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2020: The Year for Black Films

Graphic by Elisa Castillo

Representation in the media matters. While millions took to the streets to protest in 2020, filmmakers turned their cameras toward Black stories. From military dramas to musical movies, films help audiences better understand the Black experience. Here’s our pick of last year’s Black films which deserve more time in the spotlight. So grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

1. “Da 5 Bloods”

Where you can watch: Netflix (with subscription)

Directed by Oscar winner Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” is a military drama which follows four African American veterans on their visit to Vietnam decades after the war has ended. In search of their fallen squad leader’s remains and buried gold, the Bloods must confront their trauma as memories of the past resurface. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) discover that war never truly ends — the mental and physical scars are still visible on both sides.

Chadwick Boseman shines as the late Stormin’ Norman in “Da 5 Bloods”. Lee believed that Boseman was perfect for the role as he played a hero both on and off-screen: “This character is heroic; he's a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T'Challa." The film was well-received, and was named the Best Film of 2020 by the National Board of Review. “Da 5 Bloods” reminds us to love one another, and that family isn’t always blood.

2. “His House”

Where you can watch: Netflix (with subscription)

“His House'' is a horror-thriller film about a refugee couple from South Sudan struggling to adjust to their new life in England. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are assigned to live in a run-down house that has an evil living within the walls. Despite Bol trying to assimilate and Rial clinging to their culture, both experience discrimination and alienation from their neighbors. The couple is haunted by the ghosts of the past — the death of their daughter and the debt they need to repay.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has earned a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews from over a hundred critics. “His House” is much more than a haunted house movie; it’s a social commentary that highlights the real-life horrors people are subjected to like racism and violence. Not to mention, the twist at the end adds a new layer of meaning to the film.

3. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Where you can watch: Netflix (with subscription)

Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an adaptation of August Wilson's play of the same name. The film is set in Chicago in 1927 and discusses issues of race, art and the exploitation of black artists. Produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf, the story centers on Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the “Mother of Blues,” and her jazz band during a recording session. Tensions arise as her trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) steps on Rainey and the rest of the band’s toes.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was Chadwick Boseman’s final film appearance. The film is nominated for two Golden Globe Awards for Boseman’s and Davis’ performances. The Netflix special, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Legacy Brought to Screen,” gives audiences a behind-the-scenes look into the film’s production and historical context. Ma Rainey and Levee Green embody the Black experience of the 1920s; white people ran the show even when an African American was on stage.

4. “One Night in Miami”

Where you can watch: Amazon Prime Video (with subscription)

Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami” reimages the night Civil Rights Movement icons Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) met on February 25th, 1964. In Malcom X’s motel room, the group reflects on the Black struggle in America and their roles as influential African American figures. The narrative concludes with Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, Malcom X spliting from the Nation of Islam, Sam Cooke debuting “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Brown leaving the NFL.

“One Night in Miami” asks audiences to acknowledge the perpetual oppression of Black men and women: “How much do the oppressed have to do before they can be recognized as human beings?”. Furthermore, it emphasizes the brotherhood behind the Civil Rights Movement which helped bring about change. The film is nominated for three Golden Globes: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Odom Jr.) and Best Original Song (“Speak Now”).

5. “Safety”

Where you can watch: Disney+ (with subscription)

“Safety” tells the inspiring true story of Clemson University safety Ray McElrathbey. As a freshman in college, Ray (Jay Reeves) struggles to balance his school work, football career, and home life. When his mother enters a drug recovery program, Ray takes his younger brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) in. With the help of his coaches, teammates and community, Ray is able to support his family without giving up another. At its core, “Safety” is a heartwarming biographical sports drama which can be enjoyed by football fans and families alike.

6. “Soul”

Where you can watch: Disney+ (with subscription)

Disney Pixar’s “Soul” is a fantasy comedy-drama film which contemplates the meaning of life. The protagonist, Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), is a middle-school band teacher who dreams of playing piano in a jazz club. When his soul and body are separated, he is tasked with helping another soul find their “spark.” In the end, Joe learns to appreciate the little things in life, and to live in the present because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

“Soul” has been praised for its lively animation, soulful music and African American representation. In order to achieve realism, the film’s producers consulted Grammy-winning jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington. Musician Jon Batiste acted as a co-composer and a reference for animated musical sequences. The film was recently nominated for two Golden Globe Awards by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: Best Animated Feature Film and Best Score. “Soul” delivers in spirit, and sparks passion inside of viewers of all ages.

As the curtains close on Black History Month, remember that the fight against inequality and injustice is far from over. At Shifter, we will continue to applaud Black artists, filmmakers and musicians every day.

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