5 films to watch this Black History Month, according to UT film professor Ya'ke Smith
A Black Panthers leader. A couple in love in midcentury America. A beauty queen who wants better for her daughter.
We recently asked an Austin expert for recommended movies to watch this Black History Month. Ya'ke Smith is an associate professor of film at the University of Texas, as well as the Moody College of Communication's first associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion. He's also a celebrated filmmaker in his own right: Smith's debut feature, "Wolf," premiered at South by Southwest in 2012, and shorts like "Katrina's Son," "Brother" and "dawn." have found audiences across the country.
Here are a few of the stories told by Black filmmakers that Smith thinks you should watch, in his own words.
— Eric Webb, Austin360 editor
'Judas and The Black Messiah'
Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for those in the struggle and their allies, and a catchphrase for those not wanting to appear tone deaf. Proclaiming the phrase, however, without truly understanding the brutal and relentless assault on Black life is to speak the phrase out of context and to its detriment. Shaka King’s brilliant "Judas and The Black Messiah" brings into greater focus how that assault works – how those that speak out against white supremacy and racism are surveilled, hunted down and assassinated.
Told from the point of view of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who, at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, helped the FBI infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and undermine its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), "Judas" is a must see. The film is both visceral and intimate, moving between scenes of violence, of impassioned speeches centered on revolution, and moments of Hampton building a relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who became his partner in both life and in the struggle.
Shaka King does a phenomenal job of showing us the humanity of Hampton and the Panthers, countering the myth that they were a terrorist group, and, instead, directing an indictment squarely at O’Neal and the FBI. Every performance in the film is great, but Kaluuya sinks into the skin of Hampton in the same ways that Denzel Washington embodied Malcolm X and Daniel Day-Lewis became Lincoln.
"Judas and the Black Messiah" is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Feb. 12.
Filmmaking as a political statement has always been a charged topic of discussion. Some filmmakers feel they have no responsibility to comment directly on society but should rather focus their stories on the universal human experience. But I would argue that when one decides not to comment on the world around them, that this is a political statement in and of itself.
"Sylvie’s Love," the sophomore effort by Eugene Ashe, may be one of the most political films to come out recently. In an industry that spends most of its energy decentering Black narratives and framing them mostly in response to white violence, this film makes the radical choice to place Black love at its center.
This story of Sylvie Parker (Tessa Thompson) and Robert Halloway (Nnamdi Asomugha), a Black couple falling in and out of love from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, is both refreshing and much needed. "Sylvie’s Love" is a rewriting of the classic Hollywood love story, narratives that cast its Black characters as props whose only function was to serve their white counterparts. Ashe not only centers the narrative on those marginalized Black characters, but he gives them agency by framing and lighting them humanely — a complete subversion of the ways these characters have been historically rendered.
There is no violence to overcome here, no pit of poverty to dig oneself out from, and no corrupt police force to fight against. Sylvie’s only fight is for love.
"Sylvie's Love" is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
'Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities, a Short Film Collection'
In her book "Black Looks: Race and Representation," bell hooks writes, "By courageously looking, we defiantly declared, 'Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.” Designed to center the narratives of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) creators, the curation of this collection of short films was inspired by hooks’ quote, and once you watch, you’ll understand why.
Running the gamut from romance, drama, comedy, fantasy and everything in between, the films are directed by Black creators to subvert the narrative and to, as hooks says, “change reality.” According to the collective of distributors and film programmers that assembled this collection, it is “a means of addressing systemic inequity within the film industry, through the disruption of existing film distribution models and attitudes toward artist services and support.”
Mainstream media has a long history of having white creators at the helm of films about Black life, and though some of those offer a degree of truth, many times there is an authenticity lost when the directors of those projects are not Black themselves. The directors in this collection refuse to be boxed in, refuse to tell stories that only place them in response to white violence and refuse to render their Black experience only through the lens of pain. There is joy here. There is liberation here. There is spiritual transcendence here.
Available to watch at fullspectrumfeatures.com/right-to-gaze starting Feb. 14. Smith's "The Pandemic Chronicles" is included in the collection.
Winner of the Louis Black "Lone Star" Award for last year's SXSW, an Austin Film Society grant recipient and now a four-time Independent Spirit Award Nominee, "Miss Juneteenth" centers on Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a former beauty queen and past winner of Fort Worth’s Juneteenth Pageant. Turquoise now works as the manager of a restaurant and bar, but her main focus is preparing her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), to compete in the same pageant she herself won 20 years before, no matter how much her daughter objects to the idea.
For Turquoise, Kai competing isn’t just about her daughter walking in her shoes, but it’s more about Kai walking much further in those shoes than Turquoise was able to. Kai winning the crown ensures that she’ll be able to attend the historically Black college or university of her choice, an opportunity that Turquoise was not able to accept because she was pregnant with Kai.
At its heart, "Miss Juneteenth" is the story of a mother trying to right her wrongs through her daughter to give her a better future. Also, Turquoise ultimately wants to prove to herself and her community that she’s not a failure.
Beharie, who starred in the TV series "Sleepy Hollow" and also went toe to toe with Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s "Shame," has already racked up awards for her nuanced and complex portrayal of Turquoise.
"Miss Juneteenth" is now available on demand and through Austin Film Society's virtual cinema, austinfilm.org.
In case you missed it:Austin360's favorite 25 movies of 2020: What and where to watch
Films about fraternity hazing are not new. We’ve seen it laid bare for us in Will Canon’s "Brotherhood," Spike Lee’s "School Daze" and Gerard McMurray’s "Burning Sands." What Solomon Onita Jr.’s debut feature "Tazmanian Devil" offers is a new perspective on this very familiar tale.
A Nigerian immigrant, Dayo (Abraham Attah), receives a full scholarship to a Texas university, which allows him the chance to live with his estranged father (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who abandoned him and his mother (Adepero Oduye) in Nigeria years earlier. Dayo would love nothing more than to connect with his father, but his father’s only point of connection is through faith, a faith that Dayo sees as the destruction of his family, because his father chose being a pastor over being a father.
Struggling to find his place, Dayo discovers a fraternity, and it’s there where he builds the bond that he was hoping to build at home with his father. Acclimating to this new environment isn’t easy though, as his Nigerian culture clashes with his frat’s American one.
The story is very loosely based on the director’s life (his parents are Nigerian immigrants, and he’s in a fraternity himself), and he filmed several scenes at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Arlington. The film features strong performances from its Texas talent and boasts a lot of heart.
"Tazmanian Devil" is available on demand.
More titles recommended by Ya'ke Smith
"The United States Vs. Billie Holiday"
"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom"
"Da 5 Bloods"
"The Forty-Year-Old Version"
"One Night in Miami"