Netflix doesn’t have a large library of great black-directed movies because, well, Hollywood hasn’t produced these projects over the years. Black filmmakers may have directed more studio films in 2018 than ever before, but many of them aren’t yet available on streaming services, which makes honoring Black History Month by watching great movies by black directors on Netflix a maddeningly difficult task.
The list of recommendations below highlights a few of the best options but honestly wouldn’t look too different from a list of the only options for critically acclaimed films from black American directors on the service.
To its credit, Netflix has made an effort to create a few Netflix Originals from black directors, but the lack of options continues. As Netflix spends many billions of dollars a year on original content, hopefully the company will decide to remedy this longtime failure in the near future.
Premise: This documentary explores how the United States used a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution to continue exploiting black labor after the abolishment of slavery. That amendment allows for involuntary servitude tied to the punishment of a crime. Following the Civil War, the South disproportionately jailed black citizens, often on fake crimes, to create a free labor source. The film also focuses on the skyrocketing incarceration rates of the last few decades, largely fueled by Republican presidents through disingenuous tough-on-crime and war-on-drugs messaging.
Sum-up: Through the use of charismatic experts and an engaging editing style, “13th” makes a compelling case that the devil is in the details of the Constitution. The mass incarceration policies of the United States remain a dire blight on this country. Over 2 million people remain in jail or prison, and a disproportionately high portion is black. The U.S. has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of its prisoners. The documentary explores the injustice behind these figures and illuminates how far this country still is from granting true freedom from legalized oppression.
Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Premise: In this comic book movie, a black empire with supreme technological advancements has decided to hide from the rest of the world to not be bothered. When the king dies, a succession battle takes place. This fight has stakes beyond leadership as the new king will gain superhero abilities as well. Through the events of the succession strife, the nation must wrestle with its decision to remain off the grid with such prosperity when so many black people in the world continue to suffer from poverty and oppression.
Sum-up: With “Black Panther,” a predominantly black cast of actors and creators made the first superhero movie to receive a Best Picture nomination for the Academy Awards. Compared with other superhero movies, which typically have thin stakes and plots, “Black Panther” tells a story with deep philosophical battles that mirror contemporary life. With storylines that reach to Oakland, California, and third-world countries, this movie has thoughtful things to say about actual black culture beyond the realm of superpowers.
Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Premise: A biopic for Roxanne Shanté, who pioneered the art of battle rapping in New York City during the 1980s. She became popular at the age of 14 when her song “Roxanne’s Revenge” became a hit. This song made her one of the first female emcees to ever gain widespread fame, but the notoriety also caused rivals from other neighborhoods to challenge her supremacy. While her music career took off, Shanté had to deal with personal hardships that came from her life in the Queensbridge projects in Queens.
Director: Michael Larnell
Sum-up: “Roxanne Roxanne” is the story of a hero. But this protagonist is a poor, black, female hero who has to jump over systemic American obstacles on the path to greatness. By zooming in on Shanté’s actual life instead of only focusing on her accomplishments, this movie finds a way to give voice to a pain that didn’t necessarily translate in the music alone. The movie is also a reminder of the many unsung heroes who are forced to live in the country’s margins and deserve more attention.
Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Premise: In this period piece set during World War II, a black and a white family fail to make ends meet while farming as neighbors in the Mississippi Delta. Despite their similar circumstances, members of the white family hold on to racist beliefs of superiority. When a member of each family returns from World War II, where black and white soldiers fought together, the two veterans start a friendship from their shared experience. This ignites the town and the deeply held racism of the area comes to a head.
Sum-up: Legislation and heroism aren’t enough to kill those old hatreds and prejudices that die hard. “Mudbound” tells the story of a black man who must exude so much more bravery than his white counterparts. Fighting in war and returning home a hero isn’t enough, as this man must then have the courage to survive the constant prejudice of his American neighbors. Also of note: Before “Roma,” this was Netflix’s original attempt at Academy Awards glory and ultimately secured three nominations.
Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Premise: Through a one-man stage show of spoken-word poetry, Roger Guenveur Smith tells the story of Rodney King. He creates an intimate portrayal of King’s life that goes beyond the infamous moment King became a symbol ― when Los Angeles police beat him nearly to death on March 3, 1991. Smith dives into the aftermath of the event, focusing on what King had to go through and what the country expected from him at that time.
Sum-up: Police brutality continues in this country with distressing frequency. As the stories pile up, the names of the victims become symbols, just like the words “Rodney King.” This one-man show reminds us of the humanity of these people used as symbols and that a person with their own history exists behind the traumatic event. In restoring humanity to the person, this film provides hope that the world can recognize the human suffering in such encounters and react from a place of understanding.