The year started off poorly for black cinema. The critically lauded Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, directed by African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, received Academy Award nominations for best song (which it won) and best picture. But it was shut out in all the other major categories.
While that looked like a bad omen of things to comethings like the backlash against the casting of a black leading actor, John Boyega, in Star Wars: The Force Awakensas the months progressed, 2015 turned into a year when black filmmakers were dropping not only fresh, original movies but also acclaimed studio blockbusters that successfully brought diverse crowds to theaters.
My favorite film of the summer was the black comedy (pardon the pun) Dope. Basically Risky Business for black kids, this Sundance favorite by Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar) has a nerdy inner-city teen (Shameik Moore) and his friends trying to move some dangerous weight and praying they don’t get caught. While that sounds like standard, depressing “hood movie” fare, Famuyiwa mostly plays it for laughs, reminding audiences that films about ghetto life don’t have to be wall-to-wall tragedy.
Surprisingly, audiences flocked to multiplexes to see how N.W.A. became hip-hop legends. The musical biopic Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray (who directed N.W.A. founding member Ice Cube in Friday 20 years ago) was a box-office smash, raking in $200 million and staying in the No. 1 slot for several weeks.
And two of the best films currently in theaters are directed by African-Americansone a seasoned veteran, the other an ambitious new kid on the block.
I thought the days of Spike Lee turning out audacious, provocative, brilliantly made films were long gone. That was before I saw Chi-Raq, which is my pick for best film of the year. Lee transports Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata, to the mean streets of Chicago and creates his own hybrid of satire, musical and wake-up call, with great performances, even greater set pieces and a heavy, hilarious mission to get black people to put down the guns and increase the peace.
Ryan Coogler, who won over Sundance in 2013 with his debut, Fruitvale Station, brought back the beloved saga of Philly fighter Rocky Balboa, but told it mostly from the perspective of his late rival’s kid. In Creed, Coogler reunited with his Fruitvale star, casting Michael B. Jordan as Apollo Creed’s son, looking to make a name for himself in the ring and getting Balboa (Sylvester Stallone himself!) in his corner. The combination of a rousing boxing picture and a nicely executed melodrama has been winning raves and generating Oscar buzz. Let’s hope the Academy will be kinder to this crowd-pleaser than it was to Selma.
By the wayremember Ava DuVernay? Mattel released a limited-edition Barbie doll of her likeness a couple of weeks ago, and it quickly sold out. She may not have any Oscars, but she will still inspire little future filmmakers of different races and genders, and that’s certainly a wonderful way to close out this awesome year in black cinema.