by Monique Jones | Shadow and Act
It’s the end of the year, and it’s time to take a look at 2018’s best films. This was actually quite a hard list to put together, since there were a ton of great films, ranging from documentaries to foreign films to animated films, that told the gamut of the experiences of the Black diaspora.
This list features 10 films that push the boundaries of how Blackness is portrayed in film. This list shows that we can be superheroes, civil rights leaders, courageous officers of the law and then some. But it also shows how there’s powerful majesty in the everyday experiences. No matter what area of life Black people reside in, these films show how we manage to make our complex, nuanced life stories ones filled with humanity.
In no particular order:
Marvel and Ryan Coogler hit it out of the park with Black Panther, their first film focusing entirely on an African superhero. The film follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he not only learns about the challenges of the throne, but the challenges of grappling with the issues facing the African diaspora.
What S&A said: Even though T’Challa is the title character, the women of Wakanda are probably the more popular characters from the film. Aramide A. Tinubu wrote about the women of the film, particularly T’Challa’s love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
“It’s rare to see so many natural, dark skin Black women on screen, and Wakandan men’s reverence to them is apparent. Coogler wields his lens towards the women of Black Panther but refuses to harp on their sensuality,” Tinubu wrote. “Instead, he makes their drive and intentions crystal clear. Nakia’s actions, for example, are born out of instinct, honor and love. Both fierce and feminine, she isn’t forced to choose one aspect of herself over another. Her beauty is arresting, but it doesn’t define her. In fact, it is Nakia who saves everyone.”
Barry Jenkins wows audiences once again with If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. The film follows Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) whose love progresses and grows despite Alonzo being wrongly convicted of sexual assault. With with a child on the way, Tish is left with the task of proving her love’s innocence so they can be a family once again.
What S&A said: The film has hit a chord with many who’ve seen it, including the stars themselves. In her report from TIFF, Joi Childs wrote about what Brian Tyree Henry told director Barry Jenkins –“Black love is f*cking beautiful, Barry. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that.”
“Beyond the script, how the scenes were shot truly reinforce the beauty of Blackness,” wrote Childs of the film. “Beale Street sees Jenkins resuming work with Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton. This reunion explains the emphasis on close face shots and direct eye contact to the camera…And just like Moonlight, the lighting on all this dark Black skin is impeccable and shouldn’t be taken for granted…These choices reinforce the notion that love is personal, intimate and takes time.”
The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling 2017 book, brings the Black Lives Matter movement to the cinematic forefront in a scathing look at how police brutality affects the Black community. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a girl who is caught between two worlds in which she has to code-switch to get by. When her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed by police, she’s forced to find her voice to speak for Khalil and others who have been wrongly persecuted.
What S&A said: “When we consider films that depict Black people in the inner-city from the ’90s onward or even the stories that we see on the evening news about young people of color being murdered or brutally attacked by law enforcement figures, they are often Black males,” wrote Tinubu in her review. “With The Hate U Give, Thomas and Tillman offer a different and more nuanced perspective, not just of Starr but an entire community on the verge of destruction from constant predation.
Much more than a simple commentary on race, class and police brutality, The Hate U Give is a standout film because it focuses on Black female empowerment,” Tinubu continued. “Emboldened by her father’s strength and words, her parents’ love story, her childhood friends and the injustices she witnesses, Starr learns that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission to speak her truth; she’s had the words all along.”
BlacKkKlansman is a film that’s based on a true story, but it’s still caused its own share of controversy, if we choose to remember when Boots Riley wrote his thesis against the film. John David Washington and Adam Driver star as detectives Ron Stallworth and Flip Zimmerman, who work together to investigate the local Colorado chapter of the KKK, led by none other than David Duke (Topher Grace).
What S&A said: In her review, Tinubu didn’t let the film slide for its bluntness, which sometimes worked against the film’s messages. But overall, she wrote that Lee skewers everyone and everything in his path in his attempt to bring the past to the present.
“Despite some of the hiccups, Lee’s statements about white supremacy, Trump and the terror that rains down on people of color are quite evident in BlacKkKlansman, and he doesn’t let anyone off the hook,” she wrote. “While much of the film is dark and triggering, moments of happiness and humor sprinkled throughout the narrative help keep the audience focused and entertained. Most importantly, BlacKkKlansman puts a spotlight on Ron Stallworth’s astounding story while allowing Washington to begin crafting his legacy in Hollywood.”
Can animation be like this all the time? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, pushes the medium forward with eye-popping direction by Rothman, Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey. The film gives us a soaring story featuring Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Black Latino kid from Brooklyn who becomes Spider-Man. The only catch is that he realizes that he’s not the only Spider-Man out there. Enter the Spider-Verse, where nearly every version of Peter Parker joins forces to fight crime.
What S&A said: Malik Adán called the film “vibrant, action-packed, empathetic and layered,” adding that it’s “the perfect film for both newcomers and veteran fans of the friendly neighborhood superhero.”
“In spite of so many characters and plot points, the heart of Into the Spider-Verse is a young Black man’s search for truth, meaning, father figures and himself. To see Miles Morales centered in this way with so many guides and friends is a gift, especially because his character feels so authentic.”
Sorry to Bother You takes capitalist culture to task in this wild ride of a film. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a lackadaisical guy who gets a seemingly simple telemarketing job to make ends meet. Turns out that he’s great at his job because of his ability to affect a white man’s voice. This talent lands Cassius into a world of complex situations that combine, race, privilege and power into a volatile mix and makes him question just what it will take for him to divest from a corrupt system.
What S&A said: Tinubu praised director Boots Riley’s writing and leadership on the film. “His writing is witty and spot-on, and the brilliant cast packs a punch without ever abandoning that underlying thread of humor that runs throughout the film,” she wrote.
Sandra Bland’s legacy lives on in the HBO documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner tell Bland’s life of activism with the film’s starting point taking place just 10 days after her death her untimely death at the hands of police.
What S&A said: Bland’s family, who participated in shaping the documentary, said that the directors gave them the freedom to tell Bland’s story the way it should be told.
“I never felt like we were put in a position where Dave and Kate would say well, ‘We absolutely need this,’ said Sharon Cooper, Bland’s older sister, to Tinubu in an interview before the film’s debut. “I just felt like there was a level of agency that they provided us with and a level of empowerment which I appreciated.” She also added that she feels the film “shows a very balanced perception of what happened,” a perception that includes “hearing from the other side.”
Viola Davis leads a group of mistreated women through the heist of heists in Steve McQueen’s Widows. Based on the 1980s UK miniseries by Lynda La Plante, Davis stars as Veronica, the wife of criminal Harry Rawlings, who dies along with several other robbers in the middle of a “job.” The botched job messes up fellow criminal Jamal Manning’s (Brian Tyree Henry) plans, so he tasks Veronica to figure out a way to pay him back–or else. Enter Veronica’s idea to group together the widows left behind after the accident to pull off the heist of their lives, pay back Jamal, and provide for themselves in the process.
What S&A said: When the film premiered at TIFF, Childs wrote that the film’s various storylines would have been hard to keep track of “if it weren’t for the spectacular performances from everyone across the board.”
“Viola Davis takes top billing and runs with it, wowing with a layered, emotional and calculated execution,” she wrote.
Rafiki is a game-changer in how Black LGBT stories are told. The film follows Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiya), two women who are in love in spite of Kenya’s strict rules against LGBT relationships. Eventually, they are found out, which puts them–and their love–in danger. Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu had to take on the Kenyan government for its anti-LGBT discrimination against her film, but she won her battle to play the previously banned film in Kenyan theaters, making the film eligible for Oscars consideration. It’s also the first Kenyan film to showcase at Cannes.
What S&A said: After its TIFF screening, Childs wrote about how the film’s message of loving yourself should have been something Kenya wanted to embrace. “It’s undoubtedly a shame that the film’s home country wasn’t initially willing to acknowledge the beauty of Rafiki’s depictions of lesbian love and countless other real-life same-sex relationships,” she wroe. “Kahiu’s film reinforces that being who are and loving in spite of the opinions of others is still a revolutionary act.”
I had to include this on the list because it’s not everyday that you see your mother’s home county represented in film. Happily, that’s what director RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning This Evening is–a love letter to the Black Belt county of Alabama that shows just how rich in culture Hale County actually is.
The film follows several people who live in the cities comprising Hale County. One boy, Daniel, follows basketball aspirations at one of the many HBCUs in Alabama, Selma University. Another story follows Quincy, a father who works at a catfish plant who works to take care of his growing family, which includes the arrival of he and his wife’s newborn fraternal twins.
What S&A said: After it’s Sundance screening, Tinubu wrote of the film that it and its director are “most concerned with capturing the purity of Black life, with all of its beauty, joys and frustrations.”
“…It’s up to the audience to try to ground themselves in the film, with Ross acting like a guide, providing statements but mostly asking questions about Black life, what the source of our dreams are, and if we can even be contained within the frame of a film.”
Which films on this list are your favorites of the year?