Though I’m an animator in the Visual Effects Branch, my desire to work in film was driven by live-action features. I guess that’s why, as an artist, working in hybrid films excited me the most. However, these films to me depict the human struggle and desire for what we all want in life—love, respect, and prosperity—but because of our racial differences, Black people have mostly been denied on a grand scale. This in spite of our overwhelming contributions to America’s prosperity. Growing up, we’re always told that we have to be ten times better than our counterparts to succeed—to even get a seat at the table. But that achievement is also ten times likely to be discounted and ignored. And what we realize is that our pain and anger becomes ten times worse, equally discounted and ignored. Except, however, by police and the prison system. And then we find ourselves here, having these equality discussions again... and again... and AGAIN. So with that in mind, in no particular order, I present my viewer’s dozen. Please enjoy!
Kasi Lemmons’s beautiful, lyrical story about a 1960s professional-class Black southern family and community, with an all-star cast that electrifies the screen. Being from New Orleans myself, I know these people, sans the black magic. But the relationship dynamics are universal, regardless of race and class. It’s a crowning achievement for a Black female writer/director, who started her career honing her skills acting alongside Jodi Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, but for whatever reason, never fully reached her acclaim.
Our introduction to the incomparable Howard E. Rollins as pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Milos Forman’s story of racial police injustice at turn of 20th century America. The minute Rollins came onscreen, I was captivated, and felt immense pride in his character’s journey. Never backing down. Standing his ground - at all costs. A riveting story of America then and still, sadly, now.
Richard Pryor’s biting autobiography set to film. It just speaks to the range Pryor had as a storyteller and performer, complemented with powerhouse roles by Paula Kelly and Debbie Allen. I always thought this is one of the most underrated films I had ever seen.
For whatever reason, some movies have characters, lines, and scenes you never forget. Paul Schrader’s account of disgruntled auto union workers does that for me, namely the great Yaphet Kotto’s character of Smoke in a pivotal car painting scene. This film is another example of how the power structure uses class and race to divide us to no good end.
Mel Brooks in all his politically incorrect glory, taking racism head-on in the American West. I was ten when my dad took us all to see this film, thinking it was a standard western. Needless to say, 46 years later, I can recite it word for inflective word! But I am forever heartbroken because this movie should’ve made the lead, Cleavon Little, a SUPERSTAR. After all, Mel, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Harvey Korman all were. Makes you wonder why...
Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his riveting portrayal in Ed Zwick’s epic telling of a Black Union regimen in the Civil War. Filled with stand-out performances, it perfectly illustrates the sacrifices we’ve made, and continue to make, for a dream that is still beyond most of our grasps, no matter how many literal wars we’ve fought for it.
Will Smith’s leap into movie stardom in the early days of computer visual effects for feature films. I was in my first year as a professional character animator at R&H Studios when this film debuted, and I’ve loved it ever since. This Philly brother came from conquering rap, to sitcom royalty as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to holding his own against Tommy Lee Jones in the kind of big-budget films I aspired to work on myself. It’s a timeless mega hit. I went on to do 20+ A-list visual effects driven films, from The Matrix trilogy to Happy Feet and beyond. I’m an animator, animation director, and live-action director. And Will hasn’t slowed down either!
Tina Mabry’s emotional coming-of-age account of pain, pride, abuse, sexual identity, and redemption in the Deep South. With an ensemble cast including Michael Hyatt and Tessa Thompson. I had just completed my first live-action short called The Lift, and was submitting to festivals when I came across this gut-wrenching gem and it has stayed with me. It’s a vivid portrait of peeling the onion of any family and community, regardless of class or race, and exposing the deep-rooted muck that damages us. Things that we as Black people are mostly denied the benefit of the doubt of, concerning our angst. Tina laid it all out on film.
Howard E. Rollins again. What else is there to say? Ok, with Denzel and a tour de force of other brothers thrown in. Norman Jewison’s telling of a mysterious murder on a WWII army base in the Deep South. It goes beyond the mystery and again unearths the pain and sacrifice Black soldiers made to enthusiastically serve this country in hopes of equal footing on a higher plane.
Robert Townsend’s biting truth is barely satire. If you ever wonder what Black performers have to endure in show business, this is it writ large. And it should’ve written Robert’s ticket to superstardom in writing, directing, and acting. But again, that mishap of Hollywood’s shame only came to prove his own film’s thesis.
The Hughes brothers' harrowing account of how, even when you do everything right, you’re only recognized for the wrong. You’re vilified for the effect, not the cause. This time, in the persona of a Vietnam war veteran whose post-war life spirals out of his control, beautifully played by Larenz Tate. With powerful, all-star performances all around, wrapped in breathtaking cinematography.
Finding love in a big-time Black advertising agency. Yes, they do exist! I say this because when Black America all lauded this film, one of the first reviews I read in the “mainstream” press was, “Set in a world where African Americans run ad agencies...”. And my reaction was, “Wtf?!?! We do! Have you not heard of UniWorld and Burrell??” Agencies at the time that had been in business for almost 30 years with A-list clienteles. But apparently not in that critic’s mind! This all-star mega hit was written off as fantasy and not as a segment of our true reality because there were no guns, drugs, servitude, or violence. All romantic comedy and pure heart. Ignored and discounted indeed.