What I Learned In Attempting to Create a Comprehensive List of American Films By Black Filmmakers

I’m a white male that grew up in a state that was 98% white according to a 1990 census, that state being New Hampshire. I had very few minorities in my school classes through high school and even the college I attended, Keene State College, had only a 4% minority enrollment in 2010 when I graduated. Not only have I been afforded white privilege throughout my life, I wasn’t even exposed to anything else for the majority of that time – outside of various trips to NYC, Boston and other cities in the US, it was not until I moved to Rochester, NY in the summer of 2010 that I found myself a part of a community that didn’t predominantly resemble me.

Like many other white people who consider themselves to be – or strive to be – allies to our BIPOC neighbors in 2020, I wanted to push myself to be more educated and increase my exposure to art and culture from the Black community. As a rabid cinephile all of my life, from childhood through the current day, I have spent countless hours watching movies and I thought a good percentage of that was diverse. Like many genre film fans that came of age in post-Tarantino America, I dove head first into the pool of Blaxploitation and kung-fu movies – but a lot of the former were made by white writers, directors and producers. In this attempt to further my exposure to Black cinema, I sought a comprehensive list of contributions to the American film industry by Black directors. I naively thought this would be something easy to find but, naturally, I was wrong. Plenty of canon lists and recommendations came out following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of five police officers – and they all echoed the same titles: Do the Right Thing, Selma, Moonlight, Fruitvale Station, Get Out, etc. There had to be more, right?

With no comprehensive list existing, I opted to create one myself. Work has to be put in to amplify voices, so I put in the work. I wanted to create a list that didn’t pander to the whims of Hollywood but also included avant-garde, low budget genre cinema, films made for the direct-to-video market, short films and even longer form music videos. When it comes down to it, Hollywood is hardly the best gauge of available content and this list was meant to cover decades of commercial and non-commercial moving image content from a large community of creators that had been (and still are being) relegated to the sidelines. I had absolutely no idea how daunting this task would be.

As of this writing, the letterboxd list I created has 1,593 American films listed from Black directors. And I’ve only watched 19% of them, yet I’ve logged 10,146 films on the site. That’s a jarring disparity and I wanted to further understand why that is and highlight a few things that I’ve learned through this process – which is far from done, I should add.

Independence

The vast majority of the films on this list are independently produced and distributed, working almost entirely outside of the studio system. A few years back, in 2015, the hashtag #Oscarssowhite started trending thanks to The Academy repeatedly ignoring the contributions of Black filmmakers and stars at their annual awards ceremony – yet the issue is part of the industry as a whole, not just that of awards recognition. A lot of the titles on this list are created outside of the studio system for reasons of intent – avant-garde and short film work by default – but a lot of the films (comedy and genre cinema especially) would almost definitely get some sort of studio deal with a white cast and crew, even if it still is relegated to the DTV or cable markets, having a studio arm backing your film will get it more exposure than not. I worked in a video store for years in the early to mid 2000s and I can attest that we ordered less copies for any film that didn’t have a studio supporting it – which doesn’t allow only for brand recognition but better wholesale options for retailers as well.

OutputĀ 

Sure, we all know that Spike Lee has made a lot of films. He currently has a whopping 93 credits on IMDB, including short film and TV work. But a lot of Black filmmakers you’ve never heard of also have staggering career outputs. Filmmakers like renegade genre cinema directors Sean Weathers and Nathyn Masters or those working consistently in comedy like Greg Carter or Trey Haley. These filmmaker working outside of the studios are establishing bodies of work into the dozens of films in a short while and many of them serve not only as directors but as writers, producers, cinematographers and editors on their own films – maintaining not only more control than they would get in Hollywood but more control than even most white filmmakers get on independently produced productions in the US. That said, being multi-faceted may also come out of necessity as well. After reading Jesse Algeron Rhines’ great book Black Film/White Money, it’s unfortunately clear that many Black filmmakers need to learn other aspects of filmmaking not only to increase their chances of getting hired by the studios but also because there is such a scarcity of Black filmmakers with technical skill that many take it upon themselves to do it all. And then, of course, there’s the financial aspect of not having to pay additional crew members. That these filmmakers are not only creating large bodies of work, but doing most of the heavy lifting on their own, is a testament to both their own commitment as well as community support. Not only are the filmmakers out there, but the audience is too.

Access

So, if all of these films exist and people are supporting them, they must be easy to see, right? Unfortunately, no. As of this writing only 1/3 of the films on the list are available on any of the popular streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Showtime, Tubi, Vudu, Criterion, Kanopy and Hoopla were the services searched here) and a great portion are also not even available on disc for purchase or rental. This is a very jarring statistic for me – not only because I was hoping to watch a lot of these titles myself, but that this work is largely inaccessible not only keeps people from seeing it but also from it being a part of the conversation around American cinema in general. This puts the impetus on cultural gatekeepers to put more work in; that means film programmers, critics and writers increasing awareness alongside home video and streaming platform curators providing access. As an archivist and writer, I will absolutely do what I can and I hope that others in the industry will do the same.

It’s hard to conclude this piece because there is no conclusion. This list isn’t finished and I’m not sure it ever will be with how sparse this information is. As it is, so far I’ve used IMDB, various books and printed resources, film festival programs, archive listings and even YouTube interviews to piece this together and the work has only begun. But creating this is only the first step, people need to use it for it to matter. So, please watch something and start searching for the titles that you can’t find easily and sharing what you love alongside what you hate. The goal here isn’t to only unearth buried treasure, it is to have an actually comprehensive list for – what I can tell – is the first time, that chronicles the output of Black filmmakers in the American film industry. The current spate of bullet point listicles serve their purpose, but there’s more to the cinema of a community than the same five films; Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay have earned their success and have crossed over to a wider, whiter, audience than 95% of the filmmakers currently on the list. There have also been strides made in academic studies made publicly accessible like Robin Means Coleman’s great book Horror Noire which was turned into an entertaining documentary on Shudder, or the Pioneers of African American Cinema project by Kino and the resurgence of the L.A. Rebellion films on various platforms and home media. But there is still a ton of work to do, so let’s do it together.

To contribute to the list directly, please comment on it here.

Justin LaLIberty
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