As we come to the end of 2019, there are many lists being made about the best or most important movies of the 2010s. But I am not seeing a focus on movies by black filmmakers about black lives.
A few critics’ lists have included “Moonlight” or “Get Out,” but they have left off the vast majority of black films with impact. I’d argue that the 2010s were the most important decade for black film in America. We see dramas (“12 Years a Slave”), comedies (“Girls Trip”), horror (“Get Out,” “Us”) and documentaries (“13TH” and “O.J.: Made in America”) all being taken seriously critically, and most were successful financially.
So, the question I’d like to consider is a rather simple one: What were the best black films of the past decade? Here are my answers, in alphabetical order:
The cultural impact of Marvel’s 2018 trip to Wakanda (directed by Ryan Coogler) cannot be overstated. Black moviegoers wore the best African attire they could find to the theater. Events weuilt around the showings, complete with face painting and African dance contests. What surprised me was that the film was actually good, and, boldly, it featured few white people. That did not stop the masses from making it one of Marvel’s most successful films both critically and financially.
The director Ryan Coogler took an essentially dead franchise centered on a white man (“Rocky”), and turned it into an existential examination of black masculinity in the wake of industrial decline. The black residents of Philadelphia are as much a character in this 2015 movie as is Michael B. Jordan’s Creed. And while it gives you the predictable chills of every “Rocky” movie ever made, it does so with an unapologetic eye for the way black heroes carry not only their hopes and dreams, but also the dreams of the community they represent.
This 2017 horror parable is well written and directed by Jordan Peele, announcing the emergence of a major filmmaker. The subtle choices mark this as arguably the film of the decade. The fact that Peele chooses to tell a story in which all the white people are villainous forced us to come to terms with the pervasive racism in seemingly liberal communities in the North, instead of focusing on the racism in the South. The way ideas like the Sunken Place have entered the American lexicon is a testament to the powerful storytelling and imagery. This was not just a great film, but a groundbreaking one.
This was the movie that made Tiffany Haddish a star. In this 2017 comedy from Malcolm D. Lee, Haddish, like Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” forced the world to make way for her infectious, if at times annoying, brand of comedy. She steals every scene she is in, but in a way that complements her co-stars instead of taking away from their performances. But it is the story that makes this more than just another raunchy comedy. Yes, there are many funny set pieces, but everything that happens is authentically grounded in the character’s choices, elevating the material. This was a huge commercial and critical success, proving that white and black audiences will turn out to watch comedies about black lives.
What else can be said about Barry Jenkins’s breakout drama from 2016? It is a sensitive, deliberate examination of what it means to be a black, queer boy born into a world that accepts neither you nor the people you love. It is exquisitely shot and superbly acted (with Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes giving standout performances). But what we most remember about this film is the way “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as best picture when, in reality, “Moonlight” had won. For once the Oscars actually recognized the best film of the year.
‘O.J.: Made In America’
Its seven-hour-plus run time (and the decision to follow its theatrical run with a multipart broadcast on television) led to debates about what constitutes a film. But the narrative thrust and momentum of this 2016 documentary about the former N.F.L. star O.J. Simpson and the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman point to its being worthy of this list. The depth of the athlete’s racial delusion remains dizzying (“I’m not black; I’m O.J.,” he once said), but what Ezra Edelman’s film does best is to show how America’s response to his 1995 trial uncovered a deep racial and cultural divide in our country — a divide that was made apparent when the jury made the unwise decision to find him not guilty.
This is not a perfect movie, but it is an important one. It took decades to get a major motion picture about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. off the ground, and while this 2014 drama plays a little too fast and loose with the history surrounding President Lyndon B. Johnson for my taste, the way it depicts King, his inner circle and the black people he came into contact with was spot on. What’s more, the director Ava DuVernay’s decision to include discussions about King’s infidelity was an act of courage, the choice of a new filmmaker with bold ideas.
‘Sorry to Bother You’
This 2018 satire written and directed by Boots Riley isn’t for everyone. It’s quirky. Its humor is offbeat. It plays with magical realism without fully committing to the logic of that kind of storytelling. In this tale of a telemarketer’s rise thanks to his “white voice,” humans turn into “equisapiens,” and that narrative stretch makes sense within the story. This is a bebop jazz film that feels as if Riley made it while in an ecstatic religious state. It is also a brilliant, piercing examination of the way capitalism forces black Americans to choose between being their authentic selves and the people that corporate America wants them to be. And it has one of the best examples of code switching I’ve ever seen captured onscreen. I found this film abrasive when I first saw it, but with repeat viewings, its stature has grown in my eyes.
‘Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse’
I’ve had my quibbles, but I cannot deny the impact this 2018 movie had on young black boys like my son. They were able to see a superhero movie that centered on a person who not only looked like them, but who was navigating a white world in a body that is looked on with suspicion. Watching the film (directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman)is the closest moviegoing experience to actually reading a comic, and the visuals are jaw-dropping.
‘12 Years a Slave’
I hesitated to include this 2013 drama, directed by Steve McQueen and adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman enslaved and sent to the South. About three-fourths of the way into the film, Solomon has a fateful discussion with a white laborer, Bass, played by Brad Pitt. Bass agrees to mail a letter for Solomon explaining the chain of events that led to his being freed, thus making Bass the standard white savior. But McQueen crams beauty into every place he can, including that of the American South. And yet he unflinchingly depicts the abuse suffered by enslaved black people in an unsentimental way. To my mind, this is the definitive film about slavery, and the Oscar-winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o as the enslaved mistress Patsey is as heartbreaking as it is memorable.