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While I was completing this series, Solange released When I Get Home, her wondrous fourth album, later accompanied by a 33-minute film that shrewdly mixes various aesthetic influences to often mesmeric effect, like placing Afro-futuristic visuals among the barren roads and mythic rodeos of the American Southwest. In one of the album's interludes, Solange intones, “I can’t be a singular expression of myself. There’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many.”
I kept returning to this line as I watched and revisited the films on this list, a sizable number of which are frustratingly unavailable on any readily accessible streaming platforms or widely circulated DVDs. Today, versatile filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees are in the midst of boundless careers that would have been unthinkable in the age of Kathleen Collins (whose seminal feature Losing Ground is pictured below), Julie Dash, and Jessie Maple. (Maple’s groundbreaking features Will and Twice as Nice are housed at Indiana University’s Black Film Center/Archive and were unavailable for viewing at the time of this project due to logistical reasons.) DuVernay and Rees are currently traversing genres, mediums, and styles in their work, ensuring that these opportunities are available to the Nia DaCostas, Stella Meghies, Wanuri Kahius, and Rungano Nyonis who are on their way up. But they are still exceptions to the rule that often forces Black women directors into creating singular—and often single—expressions of themselves, unable to secure the financing and industry backing after their initial efforts to explore the full extent of their talent, much less fine-tune or stretch their cinematic visions.
Solange’s words bear an unmistakable ring of truth; they are an unofficial mantra for all true artists, but especially the true artist who is also the pigeonholed and undervalued artist; who is so often forced to choose one side of her artistry to emphasize; who must accommodate, sublimate, and defend one’s right to limitless expression on a daily basis.
For the true artist in any medium, there is just too much of the self to contain, too much life and experience to respond to. Better to express oneself, no matter the imperfections and compromises, than to have said nothing at all. We, as audiences, are so much richer that the artists featured on this list, present and departed, picked up a camera and insisted on showing us the way the world looks through their eyes, defying the odds, the obstacles, and the uncertainties of their profession.
I want to extend my sincerest thanks to Johnny Gore of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, and Shola Lynch and Traci Mark of the amazing Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for their invaluable help and heartening hospitality in helping me view many of the harder-to-find titles. This series would have been impossible to complete without their generous assistance.
What follows is a collection of more than 50 essential, underrated, and flat-out extraordinary films helmed by Black women directors with links and information on where to watch the majority of them. This is not so much a canon as a starting point, a contemporaneous look-back and look-forward. I hope it will encourage you to keep viewing and keep digging into a prodigious history of which this guide has only scraped the surface:
Alma's Rainbow (Ayoka Chenzira, 1994): A fractious matriarchy of fiercely independent Brooklynites—including a buttoned-up beautician, her bohemian sister, and her starry-eyed daughter—takes precedence in this comedy where each interaction crackles and every character shines.
Belle (Amma Asante, 2013): Asante sheds light on a peculiar historical case, puncturing the British aristocracy’s cold and sumptuous veneer with the hard-edged nuances of racial and gender inequity. As the heroine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw illumines a defiant spirit with prismatic purity. Watch it on Amazon.
Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014): A deeply-felt, perfectly-acted romantic and maternal melodrama that restores the genre to its rightful place in American film. Here, love is a meeting of two world-weary souls and a path to discerning—and defending—one’s worth. Watch it on Amazon.
Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (Shola Lynch, 2004): With a wealth of archival footage and clearsighted interviews, Lynch draws back the curtain on our electoral system and pays effervescent tribute to Shirley Chisholm, who dreamt the impossible dream and dared to make it real. Watch it on Amazon.
Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (Zora Neale Hurston, 1940): Count ethnographic filmmaker among the many careers Hurston held during her groundbreaking life. Here, she films Gullah worshipers and sermonizers with a style both engaged and engaging, ensuring that time will not erase them. Watch it on Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African-American Cinema boxset.
The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (Kathleen Collins, 1980): Before Losing Ground, Collins set her sights on this tale of three Nuyorican orphans whose path crosses with a dying widow’s. A magical and mysterious film that touches gently, like the breeze brushing the tops of trees. Watch it as a bonus feature on Milestone Films' Losing Ground DVD.
Cycles (Zeinabu irene Davis, 1989): Davis mixes media, draws on Yoruba traditions, and blurs the real and the imagined in this triumph of ecstatic experimentation, centered around a woman who rigorously purifies her home and body in the hopes of bringing about her overdue period. Watch it on the three-disc anthology L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, available for viewing at local archives, libraries, educational institutions, and other non-profit organizations.
Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991): A lost world unearthed, its faces and places made present in a film so full of wisdom, splendor, and feeling that it eradicates the flatness of the screen. Dash created a landmark but also a sublime dream of what cinema can and should be. Watch it on Netflix.
Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, 1998): Alfre Woodard is funny, flinty, and full-hearted as a single mom and struggling addict starting anew with estranged Mississippi kin. In Angelou’s only film, life is a forward march and family a time-honored bond both fragile and fortifying. Watch it on Amazon.
A Dream is What You Wake Up From (Carolyn Y. Johnson, 1978): Even as this incisive docudrama confounds the border between reality and fiction, its ideas about gender imbalance and the societal prejudice that locks Black families outside of the American dream remain crystal-clear. Watch it on kweliTV.
A Dry White Season (Euzhan Palcy, 1989): Made at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, Palcy's furious and urgent political thriller remains a textbook case of directorial risk-taking. At its heart is the truth that change can only be brought about if we first open our eyes. Watch it on Amazon.
Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997): Lemmons’s masterful talent is evident in every luscious composition, swoon-worthy color, pitch-perfect performance, and bracing narrative turn as a Louisiana girl gains clarity on the world around her—and those entrusted to protect her from it. Watch it on Amazon.
Finding Christa (Camille Billops, 1991): In 1981, visual artist Billops reconnected with Christa, the daughter she gave up for adoption 20 years before. A decade after reuniting, Billops composed this rueful, docu-fictional examination of the difficult choices that define a life.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (Shola Lynch, 2012): Angela Davis put her intellect into revolutionary practice and brought her fight for freedom to the masses. Here, the scholar and prison abolitionist recounts a pivotal chapter, her courage and convictions undiminished. Watch it on Amazon.
Gideon's Army (Dawn Porter, 2013): Porter is one of our most empathic nonfiction storytellers. Her debut movingly captures the warrior spirit of three indefatigable public defenders in Georgia as they weather heartbreaking losses and narrow victories, dejected but not yet broken. Watch it on Amazon.
Happy Birthday, Marsha! (Tourmaline, 2018): Tourmaline and co-director Sasha Wortzel commemorate history by treating it as a felt experience. As played by Mya Taylor and captured by Arthur Jafa, Marsha P. Johnson is again a living, breathing being resisting to a song all her own.
Hidden Memories (Jacqueline Frazier, 1977): Frazier evocatively experiments with sound, editing, image, and POV in this gutsy and unusual memory piece. As her protagonist recalls an unwanted teenage pregnancy, Frazier passes no judgment, honoring the sanctity of a woman’s choice. Watch it on YouTube.
I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017): A Zambian girl accused of witchcraft contends with hardhearted mercenaries and surging sadness in this ravishing and revelatory feature debut. Nyoni devised the rare satire that inspires laughter and tears within the span of a single scene. Watch it on Amazon.
I Am Somebody (Madeline Anderson, 1970): Anderson, the intrepid documentary pioneer, finds quick kinship in the 400 Black female hospital workers of Charleston, South Carolina who went on strike in 1969 for fairer wages. Her film remains a galvanizing record of bravery in action. Watch it on Amazon.
I Be Done Been Was Is (Debra J. Robinson, 1984): A trenchant docu-profile of four distinctive Black women comedians—Alice Arthur, Rhonda Hansome, Jane Galvin Lewis, and Marsha Warfield—whose passionate pursuit of their art in a biased industry is in itself an act of defiance.
I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Pat Hartley, 1982): James Baldwin’s magnetic presence and sublime eloquence are foregrounded as the writer traverses America, revisiting Civil Rights activists and exposing the falsity of progress in this spectacular mosaic of first-hand heroism.
I Like It Like That (Darnell Martin, 1994): Powered by Luna Lauren Vélez's sparkling star turn, Martin’s debut dramatizes the tumbles and triumphs of a complex, driven woman with screwball verve and melodramatic grandness. 25 years later, it still sings to a beat unlike any other. Watch it on Amazon.
Illusions (Julie Dash, 1982): No filmmaker writes history like Julie Dash. In this radical revisionist drama that fully realizes the medium's audiovisual capacities, a passing Hollywood producer sets out to change nothing less than the way Black people are seen on the big screen. Watch it on Kanopy.
Jinn (Nijla Mu'min, 2018): When Mu’min holds her actors in close-up, she conjures a startling intimacy, enabling these performers to bring sweetness and soul-baring sensitivity to her beautiful story of a divided mother and daughter, each pondering and pursuing new ways of being. Watch it on Amazon.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Leslie Harris, 1992): By refusing to sand down its heroine’s rough edges, Harris's portrait frankly and exuberantly acknowledges that few choices are more audacious than staying unapologetically oneself in a world that seeks to weaken one's shine. Watch it on Amazon.
Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles, 2016): A personal reckoning, a communal intervention, and a musical epic of kaleidoscopic emotion and spellbinding cinematic grandeur. Shaped by many makers but unified by the unfaltering vision of an artist who channeled grief into restless creativity. Watch it on Tidal.
Lift (DeMane Davis, 2001): A character-specific crime drama with as much mobility and finesse as Kerry Washington, mesmerizing here as a wily Boston shopgirl who moonlights as a shoplifter. Its heist scenes go off like a bomb but the rich familial dynamics are what really linger. Watch it on Amazon.
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018): Embedded within an America often absent in American films, DaCosta’s taut drama channels dire concerns through the tale of two hardbitten women in cowboy country, each led by sisterhood and the will to survive, if only by the skin of their teeth. See it in theaters on April 19th.
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982): Collins’s bravura filmmaking style was as sensuous as it was erudite. In this, her lone feature and a milestone production, Collins externalizes the interior transformation of a philosophy professor redetermining what she desires from life. Watch it on DVD from Milestone Films.
Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000): Remembered for its romantic heat, this contemporary classic honors love in numerous forms—for a partner, a sport, a family, a home. From script to performance, every element communicates that life is fuller for having love in it. Watch it on YouTube.
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012): This deftly-performed, impeccably-lensed drama reminds us that a cinematic experience need be nothing more than ordinary people in everyday spaces, confronting each other with hard truths and opening up pathways into their isolated hearts. Watch it on Amazon.
Mississippi Damned (Tina Mabry, 2009): Mabry is a tough-minded dramatist with a tender regard for her characters. She brings consummate craft and palpable heartache to this novel-rich portrait of an intergenerational family that hurts, heals, and pours its hopes into one another. Watch it on Morgan's Mark.
Monday's Girls (Ngozi Onwurah, 1993): Onwurah tracks the journeys of a set of young Waikiriki women with conflicting views on marriage and village custom. Where a lesser director might have shouted her ideas, Onwurah instead shows them through the quiet power of her image-making. Watch it on Kanopy.
Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017): Rees brings a panoply of voices and experiences to the fore as two Southern families contend with the war at home in WWII-era America. Her film is an exquisite cracked mirror reflecting the savage realities of a past not too dissimilar from our present. Watch it on Netflix.
Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, 2010): For Hamilton, the past is a canvas for creation and reconsideration. This debut, centered around an ex-Black Panther's perilous homecoming, boils down historical topics into a glance, a kiss, a motion, which is to say the language of film. Watch it on Amazon.
One Way or Another (Sara Gómez, 1977): Gómez took real, radical risks with form in this edifying and influential docudrama, in which the blossoming romance between a teacher and a revolutionary worker is set against a sociopolitical backdrop of turmoil and transformation in Cuba.
Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011): Rees and her unflinching collaborators convey the turmoil and hard-won hope that coexist in many coming-out experiences. In a cinema overloaded with gimcracks, let us be thankful for artists like Rees who are still interested in reaching hearts and minds. Watch it on Amazon.
Perfect Image? (Maureen Blackwood, 1988): Blackwood places racist standards of beauty in front of a funhouse mirror, steps back, and cackles at the mess of it all. This piece boisterously dismantles retrograde ideals with surreal images, Brechtian monologues, and musical numbers.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson, 2017): Who says biographical dramas can't be as audacious as their subjects? A warm, brainy, scintillating love story about a polyamorous trio that flouted gender and sexual mores and, in doing so, produced a feminist icon. Watch it on Hulu.
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018): No matter the constraints the Kenyan government placed on this homegrown lesbian love story, the potency of its central coupling transcends all barriers. Kahiu reproduces the rapture of young love with grace and an unshakable belief in what is right. See it in theaters on April 19th.
Rain (Nyesha) (Melvonna Ballenger, 1978): Set to John Coltrane’s soul-nourishing “After the Rain” and Ballenger’s lyrical narration, this ruminative and impressionistic work depicts a rainy day as an occasion to see our imperfect world a little clearer and push toward liberation. Watch it on YouTube.
Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014): DuVernay masterfully demythologizes King. Most historical films are period pageants, but DuVernay has no time for that, instead emphasizing the human toil—the blood, sweat, and tears—and group strategizing that put a movement on the path to glory. Watch it on Amazon.
Shipley Street (Jacqueline Frazier, 1981): What begins as a naturalistic portrait of a Black family’s day-to-day grievances becomes a horrifying yet ultimately hopeful study of how individuals and institutions can torment one of society’s most vulnerable members: the Black child. Watch it on the three-disc anthology L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.
Stormé: Lady of the Jewel Box (Michelle Parkerson, 1987): This historically resonant documentary preserves the legacy of Stormé DeLarverie, emcee of America's first integrated female impersonation show and a drag king for whom life was a great occasion for glorious self-creation.
Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy, 1983): A wise, wondrous coming-of-age masterwork centered around the formative events of a gifted boy in 1930s Martinique yet able to see in every direction. Looks back at life’s growing pains not with weeping and sorrow, but joy and understanding. Rent it on Netflix.
Suzanne, Suzanne (Camille Billops, 1982): Billops provides sister Billie and niece Suzanne the necessary space to reflect on the burdens of patriarchal abuse and drug addiction that have haunted them for years. This film is a testament to the resilience that runs in their family.
(T)error (Lyric R. Cabral, 2015): With incredible levels of access and candor, co-director Cabral crafts an eye-opening character study of a prickly, unapologetic Black Panther-turned-FBI informant and a bold exposé of the inhumane entrapment of post-9/11 government surveillance. Watch it on Netflix.
These Hands (Flora M’mbugu-Schelling, 1992): Trusting in its non-editorializing style to convey a sobering message, this sui generis documentary shows Mozambican women refugees at work in a rock quarry outside Dar es Salaam—singing, nursing wounds and children, and soldiering on. Watch it on Kanopy.
Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016): Porter highlights the vital work of Southern abortion providers who face onerous conundrums as lawmakers attempt to re-criminalize their practice. Her humanist touch ensures the compassion and valor of managers, clinicians, and patients shine through. Watch it on Amazon.
A Tribute to Malcolm X (Madeline Anderson, 1969): Four years after Malcolm X's murder, Anderson paid homage to the titan with his formidable speeches and a new interview with Betty Shabazz. The result is rousing confirmation that a man’s fight lives on long after his last breath. Watch it on the National Museum of African American History and Culture's website.
Visions of the Spirit: A Portrait of Alice Walker (Elena Featherston, 1989): A complicated literary legend at the peak of her stardom and in her own words. This meditative documentary encapsulates the subversive spirit of a writer who refused to let Black women live in anonymity.
Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (Barbara McCullough, 1979): McCullough’s lustrous monochrome and hypnotic dissolves glitter on the screen in this experimental touchstone that transposes a Diaspora water deity into modern times as a Watts woman achieves self-renewal. Watch it on the three-disc anthology L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996): Zesty, uncompromising proof that there's no one right way to revisit the past on film. Dunye’s meta-comedy evinces the multitudinous humanity that her character seeks in her cathectic search for the Black queer women who came before her. Watch it on Kanopy.
The Weekend (Stella Meghie, 2018): Sasheer Zamata excels as a stunted comic entangled in a romantic roundelay with her ex, his girlfriend, and an alluring stranger during a rustic getaway. Meghie catches some of the languid, layered color of Kathleen Collins in this jazzy comedy. See it at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on May 4th, 5th, and 6th.
Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan, 2017): An essential chronicle of the activists who have made bravery their life’s work in the fight against police brutality. Folayan’s film is as true as the hearts that beat inside these fighters and as tireless as the feet that march for change. Watch it on Hulu.
Women with Eyes Open (Anne-Laure Folly, 1994): The observant images and didactic interviews of Folly’s West African expedition all attest to the societal ills and traditions working to keep women inferior but also the lionhearted iconoclasts who are combatting such subordination. Watch it on Kanopy.
Your Children Come Back to You (Alile Sharon Larkin, 1979): A girl comes face to face with the oppressive realities of poverty in one of the most haunting and heartrending films of the L.A. Rebellion movement. Larkin blends hard-hitting social critique with pure cinematic poetry. Watch it on the three-disc anthology L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.
Zora Is My Name! (Neema Barnette, 1990): Co-writer Ruby Dee and Lynn Whitfield lead a sterling ensemble in a dazzling tapestry of speech, song, movement, and folklore that proudly celebrates the life and ingenuity of Zora Neale Hurston, whose voice was a vessel for the voiceless.
Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage (Zora Neale Hurston, 1928): A survey of Southern workers and the communities that safeguard them. Hurston sings their songs and records their routines with eager inquisitiveness, her feet planted in the same earth in which they labor and live. Watch it on Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African-American Cinema boxset.
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