Marlon T. Riggs’ explosive documentary film Tongues Untied (1989)twitter/tiff_net

In the current cinematic climate, it would seem apparent that the industry features more variety than ever before. With a newfound fixation on political correctness, tolerance and inclusivity, one would be remiss to complain about a lack of diversity. However, following a closer study it is clear that the majority of popular black narratives in the Western world adhere to a repetitive rhythm, primarily operating on concepts of stereotyping and tokenism.

Beyond the ability to namecheck Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen and perhaps at a stretch Ava DuVernay, most audiences would perhaps struggle to name many famous black filmmakers. Only a handful are known, and unfortunately this is because many of the popular black narratives in mainstream cinema are helmed by Caucasian casts and crew members. The Help, Green Book and Hidden Figures – three of the most popular films of the century centring on the black experience – all fall into the category of contrived melodramas, often featuring problematic characteristics such as a white saviour complex, white guilt and white fragility. In these cases, the white characters are still somehow spotlighted, despite the films being promoted as instruments for racial equality and promoting the persecuted.

Moonlight: One of the few black-led independent films to gain recognition and praise amongst general audiences due to immense award ceremony successtwitter/tiff_net

It is imperative that, if stories of the black experience are to be popularised, they be narrated authentically. This Black History Month, an exploration of black-centred films directed by black filmmakers – beyond Moonlight and Get Out – is a must.

Touki Bouki

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 film is an incisive yet poetic report on colonialism and migration. Upbeat yet dark, Mambéty uses disturbing images of slaughtered animals as metaphors in order to draw comparisons between the lead characters and cattle – with both seen to lack any semblance of free will or dignity. Mambéty’s picture won the International Critics’ Prize in Cannes, as well as being ranked the 62nd greatest non-English film in the BBC critics’ poll conducted in 2018.

Daughters of the Dust

Daughters of the Dust: the black female experience beautifully voiced by Julie Dashtwitter/netflixfilm

Daughters of the Dust is a 1991 independent film written, directed and produced by Julie Dash, and is the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to have been distributed theatrically in the United States. The film traces the intergenerational trials and tribulations of the Peazants, a Gullah family who are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans who attempt to preserve the traditions of their ancestors. The plot is presented in a nonlinear fashion, with Dash opting to focus on lush visuals and strong and nuanced performances, resulting in a dreamlike experience filled with deep emotion.

Black Girl

Written and directed by Ousmane Sembène, Black Girl is a 1966 French-Senegalese film often considered the first Sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker to receive international attention and acclaim. The film centres on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who moves to France to work for a French couple. In her new country, Diouana anticipates a new and exciting cosmopolitan lifestyle, however upon her arrival in Antibes she experiences harsh treatment from the couple, who force her to work as their servant. She becomes increasingly aware of her constrained and alienated situation and starts to question her life in France, with the director indicating that white supremacy manifests itself in smaller daily cruelties just as much as in colonial rule.

“in order for change a wider exploration of and appreciation for black cinematic narratives is required”

Tongues Untied

Tongues Untied is a groundbreaking 1989 American documentary film directed by Marlon T. Riggs. The film seeks to “...shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.” The film blends documentary footage with personal narration in an attempt to depict the specificity of black gay identity. Riggs refers to a “silence” throughout the film, which describes the inability of black gay men who are unable to express themselves because of the prejudices of heterosexual society, as well as white gay society. Riggs brings awareness to the issues black gay men face, such as hyper-sexualisation and fetishism, and delves into how they are excluded from gay communities due to Eurocentrism and prejudice.

The film was selected to be shown at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016, and is often praised as one of the most compelling and insightful documentary films of all time.


Adepero Oduye shines in Dee Rees’ Pariahtwitter/oneperfectshot

Dee Rees presents a film with a plethora of intersections; of femininity, sexuality, gender, and status, all within the space of just 86 minutes. Rees focuses on the story of Alike, a teenage girl living in New York. The film explores her struggle to assert her sexual, familial, racial and social identities, as well as the relationships that are formed and broken on her journey of self-discovery. For all intents and purposes, Pariah is a fairly typical coming-of-age independent drama, but one of few films to explore the black lesbian demographic, so despite a lack of extreme originality in terms of technical filmmaking, it is symbolically revolutionary. Additionally, with a stellar performance by Adepero Oduye, the film is further elevated.

In recent years, the films containing black narratives created by black filmmakers that succeed at award shows have, of course, been exceptionally brilliant. However, they are few and far between, and so in order for change a wider exploration of and appreciation for black cinematic narratives is required.