Racquel J. Gates
Associate Professor, Columbia University
|Within Our Gates
|Body and Soul
|Boyz N the Hood
|Coming to America
|Andrew L. Stone
|Killer of Sheep
|The Color Purple
Admittedly an unconventional choice, but Hype Williams’s The Rain merits consideration for several reasons. First, many Black filmmakers have historically been excluded from traditional filmmaking institutions. Spike Lee, for instance, got his start directing music videos before he was able to secure financing and distribution for features. As Sight & Sound specified that film may be interpreted according to the reviewer, I offer that music video – essentially a short form musical – should be considered alongside more traditional titles. Williams’s The Rain is a visually stunning presentation of an auteur – the playfulness with motion speed, the fisheye lens, the bright colors – are all signatures that would become recognized as not only Williams’s work, but also representative of an entire decade of music video which saw directors elevate the form to the level of art. Moreover, the fact that the video is for the Missy Elliott song “The Rain” cements the centrality of women in hip hop culture, an important reminder given the attempts to erase female artists from its canon.
Within Our Gates
The film, which plays with time and perspective, is a stunning presentation of Micheaux's commentary on racism and the Black experience in the United States. Further, as a film that creates viewer empathy with Black characters rather than treating them as "others," the film stands as a testament to the possibilities of blackness being centered in narrative film. Further, as a commentary (partly) on D.W. Griffith's 1915 film 'The Birth of a Nation,' Within Our Gates presents a very different idea of what "America" means.
Body and Soul
A film that features virtuoso performer Paul Robeson in three roles, Body & Soul also explores issues of Black religiosity as well as sexual assault, topics which are still not being adequately explored in contemporary film.
Coming to America
While Coming to America would not land on any critics' top ten lists, it is a film whose impact still reverberates throughout Black popular culture. The financial success of the film - both domestically and internationally - "proved" to Hollywood that Black cast films can be economically viable, disproving a longstanding erroneous myth about the viability of Black films. Further, the film continues to live on in the numerous references to its scenes and characters in Black popular culture, even 30 years after its release.
An unapologetically "trashy" and "bad" film, perhaps no other film or filmmaker have forced confrontations with the politics of quality quite like John Waters's Pink Flamingos.
At a time when Black performers were relegated to the background and Black talent presented as "naturalistic" within white settings, Stormy Weather showcased Black stars AS stars. It is telling that clips from the film continue to "go viral" on social media today.
The Color Purple
Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel of the same name, The Color Purple continues to raise questions about adaptation, white directors helming Black stories, and what makes a film "black". Though there have been well-deserved critiques of the film, Black women's claiming of it as a Black woman's story - and the film's continued reverberations within Black popular culture - present a brilliant example of the complicated relationship between filmmaker, film, and audience.
My list attempts to place "greatest" in quotation marks, as a way to raise questions about the economic, raced, and gendered assumptions that undergird notions of quality, and even how we define "film". It is not enough, I argue, to celebrate "diverse" filmmakers, if the standards and protocols by which they are judged still remain tied to the same privileged origins that define both access AS WELL AS frames of analysis. To this end, some of the choices may appear unconventional, yet I want to be clear that I am not offering these titles without thought and rigorous consideration. Rather, I am locating evidence of their "greatness" beyond the films themselves - in the discourses that they have prompted, in their disruptions to conventional ways of thinking, and in their reverberations throughout popular culture well after their release.