Today we celebrate a complex date. There’s the power, joy, and creativity of generations, and there’s the pain, hate, and violence of centuries. The shadow that covers the Americas since the 16th century, ended in 1865 in the United States and finally, shamefully, in 1888 in Brazil (where it all began, alongside the British Caribbean isles).
To look at this shadow and feel and learn from this narrative is a theme that has been part of the history of cinema. Not exactly Birth of a Nation, but the works of pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who’s Within Our Gates – silent, produced in1920 – could be his response to D. W. Griffith’s vitriol.
In the following decades, once in a while, the theme of the shadow that to this day divides this country popped up in movies – The Jackie Robinson Story (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1950), The Defiant Ones (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1958), A Raisin in the Sun (dir. Daniel Petrie, 1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1967), In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison, 1967).
Later in the decade, however, a book and a mini-series would finally put the matter of slavery and racism front and center in the national conversation – Roots, a blockbuster in print and TV.
Let’s take it from this moment and follow this century’s voices and new points of view.
Roots, 1977, dir., Marvin J. Chomsky, John Erman, and others
Alex Haley’s book about the roots of his family ended up shaping one of the biggest TV hits – eight episodes with ratings between 40. 5 and 51.1, the third highest-rated episode in any type of television series, and the second most-watched finale in U.S. television history – plus six Golden Globes and nine Emmys. The saga of Kunta Kinte, from West Africa to Virginia opened a whole new level of conversation in homes and the entertainment business – and launched the career of LeVar Burton.
After a couple of intense films about assorted dramas (Hunger, Shame), Londoner and visual artist McQueen chose one of the harshest themes of a narrative – a free man who ends up enslaved. Based on the memories of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – thanks to his wife and producer, Bianca Stigter, who gave him the book – 12 Years brought slavery front and center, many steps ahead of Roots (and its sequel, in 1979), and introduced the talent of Lupita Nyong’o.
A year after 12 Years a Slave, publicist-turned-filmmaker brought Martin Luther King to screens in her third film. The project – the 1964 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights – had languished in Hollywood, passing from one filmmaker to another. David Oyelowo, who ended up playing MLK in the movie, finally pushed it through. “My family still lives there halfway between Selma and Montgomery”, Ava DuVernay said to HFPA journalist Elisabeth Sereda. “So that was my entry point. But I really got involved because of friendship, because of David Oyelowo. He got me this job.” Selma received four Golden Globe nominations and one Best Film nomination at the Academy Awards.
Get Out, dir. Jordan Peele, 2017
The punch in the gut of a film that begins as a sweet romantic comedy and ends in absolute horror is the now well-known signature of Jordan Peele. Hired at Fox as a sketch comedian, Peele matured into a unique filmmaker, cutting deep into the varnish of all-is-well, from a sweet pair of lovers to what Peele calls “an inspiration from The Stepford Wives”. At the core, once again, the shadow of centuries. And two Golden Globe nominations, and four Oscar nominations.
Black Panther, dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018
The beauty of Ryan Coogler’s take on the Wakanda that Marvel created, on paper (and at the height of the civil rights struggle, in the mid-20th century) is the joy and the power that oozes from the screen. A magnificent cast led by forever-remembered Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa brings to life something that goes beyond fantasy: an affirmation, a possibility, a positive, decisive gesture. The result: $1. 347 billion dollars at the box office and the highest-grossing film by a Black director. And a hero for many generations.
Spike Lee is, on his own, a bridge between the burst of the 1970s and this century’s bloom of Black cinema. We could pick any of his films, but BlacKKKlansman, is the ultimate laughter in the face of racism, with a smart Black undercover cop (John David Washington) who manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan thanks to his strategy and the help of a colleague (Adam Driver). And it’s all based on real facts. Grand Prix in Cannes, four Golden Globe nominations.
Harriet, dir. Kasi Lemmons, 2019
After almost 20 years as an actress, Kasi Lemmons switched to directing, in 1997, with her first film, the delicate, alluring Eve’s Bayou. Harriet is her statement of courage and audacity, with Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the woman who dared bring freedom to slavery. Accolades? Everywhere – from Golden Globe to Grammy.
Lovecraft Country, dir. Misha Green, Cheryl Dunye, Yann Demange, and others, 2020
The idea of putting the most segregated parts of the United States in an ambient loaded with mystery, secrets, and dark magic is one of the most powerful references to the shadow. Writer and director Misha Green took inspiration from Matt Ruff’s comic book, developing the narrative to both past – the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 – to the 1950s of the book’s narrative, including the lynching of Emmett Till. HBO had planned a second season, but unfortunately, ended up canceling it.
The Good Lord Bird, dir. Kevin Hooks, Albert Hughes, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and others, 2021
In what can be called imaginative history, TGDB follows John Brown’s passionate effort to abolish enslavement, seen from the point of view of Henry, an enslaved boy who becomes part of Brown’s abolitionist troops. There’s bravery, passion, and a healthy dose of almost absurd laughter, in these decisive times. Ethan Hawke produced and stars as John Brown, but the best surprise is the talent of newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson as Henry – who most of the time, is dressed as a girl, for protection.
In the same way that Misha Green rethought and recreated the series of traumas of post-enslavement, Barry Jenkins did the same with enslavement itself, in the adaptation of Colin Whitehead’s novel. In the book and on the screen the Underground Railroad is a real railroad, and the United States of the 1800s is remarkably different, oscillating between dream and nightmare. Thuso Mbedu steals the screen every time her key character, Cora, enters the frame. And Jenkins’ faithful DP James Laxton creates a breathtaking atmosphere, between beauty and pure horror.