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2012 In Black Cinema - S&A Writers Take A Look At The Year's Highlights

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by Tambay A. Obenson
December 31, 2012 4:07 PM
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Poster: "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)
Poster: "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)

I initially posted this 11 days ago; and since today is the last day of the year, I thought I'd repost... 

Before I dig in, some back-story to explain the method behind the madness that follows...

Long-time readers of this site will know that I'm not particularly fond of ranked "Best Of" lists - especially when it comes to the end of the year, when "Best Of" lists are in abundance.

I won't bore you with reasons why, but my approach, when it comes to year-end "Best Of Film" lists, has usually been to instead reveal those films (unranked, in no particular order, and no specific number) that I've seen during the year, and that I think you probably should check out; and not even always because they were all particularly great, but sometimes because there might have been something specific about a film that demands you take a look at it.

This year, given that S&A's writing staff has grown a bit, including both regular staff and feature writers, I tried something a little different; in short, I asked every single person who had contributed to S&A in 2012 (17 folks in total) to submit their lists of the best "black films" they'd seen in 2012 - but not just films that were released commercially in theaters; they could also include films that they'd seen on the film festival/screening series circuit, as long as each film (fiction or non-fiction feature-length) was released/screened publicly for the first time in 2012, in the USA.

I should note that I forgot to include 2 or 3 writers when I sent out my initial email asking for selections; it certainly wasn't intentional. These were primarily writers who submitted items in the latter half of the year, and I just didn't have them in mind when I emailed my inquiry.

But of the 17 writers I did reach out to, the majority of them participated, thankfully. And, by the way, I didn't put a max or min on the number of films each writer could select; so some sent me lists with 3 films; others with as many as 10, and so on.

And after I received their lists I then compared all of them, looking for any similarities - specifically, films that were mentioned on at least 2 different lists - which helped me further narrow the number of potentials down, quite a bit. In essence, if a film was mentioned on only 1 list, it didn't make it on to the final list.

Some might take issue with my somewhat unorthodox selection process, but it made the most sense to me.

So, what we have here is a list of films - each one chosen by at least 2 different people, some appearing on more lists than others -  that we all think you should see, if you didn't see them this year.

As you'd maybe expect, some are more accessible than others, but we here at S&A do our best to continue updating you on the availability of the films we write about, and we certainly hope that you'll make the effort to check them all out, when an opportunity to do so presents itself.

And so, without further ado, I present the list of 26 films (as I said, I didn't cap at multiples of 5 or 10, as is common; it just so happened that there are 26 films in total that appeared on at least 2 lists).

I also present them unranked (this is a non-competitive *event*; again, the point here is highlight films that we think deserve your attention, and to encourage you to check out all of these films, instead of "The Top 5," or those ranked highest). Instead they are sorted in alphabetical order. And next to each, you'll find a short description of the film, followed immediately by a quote about the film from 1 (or more) of the writers who selected it.

That's it! 

So, here is the list:

All Is Well (Por Aqui Todo Bem): The film centers on two teenaged sisters, Alda and Maria, who flee a war-torn Angola in the 1980’s, seeking exile in Portugal while they await their mother’s arrival. Their stay quickly takes an unexpected turn when their mother’s arrival is delayed, and they struggle to survive on the streets of Lisbon.

"A subtle, nuanced drama, All is Well measures the impending danger of the Angolan civil war on this family through the presence of a pay phone. It is here that both sisters await news from their mother. The phone comes to represent an uncomfortable shelter; a manifestation of what Portugal means and what it lacks as a “home” for them."

An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty: A quixotic young man humorously courses live action and various animated landscapes as he tries to understand himself after a mystery girl stands him up.

"To say that it's a loaded work would be an understatement; Call it an attack on the senses; layered busy frames, combining live-action and animation; you're bombarded with images, sounds (music), voices (words), text, and often all of them on screen simultaneously. But that should be expected because I think honest explorations of human emotionality can get rather messy - or labyrinthine. We are after all complex creatures; masters like Freud spent a considerable amount of effort and time in discovering and elucidating that complicated dance between the unconscious and the conscious mind."

Beasts Of The Southern WildHushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack—temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, sending Hushpuppy in search of her lost mother.

"It’s a strong first feature for director Zeitlin; bold and brave, much like its soup of characters - fearless warriors who believe that they can do anything, greeting their disposition with celebration instead of remorse or self-pity, led by the courage of an emotionally brave 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy."

Ballplayer: Pelotero A documentary film that takes a gritty and never before seen look inside the world of Major League Baseball (MLB) training camps in the Dominican Republic.

"The scenarios presented in the film aren't all that disimilar to those seen here in the USA, as young men go through a similar kind of farming system, starting out very young in high school, then onto college, and finally the draft where, at 18 to 21 years old, they are signing mega-million dollar contracts to go play in the NFL or the NBA. I immediately thought of New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden's book, $40 Million Slaves, in which he looks at the African American athlete, and makes the argument that the evolution of the black athletes "has merely been a journey from literal plantations - where sports were introduced as diversions to quell revolutionary stirrings - to today’s figurative ones, in the form of collegiate and professional sports programs.""

Brooklyn Castle: A documentary about I.S. 318, an inner-city public school that's home to the most-winning junior high school chess team in the country. But a series of deep public school budget cuts now threaten to undermine its hard-won success.

"4 years in the making, there's a broader narrative in Brooklyn Castle, and that is the economic crises which led to unprecedented public school budget cuts that jeopardize primary school education, and, specifically, the after-school programs like that which is at the center of Brooklyn Castle's tale, and how the potential absence of that necessary funding could drastically affect the lives of the children who rely so heavily on them for sustenance."

Central Park FiveThe documentary examines the case of the Central Park rape, in the late 1980s, that triggered strong emotions in New Yorkers, and the sensational media storm across the US that followed. It turned out to be a tale of racial injustice. 

"It's an absolutely engaging, haunting exposé and affirmation of what many already consider to be an unbalanced scale of justice in this country. It informs and infuriates. So do yourself a favor, or better yet, give yourself an early Christmas gift and see The Central Park Five."

Donoma: A "guerrilla film" that reportely cost relatively nothing, and edited over the course of several years, Donoma, set in Paris, interweaves the stories of a few crazy Parisians from different backgrounds, just trying to understand love and life. 

"At a little over two hours, watching Donoma feels like discovering a delightful show on Netflix and watching the whole season in an afternoon. When it's done, you're hungry for more and disappointed that there's nothing left to devour. The film is heralded for its guerilla filmmaking and it certainly champions the case for abandoning hi-tech equipment for true artistry and style. No $20,000 cameras can make your film sing if it's wack, and Hatian-born fledgling director Djinn Carrenard understood this, or perhaps was fortunate and clever enough to create such a beautiful, intimate, warm film without the bells and whistles."

Dreams Of A LifeJoyce Carol Vincent was born in Hammersmith, in West London (UK) in 1965 to a young couple from Grenada. By all accounts, she lived an average life, working corporate jobs for much of her life, living all over London. In 2006, Joyce’s skeleton was discovered in her apartment, cause of death unknown. It was later determined that she actually died 3 years earlier.

"One can't really say that they enjoyed the film, given it's tragic real-life subject matter. So I'll instead say that the film does what I think it set out to do - it brings Joyce Vincent back to life, so to speak, and serves as a way to honor her. There's that famous line from Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic film Network spoken by star William Holden that went something like this: "I'm a human being godamnit. My life has value.Despite the terribly sad and lonely nature of Joyce Vincent's life, death, and the years that followed until what was left of her was discovered, Morley's film underscores William Holden's quote in relation to Vincent's being."

ElzaElza, a beautiful young woman who lives in Paris with her mother, has reason to celebrate, as she’s just become the first in the family to earn a college degree. But on the eve of her great achievement, Elza realizes that she has never come to terms with her sense of identity, prompting her to return to her hometown in Guadeloupe to make contact with her long-lost father.

"Montpierre develops a narrative that shows the complexities of racial prejudice in the Caribbean, despite centuries of miscegenation due to French-European colonialism in Guadeloupe. Racism takes a form similar to what’s considered “Colorism” in the states, although more severe. There's a hierarchy based on skin tone and hair texture. Unfortunately for many “higher-class” Caribbean people, the colonially racist and paternalistic mentality persists."

Flight: A drama that centers on an alcoholic and drug-addicted pilot, who saves a flight from an engine malfunction, rescuing the plane and passengers, and becoming a hero, only to find his non-public substance abuse problem, brought to light, thanks to an FAA investigation into the case.

"As you'd expect, Denzel Washington is solid in his performance. He plays a man with two very different faces - the charismatic hero pilot to the public, and the damaged alcoholic and druggie in private, whose life starts to unravel, as it becomes harder and harder to continue to keep the private face hidden from the public. There's an essential moral ambiguity in the character that I think will challenge audiences, and I think that particular aspect of the narrative is what helps separate it from what you'd traditionally expect from a Hollywood studio movie of its ilk. You like and applaud him for his unbelievable act of heroism, which happens very early in the film, and spend the next 2/3s of the movie trying to reconcile that almost God-like figure, with the terribly flawed, self-destructive human being who gets exposed during the remainder of the film."

FourOn the 4th of July in Hartford, CT, June, a 16-year-old white boy, meets up with Joe, a closeted, married black man he met on the Internet. On the same night, in the same city, the black man's 16-year-old daughter Abigayle, agrees to go out with Dexter, a white 20-year-old low-level drug dealer. In and around the city, on the American night of Independence, these 2 couples get to know each other, moving from strangers to intimates. In lonely landscapes of movie theaters, fast food restaurants, darkened churches and public parks, they discover the limits of desire and the possibilities of transcendence.

"This is a far cry from anything we’ve seen from Wendell Pierce in the past, which could be unsettling to some. But the intriguing part of Four is that it moves beyond dirty secrets and illicit acts to uncover the layers of who characters are, and in the process raises questions of normalcy, sexuality, masculinity and race. The film doesn’t seem to preach, and though the characters’ choices may inspire disagreement or even disgust, ultimately, we understand them all."

Free Angela & All Political PrisonersA feature-length documentary about Angela Davis and the high stakes crime, political movement, and trial that catapults the 26 year-old newly appointed philosophy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles into a 70s revolutionary political icon. 

"The title says it all – Free Angela & All Political Prisoners. It announces its intent immediately. It’s not a retrial of Angela Davis on film; rather, it tells the story of an injustice done to a young woman whose life changed completely, radically and swiftly, after being thrust into the spotlight when then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, insisted on having her barred from teaching at any university in the State of California, due to her membership in the Communist Party; a young woman who would become a scapegoat/example for the government’s intolerance for radicalism, the embodiment of a constructed imaginary enemy; a young woman who would soon become the prime spokes-person for the freedom of all political prisoners."

Middle Of NowhereThe film centers on an African American woman struggling to maintain her marriage and identity, after her husband is incarcerated.

"A black film - all-black cast, black key crew, positively black story line - that doesn' get pigeonholed into a stereotypically black space artistically or via marketing. With the fullness of the characters and story, it's a movie that's true to black life and yet universal. A simple, contained drama that plays out mostly in living rooms, buses, and prisons, but manages to hold its own and be visually stunning (kudos to DP Bradford Young) - all of this done on a budget of a couple hundred thousand dollars."

Otelo Burning: A "City of God meets Blue Crush" South African coming-of-age drama of township kids as they discover surfing - set in late 1980s, against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

"You will be mesmerized by the top-notch production here and the cinematography. It’s a sight you don’t see often - young Black men surfing. And, if you’ve never paid attention to the skill of surfing, you will now, plus experience all its thrills. The boys deliver naturalistic performances; the cast’s chemistry is seamless. Actor Jafta Mamabolo portrays Otelo with understated intensity. His character requires a range of emotions, which he tackles affectingly without overacting."

Restless City: Tells the story of young, nomadic Senegalese immigrant who's an aspiring musician, struggling to survive on the fringes of New York City. When he falls in love with a prostitute who works for the local loan shark, he suddenly finds some much needed meaning and purpose to his otherwise aimless existence, forcing him to make decisions that eventually prove fatal.

"This is New York, but not Woody Allen’s privileged New York, nor even Martin Scorcese's gritty mean streets, or the New York found in Spike Lee's joints. Dosunmu's New York has a magical, dreamlike quality to it; it's peaceful, despite the perceived harshness in the narrative that plays out on screen, as mostly working-class black immigrant men and women, with the weight of oppression on their backs, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolve to do what they deem necessary for their own fulfillment, and that of others of significance to them; armed and eventually dangerous. It's like a piece of heaven in hell."

Slavery By Another NameChallenges the belief that slavery ended with 1863's Emancipation Proclamation, recounting how in the years following the Civil War, new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, trapping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in a brutal system that lasted until the onset of World War II.

"Uncovering many stories of slaves and their descendants, painting a devastating picture of the unsightly and horrific practices that kept hundreds of thousands of black Americans enslaved for many decades after slavery was abolished in the USA, Slavery By Another Name should serve as an eye-opening account of a significant yet so rarely talked about 80-year chapter of American history during which blacks were subject to racial degradation in the service of white supremacy and cheap labor, helping to explain why black Americans made so little economic progress before the civil rights movement, the effects of which still very much reverberate today."

Soul Food Junkies: An investigation into the dark side of the food industry and the growing food justice movement that has been born in its wake.

"The doc has all the elements of a compelling documentary: emotionally-engaging personal story, jaw-dropping statistics on African Americans and health issues, fascinating history of soul food, humorous, candid interviews, but most of all it’s a very relevant and important subject of undeniable cultural significance. Hurt manages to balance all of these elements superbly, and offers solutions to the issue in order to still enjoy the tradition without compromising your health."

Stones in the SunIn the 1980s, in the midst of increasing political violence, a young couple, two sisters, and a father and son, are driven from Haiti to New York, where they must confront the truths of their interlocked pasts. 

"Raw and understated, Stones in the Sun is handled with sensitivity in regards to its subjects. The well-developed drama has plenty of powerful performances and climactic scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat. But aside from this, hopefully you will come out of this experience with a new appreciation and respect for Haiti, its culture and the many realities its immigrants have undergone."

The Loving Story: Centers on the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in the state of Virginia where interracial coupling was illegal, and their struggles, including the US Supreme Court case named after them - Loving vs Virginia (1967), the landmark civil rights case in which the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, declared Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, unconstitutional, bringing an official end to all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States.

"Wisely, the filmmaker stays completely out of the picture, allowing the abundance of archival footage to tell the story, resulting in what we could call a verite-style documentary. And it's thanks to the wonderful black and white civil rights era footage (some never seen publicly before - primarily centered on the couple’s interpersonal relationship, really contrasting the absurdity of anti-miscegenation laws), plus photographs and interviews, that makes Buirski's documentary a deeply-felt, compelling human portrait of this seemingly average, yet remarkable couple - especially when framed in the context of the turbulent era during which their story takes place."

Toussaint Louverture: A fictional account on the life of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, whose military genius and political acumen led to the establishment of the independent black state of Haiti.

"Attractively vintage, Toussaint Louverture is a well-made period drama, ambitious, epic, sweeping, melodramatic, and dignified, and should leave you satiated. Central to the film's success is Jimmy Jean-Louis’s dynamic lead performance, showcasing his range as an actor, with just enough intensity, minus any decadent, conflagrant, revolutionary speak moments. On the other side, the filmmaker affords a genuine humanity to the old French guard. For his part, director Niang’s hand feels assured and confident, handling the film's racial themes honestly, but without resorting to expected, though unnecessary sermonizing, putting forth a work of film art with wide audience appeal, regardless of ideological stance. There are even enough taut action set pieces here to please the mainstreamer."

TriptychA unique and profound documentary series profiling some of the most outspoken visual artists of our time. It highlights the work of artists Sanford Biggers, Wangechi Mutu, and Barron Claiborne, featuring three intimate 20-minute conversations with three bold and culturally resonant voices in art. Each monologue is a reflection of their life experience, letting the viewer discover how their observations have shaped the art they create.

"We were fans of Terence Nance's debut feature 'Oversimplification,' but I also really enjoyed his doc that came out later this year, 'The Triptych,' which profiles three prolific black artists - Barron Claiborne, Wangechi Mutu, and Sanford Biggers. The film, the first in an ongoing Afropunk series, is engaging and artfully shot - so well-shot that you can easily lose track of whether you're watching interviews, choreographed scenes, or clips of the artists' actual work (kudos to DP Shawn Peters). This film flew right under folks' radar, but I learned, I laughed, I thoroughly enjoyed."

War Witch (Rebelle): At 14, Komona has lived through horrors that eclipse any adult’s worst nightmares. In this mesmerizing, otherworldly drama, shot entirely in the Congo, she confides to the baby growing inside of her the harrowing story of her life since rebel warlords stormed her village. Fortified by eerily mystical powers and the warming friendship of an albino boy, the sensitive girl battles through this dire, war-ravaged world enchained as a child soldier.

"Rarely does war look so beautiful on film. I feel somewhat guilty saying that given the unspeakable acts of physical and mental torment the young protagonist in War Witch endures throughout its roughly 90-minute running time. But director Kim Nguyen's dream-like visual aesthetic captivates; and when combined with the laconically-told tale, we could say, in some way, collectively, they help soften the otherwise emotionally devastating blow any thinking/feeling member of the audience would feel. Despite some unanswered political questions, Rebelle is a film whose approach, visual style and rawness has stuck with me, left me hoping to see another performance from Rachel Mwanza sooner than later."

Welcome To Pine HillStraddling the worlds of fact and fiction, documentary and narrative, the film follows a recently reformed drug dealer, now working as a claims adjuster by day and bouncer by night. When Shannon receives earth-shattering news, he is compelled to make peace with his past and search for freedom beyond the concrete jungle of New York City.

"An affectionate work of cinema verite, the film blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, presenting an unexpectedly quiet and atmospheric depiction of a journey to self-discovery and spiritual redemption, taken by an unlikely cinematic lead character - a lonely, single, relatively quiet black male in his 20s, cutting an imposing figure, a head of corn rows, but who carries himself with a tenderness you wouldn't expect. The "un-urban," "urban" film, with a lead character Hollywood wouldn't know what to do with."

WolfA family is shaken to the core when they discover their son has been molested. As they struggle to deal with the betrayal, their son heads towards a total mental collapse because of his love for his abuser, while his abuser attempts to exorcise his own past demons.

"The cinematic punch in the gut I so desperately needed, Ya’ke Smith’s feature film directorial debut Wolf is an audacious, potent drama that will likely elicit extreme reactions from viewers when it’s eventually in general release – reactions that will undoubtedly lead to fiery discussion centered around the central themes the film tackles. This is the film that Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer should have been; and if Tyler Perry had the goods and the guts, his Christian-themed morality tales that seem to only exist on a really simplistic, even shallow level, will instead look and sound like Wolf."

Wuthering HeightsA love story that spans childhood well into the young adult years, the film follows Heathcliff (in Arnold’s version, a black boy), who is taken in by a Yorkshire farmer, Earnshaw, develops a passionate relationship with the farmer's teen daughter, inspiring the envy and mistrust of his son, intense feelings and rivalries that are confronted when they are older.

"Andrea Arnold’s latest screen adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel rings relevant and significant in its interracial twist of the star-crossed lovers. Seemingly inadvertently perhaps, the film carries with it historical connotation, a legacy of racial discrimination and “white superiority/privilege” told almost entirely from the point-of-view of a black Heathcliff. This very element makes Arnold’s latest all the more poignant; it even feels overdue."

Yelling to the sky: An introspective and shy teenager tries to blend into the crowded halls of her high school, as an increasingly complex home life and a growing threat at school soon carry her into a world of reckless ambivalence.

"Yelling To The Sky is all id. A visceral trip that hits you in the mouth from its opening frames, and grips onto you, unrelentingly until the cathartic close. Seeped in realism, the naturalistic performances from the cast, including star Zoe Kravitz, are dynamic – vigorous and purposeful; active and changing. Nary a sequence is wasted. Characters transform; those perceived to be weak, find strength; and the strong prove to be just as vulnerable. Lessons are learned often after extremes, and everyone isn’t exactly who they present themselves to be (or who we, the audience might instinctively classify them as)."

Fin! That's it!

Some facts I should note that I learned in putting the list together:

- First, there wasn't a single film that appeared on every list submitted, so I can't say that there is a consensus on anyone of these selections. But I think that's actually a good thing, because it illustrates a nice diversity in POVs. So while one might expect a film like say Beasts Of The Southern Wild to be on everyone's list, given the near-universal praise it's received since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, it might come as a surprise to some of you that not everyone who writes for this site loved it - at least not enough to include it on their lists of the year's best. We know. We know bell hooks didn't care for it; although she doesn't write for S&A... yet!

- And secondly, as you might expect, there were several films that only appeared on one list, which, as I noted in the intro of this post, weren't included in the final list above, since I only selected those titles that were mentioned by 2 or more writers. Films like La Pirogue, The Intouchables, and even Think Like A Man, and others, might be feted in a follow-up post of, we could call them, "honorable mentions."

- Also, it should be made clear that we all didn't see every single "black film," because they weren't all accessible to everyone of us. We all live in different cities, so films that may have screened in one, may not have screened in others.

- And lastly, there's one filmmaker with 2 films on the list - Terence Nance. I'll let you figure out which 2. But kudos to Mr Nance!

But this is as close to a "Best Black Films of the Year" list as we're going to get here on S&A - at least this year. Eventually, maybe by this time next year, we just might have a much more formal arrangement, with awards and a ceremony attached. Maybe... or maybe not. We'll see.

In the meantime, I encourage you to seek all of these films out, and watch them - those that you haven't see anyway.

If I could categorize the above 26 titles, I'd label them edutainment, as cliched as that might sound. But I couldn't come up with a more descriptive term. I think you'll find most of them entertaining, but also educational. You'll be captivated by the stories they tell, and you'll probably learn something too - whether about yourself, or the African Diaspora that you're a part of (or not a part of, if you don't consider yourself of African descent).

As noted, some are far more accessible than others, and we'll continue to update you all with screening playdates for each, as we learn about them, as well as home video (DVD, Blu-ray, digital, VOD) releases. 

2013 should be an interesting year for black cinema, with what should be one of those years that's loaded with more black films (both at the studio level and indie) than we've seen in most years. I'll be writing a "2013 Black Cinema Outlook" post shortly, so you can see exactly what I'm referring to!

Merry Christmas and happy new year to you all! 

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2 Comments

  • Bee | January 19, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    Thanks for this list! I really want to see several of these films, especially: Yelling to the Sky, Four, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Wolf. Saw Slavery by Another Name and it was awesome! Didn't care for Soul Food Junkies.

  • Jon | December 31, 2012 4:35 PMReply

    Thanks for this great list! I have a lot of catching up to do.

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