and the young folks expressing themselves. I don’t think she would be afraid of that, even if she didn’t agree with it. She started off as a schoolteacher, and I think she always had confidence in the next generation. Now we are talking about a new generation. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and George Floyd being the tipping point of so many people who have been killed by police officers, if we can take this moment and create change, she would be for that. That’s why she got into politics.”

I Was Surrounded by Love: Spike Lee on the Protests and “Da 5 Bloods” by Katherine Tulich

“With the release of his new film ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ director/co-writer Spike Lee has once again proven that his finger is firmly on the pulse of American history. The Netflix-released film tells the story of a group of Vietnam vets (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman), and also find gold that was stashed and buried when they were soldiers. Lee imbues the story with pointed Vietnam flashbacks and countless historical references, demanding his audience pay attention to the prevalent theme: as history often repeats, the same battles remain to be fought. Australian film reporter Katherine Tulich sat down with Lee to discuss events past and present that formulated his movie.”

ESSAYS

SXSW Panel: “The Future of Film Criticism: Diversify or Die” by Erik Childress

RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert headed the South by Southwest panel ‘The Future of Film Criticism: Diversify or Die,’ which examined the divide between audiences and Hollywood decision makers, and suggested how film critics can help to bridge that gap. She was joined by  Justin Chang (chief film critic at Variety), Matt Zoller Seitz (editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com) and Rebecca Theodore-Vachon (an RE.com contributor). Chaz said there are ‘so many different kinds of diversity in the world today,’ citing ‘physical abilities, gender and sexual orientation.’ She then presented a clip of Roger Ebert berating another critic at Sundance for his ‘offensive and condescending’ statement that Justin Lin’s ‘Better Luck Tomorrow’ was ‘empty and amoral’ in its depiction of Asian-Americans. Roger countered by saying ‘Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever they want to be’ and not be forced into somehow representing an entire race. Chaz, a former civil rights attorney, stressed the need for films to find a way to ‘put you right in the shoes of someone’ and to create ‘empathy in audiences.’”

How the Image of Black Women Has (and Hasn’t) Changed in the Last Two Decades by Carla Renata

When Zoe Saldana was attached to star and produce a film loosely based on a relationship with Nina Simone and her personal assistant Clifton Henderson, many in the community were outraged. Why? Mostly due to the fact that Saldana donned dark makeup to portray the icon. How is this problematic to the image of black women? The problem is Nina Simone was one of the most famous faces of the Civil Rights Movement and took much pride in being a woman of color. Nina Simone, in the '60s and '70s was the poster child for the quintessential image of the Black women in America. As much as I believe Saldana simply just wanted to share a “love story,” this decision again solidified the cluelessness of power players failing to understand how disrespectful and damaging this all felt was disappointing and unbelievable on many levels.”

22 Years Later, Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou” is Still Making an Impact by Whitney Spencer

Hailed as the best film of 1997 by Roger Ebert, Kasi Lemmons' ‘Eve’s Bayou’ has solidified its role as one of the most successful independent films in American cinema. A coming-of-age story set against the Southern beauty of 1960's Louisiana, the film garnered praise among arthouse lovers and cinephiles alike. […] 22 years later, the film and the filmmaker’s contributions might be framed as catalysts for a significant shift within independent film. In ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ Lemmons created a story and visual that centered the experiences of black women and girls. Those visions made space for future black women filmmakers within the independent genre.”

Eight Things I Learned about “Belle” from Amma Asante by Niani Scott

“I was living in the Netherlands during the time that we were making the film, so I had to come over to the UK. So I had to find an apartment to rent. My sister came over to me and said: ‘Did you know the apartment you have chosen is on the very street John Davinier and Dido Belle lived when they first got married?’ London is not small, so for that to happen is incredible. I felt like that was Belle’s endorsement saying, ‘I’m cool with you telling my story.’” 

Ebertfest 2018, Days 4 and 5: “Daughters of the Dust,” “The Big Lebowski,” “13th” and More by Matt Fagerholm

One of the most rapturous ovations I’ve seen in the six years I’ve been attending Ebertfest was received by Ava DuVernay, the celebrated director who flew to Champaign, Illinois, amidst a busy schedule, in order to attend the Saturday morning screening of her Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, ‘13th.’ I immediately rose to my feet when she appeared on the stage, not just because her film is a towering achievement but because its call to action is overwhelming in its potency. […] DuVernay recalled how the reviews penned by Roger Ebert and Ebertfest guest Carrie Rickey of her 2011 feature debut, ‘I Will Follow,’ played a crucial role in launching her career. ‘Don’t knock on closed doors,’ she advised the aspiring artists in attendance. ‘Build your own house and your own door.’”

Roger Ebert on the Films of Spike Lee by Nick Allen

It’s safe to say that one of Roger's most unforgettable viewing experiences in his life concerned seeing "Do the Right Thing" at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. While he wrote more about that in his Great Movies essay on the piece, he officially reviewed the movie back in June 30, 1989. Awarding the film 4 stars, the piece brought out some of Roger’s most passionate writing, especially with how the movie does not take a particular stance in its ideas of race and community, which reaches a tragic end one summer night in Bed-Stuy. Roger writes: ‘I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters. Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations.’”

60 Minutes on: “The Hate U Give” by Matt Zoller Seitz

The film is a primer on systemic racism in the United States, aimed at young people as well as any older relatives who might not have gotten the memo. It embraces the idea that riots are the language of the unheard, inevitable and necessary if the people are being lied to, silenced, or micromanaged by authorities. A climactic clash between heavily armored police and anti-police brutality protesters in their street clothes is shot to evoke news coverage of Ferguson, but also images of sadly similar incidents dating back to the origins of visual media. It's also about how slavery and lynching continued in the United Staes under different labels. Starr's Instagram page juxtaposes recent victims of police brutality with a graphic closeup of Emmett Till's disfigured face, flat-out telling us that when American police kill unarmed black men for no good reason, they're committing acts of racist, vigilante terror, however strenuously they refuse to call them that.”

Sundance 2019: Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency” Offers Questions of Advocacy, Redemption by Whitney Spencer

“With a masterful use of silence between the score, ‘Clemency’ presents viewers with the gut-wrenching question of whether anyone can truly find absolution from or within themselves.  Still the mainstay of this film, for me, isn’t the overwhelmingly true-to-life story or the emotionally gripping performances, but the ways that Chukwu took to heart the real-life stories of wardens and inmates that she interviewed for the film. Too often portrayals of prisons fall flat with overwrought dialogue and overextended plots. Chukwu offers humanity to those existing within the system at every level. And in many ways, you can feel the individual stories of inmates being brought to life through Anthony’s hopeless reality of certain death. Chukwu's dedication to her cause-driven narrative, with such an intimate expression, strongly defines the filmmaker’s work.”

The Fairytale of Homeownership in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” by Robert Daniels

America is a kleptocracy, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once surmised, and Jimmie employs the country’s tactics. He moves into the vacant home overnight, hoping to live there while what he presumes will be a prolonged estate battle plays out. Like Jimmie’s plan, his grandfather triumphing over the oppressive and unfair system of homeownership reads like a soon-to-be-broken myth. Jimmie tethers himself to his grandfather’s ‘victory.’ As a child, he recounts his grandfather’s story to the other children, and later to Montgomery as an adult. His waking dream could only be a dream, only evoked as such to viewers through Talbot’s long shots of Jimmie skateboarding down San Francisco’s hilly streets as gleaming buildings rise around him, trapping him within this near-inescapable gentrified nightmare.”

The Unloved, Part 78: “The Siege” by Scout Tafoya

Art can't give life back, and it can't force cops and politicians to behave like human beings. Apparently nothing can. I'm angry every day. I want justice for George Floyd and everyone else killed by the increasingly militarized white supremacist police force. I want justice. I want our depraved monarch to vanish and take the whole diseased GOP machinery with him. I want my friends who are hurt, who feel like their country is persecuting them, to feel safer in the place they have made their home. I want this time to stop taking from us and start giving us something. Donate to the right causes, speak out, do what you have to to live and survive and feel alive and safe.”

“Malcolm X”: Spike Lee’s Timeless Sermon by Omer M. Mozaffar

“It seems that nothing has changed in a century. When I ask young people—even children in 2016 who grew up under an Obama presidency—to describe someone ‘American,’ they unanimously describe someone White. Today, my social media is peppered with a mosaic of faces of dozens of young Black men who have been killed, with their killers seeming to escape consequence. The overarching message is that our system crushes people, especially African Americans. Even though none of us started the system, we—especially members of other communities – are complicit as beneficiaries.”

Real Treasure: The Reunion at the Heart of “Da 5 Bloods” by Robert Daniels

“Amerasians were often derisively referred to as ‘children of the dust’ or ‘half-breeds’ in Indochina. Statistics for the number of offspring from GI’s remain unclear. But per Amerasians Without Borders, ‘it was estimated that there were about 25,000 to 30,000 Amerasians born within a 10 years period during the Vietnam War.’ Faced with prejudice, some Amerasians became refugees during the ‘boat people’ era (1975-95). They fled through the Vietnam Sea to surrounding countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, etc. by way of crudely crafted boats. Many refugees did not survive the journey. Worst yet, the offspring of GI’s were not accepted by America either. ‘The care and welfare of these unfortunate children ... has never been and is not now considered an area of government responsibility,’ the U.S. Department of Defense explained in a 1970 statement. Nevertheless, in 1975 President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Babylift to evacuate orphaned children by helicopter so they might be adopted by American families.”

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