Extra Credit: Five Films Directed by Black Women to Stream After ‘A Wrinkle in Time’
In the weekly column Extra Credit, Charles Bramesco recommends supplemental viewing for moviegoers whose interests have been piqued by a given week’s big new release.
This Friday, Ava DuVernay’s big-budget adaptation of the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time instantaneously dimension-hops into cineplexes. The bad news is that, per most of the reviews that have already run (including one at this fine web site), the film does not quite live up to the standard set by the source material. The good news, or at least the unperturbed-by-critical-consensus news, is that this production can still claim a victory as the first blockbuster-scaled film entrusted to a female director of color.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and the biggest net positive from the Wrinkle in Time release has been a spike in the moviegoing public’s interest over films directed by black women. There aren’t all that many of them, but they’re out there, and now they’re in here. This week’s column surveys this small but accomplished canon of films, in the hopes that it’ll grow precipitously in the years to come.
In her 1996 debut film, Cheryl Dunye amply demonstrated why a plurality of voices is so essential to cinema. Her difficult interrogation of the ‘mammy’ stereotype could not have possibly come from anyone else, not just because of its sharp insights about race and sexual identity (Dunye was the first black and openly lesbian filmmaker to claim a feature directing credit), but also due to its experimental bridging of narrative and essay forms. Dunye portrays ‘Cheryl’ as she falls for a white woman and parses out some complicated new dynamics, while at the same time delving into the history of an unnamed actress from the fictitious Plantation Memories. Invention and fact commingle to arrive at a tougher truth about the way the industry uses and discards black women.
Gina Prince-Bythewood offered a peek into the complicated world of black celebrity with this drama featuring a magnetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw as pop star Noni Jean. The film joins her hot off a Billboard Music Award win, as she starts to crack under the pressure of her rapid ascent to stardom. Noni falls for well-intentioned police officer Kaz (portrayed by Nate Parker, making 2014 feel like a million years ago) and must balance their budding attraction with a demanding career, but everyone wants her to be what they want her to be. She remains true to herself in this stirring film, the rare substantive example of the oft-abused romance genre. (With a delectable supporting turn from Machine Gun Kelly, to boot.)
The pearls-and-furs costume drama has a reputation for being one of the more anodyne film genres, but simply by recasting a black woman in the royal role (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, going back-to-back with Beyond the Lights), director Amma Asante woke it right up. The film chronicles a key chapter in the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race child born out of wedlock in the West Indies who was taken in by Lord William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) and raised in the aristocracy. After learning of the Zong massacre in which over a hundred slaves were slain at sea, she does what society will allow — plus a little more — to ensure that they’ll get the justice they deserve. Willful, independent, and quick-witted, Dido’s a stellar role model and a compelling character.
Off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the insular Gullah culture offers descendants of West and Central African slaves a world of their own. This drama follows the preparations of the three-generation Peazant family to leave their island home and move to the mainland, an extreme cultural collision pitting traditionalism against modernity. In addition to a subtly played story about women at a crossroads, this film offers a peek into a hidden world most white audiences would never even know of otherwise. Julie Dash’s brilliant debut saw a resurgence in 2016, both due to the 25th anniversary of its release and Beyoncé’s liberal sampling of its imagery and themes for her Lemonade music videos.
At the time of its release, this film suffered from a bad case of not being Dreamgirls, the other movie about the record labels fronting black musicians during the ’60s that featured Beyoncé Knowles. But this one has plenty of its own merit, not the least of which is a committed performance from Adrien Brody as real-life executive Leonard Chess. He lures a murderers’ row of talent (including Bey as Etta James and Mos Def as Chuck Berry) into the studio to create the blueprint for Chicago blues, though personal issues complicate relations between the clientele and their benefactor. If nothing else, Darnell Martin’s film earns the audience’s attention on the strength of its performances. Beyoncé sings “At Last,” need I say more?
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