Black Cinema: Influential Films of the Last Century

Over the past century, the black cinema space has evolved and been crafted by multiple filmmakers, paving the way for modern names such as Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, and Barry Jenkins.

Speaking to CTV’s Your Morning on Friday during Black History Month, film critic Radheyan Simonpillai shared his list of some of the most influential films that have defined black cinema today.

WITHIN OUR DOORS (US, 1920)

Directed by Oscar Micheaux, the silent film “Within Our Gates” is the oldest surviving film by a black filmmaker.

“I understand it’s hard to watch a 100-year-old silent film, but this is… such a compelling film,” Simonpillai said.

The film tells the story of a teacher in the southern United States who is trying to raise money for a school to educate young black children, and his fight against those who think otherwise.

“It’s a very fascinating subject from a fascinating time,” Simonpillai said.

He points out that while the oldest film noir there is, “Within Our Gates” isn’t the first.

Others came before, including a film Micheaux created the previous year called “The Homesteader.”

Due to a lack of care in restoring them, these films have since been lost to history.

Although long considered lost, decades after its release, “Within Our Gates” has been rediscovered in Spain.

BLACK GIRL (SENEGAL, 1966)

“Black Girl” tells the story of a young Senegalese hired as a nanny for a couple on the Côte d’Azur, a life that quickly becomes that of slave labor.

A movie of Ousmane Sembenewho is often referred to as the father of African cinema, “Black Girl” is Simonpillai’s favorite on the list.

“The film is just this really powerful, brilliant take on microaggressions and psychosexual power plays, and the pervasiveness of post-colonialism, he said.

BAADASSSSS SONG OF SWEET SWEETBACK (USA, 1971)

While Quentin Tarantino fans will know his affinity for the Blaxploitation genre, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is truly the “OG,” says Simonpillai.

A movie about a sex worker On the run after killing two police officers who brutalized a black panther, Simonpillai describes “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” as an “angry, raunchy, incredibly groovy movie”.

“So there you can tell it’s not a politically sensitive movie. It’s okay there,” he said.

“It’s about sticking to the man, it’s about… refusing to play by the rules of the man.”

Featuring music from Earth, Wind & Fire, Simonpillai says director and star Melvin Van Peebles had to film the film as pornography in order to circumvent union and Hollywood interference, earning him the catchphrase: ” Rated X by an all-white jury.”

HARDER THEY COME (JAMAICA, 1972)

Considered a response to “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, the first Jamaican film “The Harder They Come” tells a similar story of an outlaw on the run.

Performed by musician Jimmy Cliff, the film is about a budding musician looking for odd jobs in Kingston, who later encounters a series of challenges and ends up “breaking”.

“But as he kind of climbs the most-wanted list, his song, ‘The Harder They Come,’ keeps climbing and climbing higher on the charts,” Simonpillai said.

The film is also credited with helping to put reggae on the map.

GIRLS OF DUST (US, 1991)

Clues to Beyoncé’s 2016 hit album “Lemonade” can be traced back to the poetry and imagery of “Daughters of the Dust,” Simonpillai says.

The first theatrical film directed by an African-American woman, Julie Dashthe film is about members of an isolated community in the southern United States during the post-Reconstruction era and their plans to move north, while retaining the trauma they feel.

“It’s about how they try to hold that ancestry, that culture, in their bodies…so it’s a movie about holding on to black history,” Simonpillai said.

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