Black lives matter. That statement shouldn’t cause debate. Black lives matter. Say it out loud. Black lives matter. If enough of us could say it and mean it, it wouldn’t even be necessary to proclaim it because we’d live it. But we don’t — we don’t live it, so it is necessary to say it. And today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the fact black lives do matter, black humanity does exist and deserves to be recognized and honored and respected, so I’ve got a list of 25 great films to watch in honor of Juneteenth and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But selecting films for this list wasn’t as easy as most lists I make, because the number of releases from black filmmakers — especially black women — has been dramatically lower than the number for white filmmakers, a fact that won’t surprise anyone reading this. Stating the obvious is necessary, though, because the situation is usually worse than most people even realize it is.
Kathleen Collins for example made her exceptional film Losing Ground in 1982, and it was the first full-length feature drama directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Let that sink in a moment — it was the first time a black woman directed a drama of feature-film length in roughly six decades. It is shocking to the conscience, infuriatingly immoral, that so few opportunities existed for black women filmmakers, and equally infuriating and immoral that her exceptional work was ignored by studios and never received the audience it deserved in her lifetime (sadly, she died just six years after making Losing Ground) because nobody would even distribute the picture.
That was in the 1980s, more than a decade after the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when supposedly liberal Hollywood was championing new artistic voices and stories denouncing oppression and praising resistance to bigotry and inequality. Films like Gandhi and Sophie’s Choice drew acclaim and awards for portraying oppression and resistance, Ben Kingsley and Lou Gossett Jr. won Oscars for their performances, and documentaries like The Klan: A Legacy of Hate in America sending the message that the film industry and America in general were trying to confront and overcome the history and legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized racism.
It wasn’t true, though. Some white people of course made the efforts, some white people took it seriously, but not most. Not enough. Which is why every few years we see a new round of the same game — the lack of diversity and inclusion leads to outpouring of condemnation, followed by half-measures pretending to attempt to address the inequality, we see a burst of new projects from black filmmakers and black performers, we see Oscars nominating and awarding multiple black artists, everyone cheers, “Yay finally things are changing!” And then once it seems the heat has died down enough, things just revert right back to the way they were before. Repeat.
Ask Spike Lee about this (I have, during the release of his brilliant picture Chi-Raq). He’ll tell you how tired he is of facing the same round of the same questions every several years from the press, about the latest attempts to address lack of diversity — which is frankly just a euphemistic way to refer to white supremacy and consistent racist bias against black artists in the entertainment industry. “Are things finally going to change?” The answer, decade after decade — even after years of activism and protests that changed our country and our laws during the Civil Rights Movement — has been “No.”
I’m hopeful that what we see now — in the streets, on film, on TV — is the start of something real this time. That true substantive systemic change is finally on the way. That this tide won’t ebbe, that progress won’t wane, that the ongoing violent reactionary pushback against Black Lives Matter and equality in the workplace — in Hollywood and everywhere else — is the last gasp of a broken, brutally racist system trying desperately to hold back the forces of change one more time. There are many reasons to believe this is the case, many reasons to have hope, and many reasons to refuse to give up.
But there is also plenty of evidence to tell us that, without intense sustained pressure, any change will once again be cosmetic, designed not to really alter the status quo but rather to protect it from further accusations or the threat of serious system-wide change. They are running out of room, though, to back away and build new buffers to defend the status quo, and they have run out of people willing to listen to or believe the lies and half-hearted “reforms.”
Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration, it’s a day reminding us of a shameful history of slavery, of segregation, of white supremacy, of murder, of hatred, and of the fact it took a war amongst ourselves to even begin the first steps toward equality. It’s been 155 years, and here we are, with the simple statement “Black Lives Matter” being debated, treated as controversial, and making a majority of white people angry or at least resistant to the message. On the other hand, after 155 years, it’s finally clear that the racist and resentful white people who refuse to admit something as simple as “black people have a right to live” are not a majority of the people in America anymore, and the rest of the nation is ready to throw them in the dustbin of history.
So for my little corner of America here in Hollywood, it looks like serious change is finally arriving, led by the power and integrity of a black community that has always been bigger, stronger, and more righteous than the cowardly ignorant hate they face. They will win because they deserve to, because they demand to, because they are right. I believe it, I refuse to believe otherwise, and so should you.
Here is my list of 25 great films to watch all month long, to honor and celebrate Juneteenth and Black Lives Matter — a collection of films about black men and black women, made by black men and black women, in just about every genre and from a variety of decades. I hope you find some films here that you haven’t seen before and give them a look, and enjoy! in random order…
- Malcolm X
- Waiting to Exhale
- Killer of Sheep
- Daughters of the Dust
- If Beale Street Could Talk
- Fruitvale Station
- I Am Not Your Negro
- Beyond the Lights
- 12 Years A Slave
- Do the Right Thing
- Just Another Girl On The I.R.T.
- The Learning Tree
- Get Out
- Black Panther
- See You Yesterday
- Losing Ground
- Set It Off
- Sorry to Bother You
And here are six bonus films, excellent dramas and comedies by white filmmakers — men and women — for some additional Juneteenth viewing suggestions. I include these here because I think the main list of films should be from black artists, but these are also great and important films worth mentioning in a discussion about cinema that speak to the black experience in America…
- The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
- The Jackie Robinson Story
- Freedom On My Mind
And there you have it, dear readers, my list of 25 great films to watch for celebrating Juneteenth and honoring Black Lives Matter.
Happy Juneteenth, everybody! Please have a fun, safe, and glorious celebration of the fact that black lives matter, as they always have and always will.