Depending whom you ask, 2013 has either been a “banner year” for black films or one that leaves much to be desired. Maybe it’s both. But in the last couple of months, much of what I’ve read on the subject has tended toward the latter sentiment. More major films about black characters have been released in 2013 than in recent years—and they are a stylistically diverse group. Thematically, though, they have quite a bit in common: 42, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and 12 Years a Slave are all based on true stories and center on male protagonists struggling to overcome the daunting effects of institutional racism.
“I am sick and tired of slave and servant movies,” Hermene Hartman proclaimed recently in Huffington Post. After Jozen Cummings, writing for The Root, saw a very different sort of film, The Best Man Holiday, he said he was “proud to see a film in which black men were smiling, and (spoiler alert) not dead or arrested at the end.”
These are rightful reminders that the simple media narrative of a “renaissance” in black representation on film is not so simple at all. Hollywood and the big TV networks remain mostly backward-looking when it comes to stories of black life—look no further than the History Channel’s recently announced (and utterly unnecessary) remake of Alex Haley’s Roots. It’s not that films like The Butler shouldn’t be made. It’s that there is much more to life as a modern-day black individual in America than the legacy of slavery and the struggle for civil rights.
Still, if you’re going to complain about “slavery movies” and other historical fare, you should look hard to see if there are other movies out there that actually do tell the kind of stories you’re asking for. (Shani O. Hilton did just that in her smart essay for BuzzFeed.) Several fictional films about contemporary black life were released this year, although most of them got little attention compared to the likes of Fruitvale Station, et al. Mother of George, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, and Big Words, for instance, all received critical praise. And below, you’ll find three more movies that you can—and should—stream right now.
These are not nostalgic movies. And they are not about slavery, civil rights, or police brutality. But that doesn’t make these films any less thought-provoking. Maybe if we champion them today, more movies like these will get made tomorrow. I hope so.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, directed by Terence Nance
This movie made Richard Brody’s year-end best list for 2013, coming in at No. 9 (just ahead of Inside Llewyn Davis). It was executive-produced by Jay Z. And yet it has largely been missing from conversations about black films this year. Nance’s story of unrequited love is a wistful, intricate elegy that plays with an array of cinematic techniques, including home video, voice-over narration, and multiple styles of animation.
Nance plays the lead, a character who recalls the many romantic failings in his past, and also recounts what we can assume is his latest unsuccessful attempt at connecting with the opposite sex (in this case, a woman played wonderfully by Namik Minter). It may sound like your typical male-driven indie flick, but you won’t find any manic-pixie dream girls here—and Minter’s character gets some time to tell her side of the story.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is an intensely visual film, and it feels at once personal and universal, without straining for broad appeal. It was like no other movie I saw this year.
Streaming on Fandor and available on DVD.
Gimme the Loot, directed by Adam Leon
It’s worth noting that the writer-director of Gimme the Loot is white. But this beguiling low-budget film, which follows a pair of young graffiti writers in New York City during their two-day quest to tag the Mets Home Run Apple, feels honest and real. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest in 2012, it reached theaters earlier this year. The film builds a lush, multilayered world of thieves, hustlers, and rich kids, and portrays their interactions in a manner that rings true to actual social dynamics. Its protagonists are a pair of best friends, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sophia (Tashiana Washington), who sometimes act like feuding siblings, at other times like potential lovers.
Romance is never the primary focus, though, and while the film has many light-hearted moments, it also offers telling thoughts on both race and class. In one of the best scenes, Malcolm encounters a wealthy white girl (Zoë Lescaze) for a second time. He sold her weed—and flirted with her—earlier in the day, but now, in front of a group of drunk girlfriends, she refers to him disdainfully as a “drug dealer” and puts on airs that weren’t so evident before.
The uncomfortable moment highlights the social and language gap that can open up between rich and poor, and it plays with often unspoken ideas about race and sexuality. These heavy topics simmer under the surface, without ever weighing down this buoyant, engaging film.
Streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant, and available on DVD.
Newlyweeds, directed by Shaka King
There have been black-cast stoner comedies before—the classic Friday and the middling How High come to mind—but Newlyweeds has more sophisticated aims than those movies. Shaka King’s film explores not just the fantastical pleasures of being high—though, fear not, there are weed-induced daydreams in this movie, too—but also how drugs and addiction affect the rest of one’s life.
King has said, “It’s crazy to me that there hasn’t really been a movie like this, that I can think of, where you have a holistic portrayal of contemporary black life in New York City.” With his story of Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), the writer-director has gotten it done.
Nina comes from an educated two-parent home, while Lyle, as King has suggested, is probably a high school graduate. What’s especially intriguing about Newlyweeds is the tension between their backgrounds, and the choices that each character makes once that tension can no longer be ignored. Cheatom and Harris work great together on screen, providing more nuances than one expects from most cinematic stoners. Their complicated relationship ebbs and flows, and we are happy to drift along with them.
Streaming on Netflix, Cable OnDemand, Amazon Instant, and available on DVD.
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