From the time filmmaker Spike Lee first rose to prominence in the 1980s, his work has come to define the state of Black filmmaking in the United States. That’s all to his credit as one of the most exciting filmmakers of our time; there is no question that his ability to both get his films made—under circumstances not always friendly to Black filmmakers—and to market himself, have proven inspirational to artists of color everywhere. But his achievements have sometimes overshadowed the contributions of other notable Black directors, past, present and future. Let’s not forget pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Kathleen Collins, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and others. And today, there is fortunately a robust generation of African American directors whose work offers a great variety of perspectives on life in general and the Black experience in particular. Lee and other forerunners paved the way for a new era of filmmakers who explore everything from the tragic legacy of slavery to the ordinary struggles of everyday life in a range of genres, from documentary to romantic comedy to drama.
In the wake of the nation’s recent and ongoing reckoning with its history of entrenched racism, now seems as good a time as any to examine four relatively recent films from some of this current cohort of creative artists, all born after 1970, who are helping to define contemporary Black cinema. Join us as we watch and discuss Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, 2008), Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011), Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012) and Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013). Individual descriptions of each film follow below.
Harry Cooper, Senior Curator of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art
Harry Cooper will take a look back at his exhibition Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings, which was on view at the National Gallery from April to September of last year. The show was an unusual one for the NGA given that Jackson, a prolific master artist well-known in some circles for the past 50 years, had received little exposure in museums or galleries on the East Coast. (Born in St. Louis, he has lived and worked in California since the 1970s.) In addition to introducing Jackson’s art to those who did not see the exhibition, Cooper will offer an inside view of the show with the benefit of hindsight, considering what worked best and what its lasting effects might be.
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