The movies we see in theaters and on TV don't get made overnight. Even the flimsiest, most hastily made film is the result of months, sometimes years, of production, usually with plenty of "pre" and "post" added on. And so, although it might be gratifying to imagine that this year's remarkable wave of African-American releases was triggered by last February's Oscars "Black Out" protests, most of the films were probably in production long before Chris Rock took the stage at the 88th Academy Awards to crack jokes about the lack of faces-of-color among the nominees.
In any event, the issues addressed in 2016's bumper crop of Black films did not spring up yesterday. Slavery, rampant discrimination, racist violence, and the residual effects of 500 years of social injustice have been Topic A in this country for generations. Black people have systematically been made to suffer. Unfortunately, in real life as well as in popular entertainment, these obstacles show no signs of being overcome, particularly in light of November's election. Hence, the outpouring of artistic protest.
Hang on tight, folks — this is only the beginning.
The Best Films of 2016
Let's continue the discussion after we list the ten best films of 2016. In alphabetical order, they are:
Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie
Indignation by James Schamus
I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck
Miles Ahead by Don Cheadle
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
Neruda by Pablo Larraín
O.J.: Made in America by Ezra Edelman
Paterson by Jim Jarmusch
Things to Come by Mia Hansen-Løve
Tower by Keith Maitland
To that list, we can add a set of notable movies either made by Black filmmakers or dealing with the Black experience: Ava DuVernay's 13TH, Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist, Gary Ross' Free State of Jones, Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, Jeff Nichols' Loving, Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, and Denzel Washington's Fences.
It's not merely the number of serious Black movies that impresses, but also the artistic and social power behind them. The accumulated outrage. The never-ending search for justice. The humanism. The Black pride. The diversity. The shared experience.
For instance, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, subject of Don Cheadle's incandescent Miles Ahead, drove himself crazy with resentment over the hatred he saw, even as a celebrated musical adventurer. Actor-director Cheadle turns in one of the year's eeriest character roles as Davis.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins, in his masterpiece Moonlight, shows us how a young man's soul is saved by a few chance acquaintances who care. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Ashton Sanders all deserve acting prizes, as does Jenkins' screenplay and his beguiling direction. To those of us who admired Jenkins' San Francisco-set romantic character study Medicine for Melancholy when it played the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2008, Moonlight is a promise fulfilled.
(FYI, Hell or High Water, Indignation, Miles Ahead, and Moonlight were all reviewed in these pages during the course of the year.)
The ESPN-produced O.J.: Made in America takes almost eight hours to lay out the strange case of one-time football hero and movie star Orenthal James Simpson, who had it all and then threw it away, violently. Ezra Edelman's doc is a masterful pop-cultural analysis of America from the Sixties to right now, with emphasis on the concept of Black identity — in addition to being a true-crime story for the ages. According to IMDB.com, O.J.: Made in America played in very limited theatrical situations and at festivals after debuting at Sundance in January 2016, then ran as a mini-series on ESPN. Its length makes it a challenge, but anyone who starts watching Edelman's portrait of O.J. and his times will find it addictive and indispensable. Highly recommended.
Writer-director-actor Nate Parker's mission in The Birth of a Nation is to describe the whys and wherefores of the bloody Nat Turner rebellion of 1831. Some audiences and a few chicken-livered critics gagged at the sight of slavery's cruelties — imagine how they would have felt in Nat's place. Parker's vitriolic history lesson is one of the strongest movies of the year, and utterly necessary.
Another old-time misery tour, Gary Ross' Free State of Jones tells its own unlikely-but-true story of resistance to slavery, by free-thinking Confederate soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and his followers. Similar sad ending.
Denzel Washington starred in at least two high-profile movies this year. One of them, Fences, was an actor's party alongside Viola Davis, as the husband-and-wife guiding lights of a working-class Fifties family (with Washington directing). The other was less successful but undeniably gaudy, director Antoine Fuqua's redo of The Magnificent Seven, with Washington as the flashiest gunslinger in the Old West.
The mysteries of history continue. 13TH, a documentary by Ava DuVernay (Selma), takes as its subject the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, whereby African-Americans were punished for gaining their freedom from slavery by states who then re-branded them as criminals — an outrage that began in 1865 and still pertains today. Jeff Nichols' Loving, on the other hand, wants us to believe that love can conquer even the worst human-rights offenses, as in the case of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), who sued the state of Virginia for trying to prevent their marriage, and won.
And then we come to The Fits, which doesn't hit us over the head with outrage, but instead asks us to consider the plight of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, teenager called Toni (played by the delightfully named Royalty Hightower), who boxes with her brother at the local community center, yet inside really aches to join the other girls performing in the Lionesses dance team. Things go well for Toni in that quest, until they don't.