Towner Cinema: Grace Barber-Plentie
Posted on 18/06/2020
This month, we asked freelance film writer and programmer Grace Barber-Plentie to curate a list of her favourite black cinema. Grace’s areas of interest include films directed by black women, QTPOC representation, and fat women in film.
Over to Grace:
2020 has been a strange time for the film industry – cinema culture as we know it has ceased, with cinemas moving their input entirely online, whether that’s lists, virtual screenings, or tweet-a-longs. And just when we were adapting to this ‘new normal’, another monumental shift occurred, in the untimely and unjust murders in short succession of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd. These murders are sadly nothing new – across the world, black people are regularly murdered by fellow citizens and police. But through these new cases, one thing has become clear: silence on the racism black people suffer across the world is no longer an option.
In response to this new rising of the Black Lives Matter movement, many sources have put together excellent resources and film lists, including the vital work of Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins, as well as more controversial work such as Best Picture winner Green Book and The Help. A focus too, I’ve noticed, has been on black pain and the consequences of police brutality and racism.
These films are important, but there needs to be counter-programming to this. Black lives matter, and seeing black life on-screen matters too. So here is a list of a few of my favourite films by black directors, (avoiding some of the films you’re probably aware of, which means my all-time favourites Moonlight and Do The Right Thing aren’t featured here!) available to watch online in the UK. I hope that in these difficult times, you find some joy in the beauty of black life.
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997)
My go-to for people wanting to watch more ‘black films’ – Cheryl Dunye’s ‘dunye-mentary’ stars the director as a video store clerk making a documentary about a mysterious actress she discovers dubbed ‘The Watermelon Woman’.
Currently streaming for free on Criterion Channel
Stud Life (Campbell X, 2013)
I’m a sucker for a rom-com, particularly a queer one, and Campbell X’s debut feature ticks all my boxes. Wedding photographer and stud lesbian JJ leads us through London’s LGBTQ scene with best friend Seb, as she falls into a new romance with seductive femme Elle.
Streaming on Amazon Prime
Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)
The first film by a black woman to ever premiere in competition at Cannes, (going on to win last year’s Grand Prix) Mati Diop’s first feature is both a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey, a love story, a ghost story, and a timely depiction of migration. Bonus: Diop’s short film that inspired the feature is currently streaming for free on YouTube.
Streaming on Netflix
Shakedown (Leilah Weinraub, 2019)
Leilah Weinraub’s documentary about a (sadly now closed) black lesbian strip club in LA is an astounding piece of work – it’s beautifully made, both meditative and funny, and most crucially…. really, really sexy.
Currently streaming for free at shakedown.film
Rafiki – Wanuri Kahiu (2018)
Still banned in its native country of Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu’s film is a tender and brightly coloured (the director dubbed the film’s aesthetic ‘afrobubblegum’) coming-of-age romance between the daughters of two rival politicians.
Available to rent on BFI Player
Sorry to Bother You – Boots Riley (2018)
Rapper and activist Boots Riley’s first feature is like no other – a slyly and blackly (in every sense of the word) comic skew of capitalism and code-switching with brilliant performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson (who’ll leave you wanting a new pair of earrings ASAP). Whatever you do, don’t google the twist before you watch it!
Available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, Youtube
The Best Man – Malcolm D. Lee (1999)
Malcolm D Lee (cousin of Spike!) is one of the great directors of modern mainstream black cinema – see his 2018 film Girls Trip for confirmation of this. In The Best Man, a pitch-perfect example of the black rom-com, college friends reunite for a wedding, in which secrets are revealed that threaten to tear them apart.
Available to rent on BFI Player
Tongues Untied – Marlon Riggs (1989)
Marlon Riggs was, simply put, one of the greatest filmmakers to ever do it. His most vital and moving work, Tongues Untied celebrates black men loving black men as a revolutionary act.
Streaming on Kanopy
Dirty Computer – Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning (2018)
Blade Runner who? In visual album Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae crafts a dystopian future in which ‘dirty computers’, people who dare to stand out in an oppressive, heteronormative society, are hunted down and brainwashed. Come for the songs, stay for the vagina trousers.
Streaming on YouTube
Bessie – Dee Rees (2015)
Queen Latifah is one of Hollywood’s most undersung stars, and under the direction of Dee Rees, she finally gets to shine as Bessie Smith in this beautiful and moving biopic. Starring alongside Latifah is Monique as Ma Rainey, both giving a touching and layered depiction of the lives of queer, fat, black women.
We are proud recipients of the BFI FAN Covid-19 Resilience fund with thanks to the BFI Film Audience Network awarding funds from National Lottery.