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.
Vesela Sretenović, senior curator of modern & contemporary art, Phillips Collection, Washington DC
Vesela Sretenović presents Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island), the first museum retrospective of this prolific, innovative yet still largely unknown Cuban artist born in Havana in 1926. Featuring around 60 works in various media – ranging from drawings to paintings, sculptures, and ephemera – and spanning seven decades – this long-overdue exhibition traced the artist’s career from her beginnings in Cuba (1950s), to her extended visits to Europe and residence in New York (1960s), and finally her move to San Juan (early 1970s) where she now lives and works. The exhibition title Soy Isla, or in translation, I am an island, is also a title of many works in the show, expressing Sánchez’s desire for solitary, and uncompromising practice. Most of all, Soy Isla serves as a metaphor for the artist’s art and life as an islander, connected and disconnected from both the mainland and the mainstream art currents, such as concretism, neo-concretism, gestural abstraction, and minimalism. After debuting in Washington DC at the beginning of 2019, the exhibition traveled to Ponce, Puerto Rico and then to Museo del Barrio, New York.
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