An African-American Cinema Primer

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s post is an African-American cinema primer. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (for one thing, I’m limiting myself to one film per director) but here are 10 essential movies made by African-American filmmakers that I think have valuable things to say about black life in America. I hope this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring African-American cinema.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)


The only films made by African Americans prior to Gordon Parks helming The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969 — much to the shame of the major Hollywood studios — were independently financed. The most important black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century was Oscar Micheaux, who directed over 40 films in a career spanning 30 years in both the silent and sound eras. The incendiary drama Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s second film and is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. Sylvia Landry Evelyn Preer) is a young Chicago woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south, and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate time frames in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The complex and clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of Griffith’s film by showing the historical reality of who really did the lynching. Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, it is now available on DVD via Grapevine Video.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)


“. . . Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality . . .” So reads a fitting quote at the beginning of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking third film, one that he financed independently (which included a $50,000 assist from Bill Cosby) when Columbia Pictures balked at the proposed storyline. Van Peebles himself stars as “Sweetback,” an L.A.-based gigolo who beats up some racist cops for harassing a Black Panther and then flees to Mexico with help from members of the black community (who are collectively credited as “starring” in the movie in the opening credits). This film bears roughly the same relation to 1970s blaxploitation cinema that John Carpenter’s Halloween bears to 1980s slasher flicks: it almost singlehandedly kickstarted a dubious subgenre after becoming a surprise commercial phenomenon (although none of the movies that followed in its wake arguably matched it for subversive political content). And while its still debatable as to whether the copious, unsimulated sex scenes are necessary (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting one scene and was able to get “worker’s comp” from the DGA for being “hurt on the job” — money that he promptly sunk back into the budget), it’s important to remember that cinematic depictions of black American males prior to this had always been meek and asexual. A fascinating relic of its era that still feels revolutionary today.

Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)


This terrific high school movie — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.” Like George Lucas’ beloved period piece, this low budget indie looks back nostalgically and humorously on a more innocent time by focusing on a group of teenagers at the end of a school year — and features an equally amazing soundtrack (nearly all Motown) to boot. Best friends Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) cut class, crash a party, chase women, shoot craps, inadvertently get mixed up with the law after unknowingly going for a joyride in a stolen Cadillac, etc. All the while, their friendship is tested by their divergent career paths: the literary Preach, a character modeled on screenwriter Eric Monte (who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project), dreams of becoming a successful writer, an ambition that Cochise doesn’t understand. This was directed by Michael Schultz, a former theater director who does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns. It also features arguably the greatest use of Chicago locations of any picture shot in my fair city.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979)


The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of its insider’s view of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another, and playing in railroad yards never fail to bring tears to my eyes because of how much they remind me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and often engaged in “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

The Killing Floor (Duke, 1984)


Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013.

Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)


Spike Lee’s long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a “good, lively filmmaker.” Lee’s best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film’s unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without providing any easy or reassuring answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes — by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee’s credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson.

Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)


Julie Dash is part of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers along with her fellow UCLA graduates Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark. But unlike her male counterparts, all of whom directed their first features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed and released until 1991 (it was, in fact, the first feature-length movie directed by an African-American woman). It was also worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands off of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. More specifically, Dash’s movie centers on one Gullah family, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving the islands behind and immigrating to the mainland for good at the turn of the 20th century. The film is primarily a non-narrative experience, one that Dash claims is based more on African folklore traditions rather than Western storytelling: characters in period costume frolic on the beach, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography, images frequently accompanied by poetic voice-over narration about the importance of tradition and memory. Regrettably, this is also Dash’s last theatrical feature to date.

One False Move (Franklin, 1992)


Three drug dealers/killers — two men and one woman — pull off a big score in L.A. and then head across the country to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Two L.A. cops, aware of the trio’s plan, beat them to their destination and must work there with the local-yokel sheriff in order to apprehend the criminals. The always welcome, perennially underrated character actor Bill Paxton has arguably his best role as Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man who seems overly eager to have the chance to crack an important case alongside of the big city cops. What starts off as a compelling neo-noir, however, gradually deepens into something much richer and more complex as layers are peeled back from each of the characters, some of whom prove to be connected in unexpected ways. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Epperson and a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-stars as one of the crooks). The taut direction is by Carl Franklin who, as a result of this, landed the plum assignment of helming the Denzel Washington-starring Devil in a Blue Dress. But I would argue that the independently made One False Move, which makes no false moves, remains the director’s finest hour.

Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, 1993)


Menace II Society is by far the best of the early 90s “hood movies,” which essentially transposed classic Hollywood gangster film tropes to contemporary urban black neighborhoods. The auspicious directing debut of twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes (and still their best movie to date) follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad and hustler, and his charismatic but crazy sidekick O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they navigate life on the mean streets of Watts over the course of one long and deadly summer. This is much more violent and less obviously moralistic than John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the film that had kickstarted the genre two years earlier, and consequently generated much controversy upon its first release. Seen today, it’s much easier to view it as the intelligent cautionary tale and social critique that the filmmakers intended.

Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)


Kasi Lemmons wrote and directed this singular fever dream of a movie about a woman looking back on her childhood growing up on the Louisiana bayou in the late 1960s. It begins with the title character narrating as an offscreen adult how she “killed” her father the summer that she turned 10-years-old. Much like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, this is a great “memory film” that introduces viewers to the cast of a large, colorful family through the subjective reminiscences of its youngest member. Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced, gives one of his finest performances as Louis, a handsome doctor and the patriarch of the Batiste family. His extra-marital dalliances, which cause his family grief even as they put up with his roguish behavior, ultimately lead to tragedy. Among several interwoven story threads is one involving Louis’ sister and her practice of witchcraft, and another involving a disturbingly ambiguous treatment of incest. I’ve heard it said that female filmmakers are less concerned with narrative logic than their male counterparts, and more concerned with the poetry of emotions. Whether or not that’s true, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually poetic narrative in the best possible sense.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

12 responses to “An African-American Cinema Primer

  • John Charet

    Great post:) It makes much more sense to post an entry like this on Martin Luther Day than it does during February (Black History Month). Why? February has turned into Oscar month despite the fact that the ceremony will air on Sunday March 2 this year. I have not seen Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), but now I totally want to check it out. I also love it that you (in a subtle way) smack down D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation by telling us that Within Our Gates serves as the corrective to that other film’s racism. I mean Birth of a Nation was a good film (* * * out of * * * * stars), but it is not an easy film to embrace (let alone watch). In fact, Griffith’s following film which was the superior Intolerance (* * * * out of * * * * stars) also serves as a corrective to Nation’s racism. I have seen Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and I agree with you on the film that like John Carpenter’s Halloween, it spawned a sub-genre. Now their may have been some good slasher films in the wake of Halloween, but I do agree that neither of them could top Carpenter’s film or Hitchcock’s Psycho for that matter. On an unrelated note, I had no idea that Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting a scene. I love the way you relate the story to the readers in terms of how he got workers compensation:) It has actually been a long time since I seen Michael Schultz Cooley High (1975), but now that you mention I must see it again. If it is often labeled the black American Graffiti with you adding that you wish that film was labeled the white Cooley High than yes it would be great to watch it again to refresh my memory. I love Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) (you accidently list it as 1979) which I gave * * * * (Out of * * * *) stars to. In fact, what is doubly fascinating about that film is that it was his thesis while at UCLA. I also love how (as you say) it is “a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African American then prevalent in the American cinema.” Although Spike Lee has made 4 great films and Burnett made three great films, I have to admit that Burnett’s achievements are more significant. Former Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (a staunch defender of Burnett’s films) also agrees. (I also agree that the soundtrack is awesome with all those iconic voices of African American music of the 20th century. In fact, this may be the main reason why it was not seen universally until 2007 (they needed to secure the music rights). I knew that actor Bill Duke was a filmmaker as well; but like Cooley High, I have not seen most of them in a long time so it will be great to see them again. I would love to re-visit his 1984 TV film The Killing Floor and I will definitely check out your 2013 interview with him. This next one is a no-brainer. Who has not seen Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)? 🙂 The only left for me to say is that I agree with you 100 percent completely in your opinion on Do The Right Thing. I need to check out the three other filmmakers in the “L.A. Rebellion” group. Yes, I know the Larry Clark you are talking about is not the one who directed Kids (1995). 🙂 I would love to check out Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) because it just sounds poetic. It is a shame that this is her only film to date because by the way it sounds, she could have become (in my opinion) the African American Jane Campion. As with Do the Right Thing, I agree with you a 100 percent on Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1992) which I also gave * * * * (Out of * * * *) stars to. Even though I thought Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) was very good (I gave it * * * 1/2 out of * * * * stars), I (like you) still believe that One False Move is his greatest film. Same thing can be said about Albert and Allen Hughes Menace II Society (1993), which is still the filmmaking duo’s very best film to date (I gave it * * * * out of * * * * stars). I also agree that it is superior to John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) which I gave * * * out of * * * * stars to. Now to Eve’s Bayou which I gave * * * 1/2 stars to (out of * * * *). Again, this may just be former actress Kasi Lemmons best work to date as a filmmaker. She has done more directing since and less acting. I love how you compare it to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). Truth be told, I sometimes wonder If it serves as the African American equivalent of that film. And I agree with you a 100 percent completely in your assessment on this film as well. Keep up the great work:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the detailed reply! I hope you get to see WITHIN OUR GATES. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in a good-quality version on DVD (in spite of the fact that it was restored by the Library of Congress). The Criterion Collection did, however, put out a great-looking version of Micheaux’s later Paul Robeson-starring film BODY AND SOUL.

      The reason why I list 1979 as the date for KILLER OF SHEEP is because that was the date of its first public screening (even though I know it was completed two years earlier).

  • John Charet

    I would really love to see Within Our Gates. As for Killer of Sheep, I now understand why you put it down under the year 1979. Thank you for that interesting explanation. I always knew that the film had to at least have been shown once before it was pulled out of circulation (due to not securing the music rights). Thankfully, it was secured and in 2007 we all got to see it:) Anyway, I left a reply concerning how you feel about the film Her and considering how you feel about Spike Jonze as a director, you do not have to do my “three viewing challenge” 🙂 The thing is I did not know you felt the way you did about Spike Jonze. But hey I respect your opinion:) I also can’t wait to see your Oscar post in a couple of weeks cause I know you mentioned that somewhere- I am not sure If it was here or If it was one of your tweets (twitter that is) 🙂

  • Daniel Nava

    Great idea and a great post. Something that I would add, though it doesn’t fall within the guidelines given that it’s directed by a white guy, but I’d consider NOTHING BUT A MAN to be essential black cinema.

    I presume you’ve read Donald Bogle’s “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks”? It’s been a while but I thought it to be a really enlightening read on African-American filmmakers, particularly on Micheaux’ work.

  • jilliemae

    As you know, I studied “Daughters of the Dust” and “Eve’s Bayou” when doing research on female slave narratives for my senior thesis in college, and it’s great that you included both because both directors have their own ways of communicating somewhat similar messages. Regarding what you said about female filmmakers relying less on logic, I think that when it comes to women directing, you may break this up further by Hollywood and Independent films, as opposed to a woman’s directing style across the board.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the reply! I would have probably never seen either DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST or EVE’S BAYOU had it not been for you. And great point about independent films being more poetic than Hollywood: the fact that Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons are both fiercely independent might be a more important common denominator (in terms of their poetic approach to filmmaking) than the fact that they’re both women.

  • John Charet

    Loved your interview with actor/director Bill Duke. Dark Girls was quite a powerful documentary concerning the issue of “colorism”. Duke is almost like a journalist the way he knows about these things. I mean that story he related about those girls not getting invited to the senior prom was heartbreaking. I also find it interesting that you made viewing the documentary Dark Girls as extra credit for your film history class. I actually think it was refreshing of you not to bring up Predator because lets face it, whenever Duke is interviewed, he probably is asked about it a lot as you mentioned in your reply to Susan Doll. I bet Bill Duke was thrilled that this interview was more about his work as a director than it was about Predator or his other acting jobs. I am also thrilled that Bill Duke loved being in Chicago when he was directing The Killing Job and he is right Harold Washington was Chicago’s first black mayor. What makes that even more fascinating is that Duke was in the city on the first week when Washington was elected. Also great to see that he is a fan of film noir. Interesting to see If he loved any of the American noir by the German born Fritz Lang. I had no idea that their was some freestyle dialogue in Deep Cover. I also agree with you that nowadays it seems like he directs more documentaries for television through the company he has entitled “Duke Media”. All in all, great interview. Keep up the great work:)

  • John Charet

    In my opinion Michael, Charles Burnett’s three great films would be:

    * * * * (Out of * * * *)
    1. Killer of Sheep (1977)
    2. My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
    3. To Sleep with Anger (1990)

    I have not seen Nightjohn (1996) in a while. If it is a great film, I will count it under his TV works as a * * * * star film. I hope it is either that or a * * * 1/2 star very good one. Nonetheless, it is probably most likely to be the former. You are awesome as usual:)

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