Roger Ebert Home

15 African-American Filmmakers and Roger Ebert's Birthday Retrospective Reviews

Happy Birthday Roger! Today, June 18th, would be your 80th Earth Birthday! So in anticipation of our Black Writers Week, we are publishing a compilation of 15 reviews of various essential films by Black directors. We hope you are getting a bird's eye view of this. But for those still here, please Click on each title, and you will be directed to the full review...Love, Chaz


Antwone Fisher (2002), directed by Denzel Washington

"'Antwone Fisher,' based on the true story of the man who wrote the screenplay, is a film that begins with the everyday lives of naval personnel in San Diego and ends with scenes so true and heartbreaking that tears welled up in my eyes both times I saw the film. I do not cry easily at the movies; years can go past without tears. I have noticed that when I am deeply affected emotionally, it is not by sadness so much as by goodness. Antwone Fisher has a confrontation with his past, and a speech to the mother who abandoned him, and a reunion with his family, that create great, heartbreaking, joyous moments."

Baadasssss! (2004), directed by Mario Van Peebles

"Mario Van Peebles was 13 when the movie was being made, and was pressed into service by his father to play Sweetback as a boy. That involved a scene with a hooker in the brothel that still, today, Mario must feel resentment about, since in 'Baadasssss!' he makes a point of showing that some of the crew members and his father's girlfriend, Sandra (Nia Long), objected to it. But Melvin was a force of nature, a cigar-chewing renaissance man who got his own way. Only sheer willpower forced the production ahead, despite cash and personnel emergencies, and 'Sweet Sweetback' is like a textbook on guerrilla filmmaking."

Boys N the Hood (1991), directed by John Singleton

"There is always the possibility that words will lead to insults, that insults will lead to a need to 'prove their manhood,' that with guns everywhere, somebody will be shot dead. These are the stark choices in John Singleton’s 'Boyz N the Hood,' one of the best American films of recent years. The movie is a thoughtful, realistic look at a young man’s coming of age, and also a human drama of rare power - Academy Award material. Singleton is a director who brings together two attributes not always found in the same film: He has a subject, and he has a style. The film is not only important, but also a joy to watch, because his camera is so confident and he wins such natural performances from his actors."

Daughters of the Dust (1992), directed by Julie Dash

"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."

Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee

"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."

Eve's Bayou (1997), directed by Kasi Lemmons

"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."

The Five Heartbeats (1991), directed by Robert Townsend

"This is Townsend’s first traditional feature film; his directorial debut, some four years ago, was 'Hollywood Shuffle,' a series of comic sketches that parodied the cliched ways Hollywood has used black characters in the movies. Most of those sketches were under 10 minutes; this time, at feature length, Townsend shows a real talent, and, not surprisingly, an ability to avoid most cliches, to go for the human truth in his characters."

I Will Follow (2011), directed by Ava DuVernay

"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."

Killer of Sheep (1977), directed by Charles Burnett

"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."

Love & Basketball (2000), directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

"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."

Malcolm X (1992), directed by Spike Lee

"Spike Lee's 'Malcolm X' is one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the whole sweep of an American life that began in sorrow and bottomed out on the streets and in prison before its hero reinvented himself. Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn't deal all of the cards. The film is inspirational and educational - and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else."

Medicine for Melancholy (2009), Barry Jenkins

"'Medicine for Melancholy' is a first, but very assured, feature by Barry Jenkins, who has the confidence to know the precise note he wants to strike. This isn't a Statement film or a bold experiment in style; it's more like a New Yorker story that leaves you thinking, yes, I see how they feel. The film is beautifully photographed by James Laxton; much of the color is drained, making it almost b&w. The critic Karina Longworth writes: 'I guessed that the entirety of the film had been desaturated 93 percent to match the racial breakdown, but in a recent interview, Jenkins said the level of desaturation actually fluctuates.' The visual effect is right; McLuhan would call this a cool film."

Pariah (2012), directed by Dee Rees

"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."

Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire (2009), directed by Lee Daniels

"The film is a tribute to Sidibe's ability to engage our empathy. Her work is still another demonstration of the mystery of some actors, who evoke feelings in ways beyond words and techniques. She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she's very much like her. You meet Sidibe, who is engaging, outgoing and 10 years older than her character, and you're almost startled. She's not at all like Precious, but in her first performance, she not only understands this character but knows how to make her attract the sympathy of her teacher, the social worker -- and ourselves. I don't know how she does it but there you are."

Shaft's Big Score (1972), directed by Gordon Parks

"The creation of a movie superhero is a tricky business. You're not simply making an action movie; you're creating a mythical character who has to be durable enough to survive maybe half a dozen sequels. That was the case with 'Shaft,' the incredibly successful movie about a black private eye. The movie was made on a limited budget and there were a lot of rough edges, but John Shaft captured enough imaginations to take a million dollars out of the Roosevelt Theater alone last summer. The movie is intended as mass-audience escapist entertainment, and works on that level better than 'Shaft' did."

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Fourth of July
The Forgiven
The Princess

Comments

comments powered by Disqus