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.
(2015, directed by Ryan Coogler, 85 min.)
Presented by Linda DeLibero, director, Program in Film & Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University
When Fruitvale Station premiered (under the title Fruitvale) at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, it immediately became an overnight sensation, along with its 29-year-old director, Ryan Coogler. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, launching Coogler’s meteoric career in spectacular fashion. Within three short years, he had revived the Rocky franchise with his critically acclaimed blockbuster, Creed (2015), and was tapped to direct the now-legendary Black Panther (2018), which went on to become the highest grossing solo superhero film of all time. In the wake of the Black Panther juggernaut, the quiet, heartbreaking Fruitvale Station—made on a budget of less than a million dollars—has become a bit of a forgotten gem that very much deserves a second look. It bears all the hallmarks of Coogler’s genius for drawing complex characters and vividly detailed worlds. The film tells the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who in 2009 was fatally shot in the back by a BART policeman in Oakland, California, Coogler’s hometown. By choosing to depict the ordinary rhythms of Grant’s last day on earth, Coogler foregoes drama to quietly reveal the young man’s complicated humanity, and he makes the Oakland neighborhood Grant inhabits resonate with larger meaning. Along with Michael B. Jordan’s devastating breakout performance as Grant, the film’s “day in the life” structure makes for one of the most powerful statements on film about the cost of growing up Black, male and poor in America.
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