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The Black Film Canon: Slate picks 50 of the greatest films by black directors

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Still from the film "Shaft."
Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Still from the film "Shaft."

Slate writers, Aisha Harris and Dan Kois, reached out to 40 different filmmakers, scholars and critics to get their take on the greatest films by black directors.

The 1971 film "Shaft" is one of 50 movies featured in an article posted today on Slate titled, “The Black Film Canon: The 50 Greatest Movies by Black Directors.”

Created by culture writers Aisha Harris and Dan Kois of Slate, the list was culled from suggested titles from filmmakers, critics, scholars and other African-Americans in the entertainment industry.

The list includes some hidden gems and indie movies that are not widely known. They range from the 1920s silent film “Within Our Gates,” a provocative response to “The Birth of a Nation,” to the new ESPN documentary, “O.J.: Made in America."

"Considering how few opportunities, when compared to their white counterparts, black people have to make films and get them out there to be seen by the world, you're going to take that rare opportunity to showcase what you know and try to present a side of the story and perspective that is not often seen," says Harris.

Harris graduated from NYU with a degree film studies before working at Slate. She talked with The Frame about researching the article and what picks she found most notable.

Selections from "The Black Film Canon: The 50 greatest movies by black directors":

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) - Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend, when he talks about making "Hollywood Shuffle," the 1987 satire, he talks about what it's like to be a black person in Hollywood. He financed that project by himself and maxed out all of his credit cards. To know that these filmmakers are still able to create great, emotional, moving work within the independent film world is a testament to how important it is to acknowledge what they've done. 

Ashes and Embers (1982) - Haile Gerima

It's by Haile Gerima and it's a really fascinating portrait of a black Vietnam vet. That's a perspective you don't see in Hollywood films. You can think of plenty of Vietnam era films like "Taxi Driver" or "Platoon" that discuss that from the white perspective. Now it's also streaming on Netflix, thanks to Ava DuVernay and her company who helped restore it earlier this year. Being able to watch that movie and see something that he poured everything into -- it's a really fascinating film and was one of the biggest surprises to me.

Do the Right Thing (1989) - Spike Lee

His name was constantly coming up from people we intereviewed and talked to. It's hard not to. You can try to get around it, but when you're talking about filmmaking and black filmmaking especially, Spike Lee, whether you like him or not (and many people are polarized about him), you can't deny his influence. You can't deny that he's a really accomplished filmmaker. "Do the Right Thing" is one of the greatest films ever made, period.

When the Levees Broke (2006-07) - Spike Lee

"When the Levees Broke" is his documentary about Hurricane Katrina which is a monstrous and amazing piece of historical work about this very emotional and political thing that happened in America. It's impossible to deny that he's had the fortune of coming at a time when he could produce these films and also he's very prolific. A lot of these other filmmakers didn't have as many opportunities as he did to create as often. There are certain filmmakers on here who have only made one or two films in their entire career. 

Shaft (1971) - Gordon Parks

I think watching with a modern sensibility, it's easy to be turned off by some of the misogyny or the stereotypes that the black films like these are known for. At the same time, they do make a great case for being culturally significant. That was one of the aspects that we looked at for in these films -- what do they mean for black filmmaking and for filmmaking as a whole? "Shaft" paved the way for the black superhero and action hero. It's more than just the theme song. It is still a shaggy movie, but a shaggy movie that still works.

Superfly (1972) - Gordon Parks Jr.

With "Superfly," it's a little trickier, but at the end I think it has a bigger theme of wanting to defeat the man. The main character wants to get out of the drug game and he ultimately does. You can embrace blacksploitation films outside of what they might represent that's politically incorrect.

Other movies from the "50 Greatest Films by Black Directors":

  • 12 Years A Slave (2013) - Steve McQeen
  • Belle (2014) - Amma Asante
  • Black Girl (1966) - Ousmane Sembene
  • The Blood of Jesus (1941) - Spencer Williams
  • Car Wash (1976) - Michael Schultz
  • Friday (1995) - F. Gary Gray
  • Eve's Bayou (1997) - Kasi Lemmons
  • Fruitvale Station (2014) - Ryan Coogler
  • I Like It Like That (1994) - Darnell Martin
  • Killer of Sheep (1978) - Charles Burnett
  • Middle of Nowhere (2012) - Ava DuVernay
  • Pariah (2011) - Dee Rees
  • The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973) - Ivan Dixon
  • Timbuktu (2014) - Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Waiting to Exhale (1995) - Forest Whitaker
  • Within Our Gates (1920) - Oscar Micheaux
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