Some rabbit holes are so worth the tumble. In late August of this year, Maya S. Cade launched Black Film Archive, a website that directs cinema adventurers to the movies that preceded the Black film boom of the late 1980s and ’90s led by Spike Lee and John Singleton, the Hudlin brothers and Julie Dash, among others. The archive goes from 1915 up to 1979 (the year The Wiz underperformed at the box office and studios got skittish about an investment they’d never actually made).
Not only does Cade write deft film notes (making for great reading even if you’re not looking for what to watch tonight), and she often sends viewers to streaming storehouses not named Netflix, Hulu or Amazon so that you can enjoy spreading your viewing beyond the corporate entertainment behemoths. Here are 11 terrific films worth checking out now.
Within Our Gates (1920)
Duke University houses an archive of the early 20th century auteur Oscar Micheaux. For a spell, a festival named for him made South Dakota home, because he’d been a homesteader there. (It’s now in Los Angeles.) In 1987, the film pioneer got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even so, many a film aficionado may not know the man considered Hollywood’s first Black filmmaker. With its proximity to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic (and epically racist) celebration of the KKK, The Birth of a Nation, and having been made in the aftermath of 1919’s Red Summer of murderous white riots — from Tulsa to Chicago and San Francisco to Washington — this 1920 silent film represents a rebuff to the Griffith’s false fable of who needed protection from whom.
Watch it: Within Our Gates
Rev. S. S. Jones Home Movies (1924-28)
The sweetest 16 minutes in the archive may be the work of the Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, who shot 16 mm footage of Black Oklahoma communities in the years 1924 to 1928. It’s often just footage of people living: plowing a field, coming out of a bank, visiting a delicatessen, feeding hens and chicks, and playing football. There are also baptisms and funerals, church services and schoolyard calisthenics. The evocative images of the wonderful quotidian go on. Given the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, these images of Black joy also feel like poignant evidence of Black resilience.
Watch it: Rev. S. S. Jones Home Movies
A Man Called Adam (1966)
Sammy Davis Jr. portrays Adam Johnson, a coronet virtuoso and the front man for his self-named jazz quintet, in this 1966 movie (directed by Sean Penn’s dad, Leo). When best friend Nelson (Ossie Davis) introduces Adam to civil rights activist Claudia (a young Cicely Tyson), they meet prickly. After all, Adam just kicked her grandfather (Louis Armstrong) out of the apartment Nelson had loaned them. Depicting Black resistance, frustration and fury (in a masculine versus feminine way at times), this crisp black-and-white movie is overheated but fun to watch — and listen to. Benny Carter composed the aptly swinging score. Trumpeter Nat Adderley blows hot and oh so cool, providing Adam Johnson’s high notes. Davis takes care of the low, as Johnson sinks into drink and a racially tinged despair.
Watch it: A Man Called Adam
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Black Girl (1966)
World cinema titan Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature was the first film shot in sub-Saharan Africa and marked the beginning of a tremendous filmmaking career. Before making La Noire de… (the original French title), the Senegalese director had been a successful novelist. A 4K restoration makes even more stunning this black-and-white tale of Diouana, a young woman who leaves Dakar to work for a white French family in Antibes, France. Quickly, her employment becomes more like indentured servitude. Sembène creates a moving — and angering — portrait of a young woman as loneliness and homesickness take root to devastating consequence.
Watch it: Black Girl
Portrait of Jason (1967)
In this LGBTQ go-to documentary from director Shirley Clarke, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), a one-time student at the Actors Studio, offers a living example of “the performative” and its wild and woolly relationship to the authentic, as the variously described actor, houseboy, hustler, raconteur and so much more. Almost always with a cig and cocktail in hand, Holliday waxes eloquent, ribald and wrenching. Jason was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2015.
Watch it: Portrait of Jason
Mati Diop won the Cannes’ Grand Prix award two years ago for her bewitching drama Atlantique (currently streaming on Netflix). This film by her late uncle, the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, suggests the gift of aesthetic genius runs in the family. Vivid, vivacious, Touki-Bouki (aka Journey of the Hyena) tells the story of young lovers Anta and Mory, who are set on escaping their homeland and Dakar for France. It’s often mentioned in the company of French New Wave efforts but has a singular vision all its own.
Watch it: Touki-Bouki
The Learning Tree (1969)
Gordon Parks wrote fiction, novels and poetry. He composed music. A photographer for the Farm Security Administration and then a staff shooter for Life magazine, he was a multi-hyphenate dynamo. For this 1969 movie, he adapted and directed his coming-of-age novel of the same name. He revisits his childhood in Kansas, spinning out of it a drama that wrestles with crimes and punishment, youth and desire, silence and morality. Another Parks title in the Black Film Archive: Shaft.
Watch it: The Learning Tree
Watermelon Man (1970)
A Black film archive wouldn’t be complete without Melvin Van Peebles. His essential indie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, isn’t here at the moment, but the satire that preceded his break from the studio system is. Watermelon Man was written as a lambast of liberal pieties and produced by a major studio. The whiteface that Godfrey Cambridge dons at the start isn’t any more convincing than blackface. But the idea of a bigoted white insurance agent waking up to learn he’s Black (at least pigmentation-wise) — and the madness he experiences — resonates still. Van Peebles, who died Sept. 21, is the recipient of BFA’s first — and only thus far — dedicated director page. Founder Cade’s more extensive notes provide a tender, informative homage.
Watch it: Watermelon Man
Did you love this summer’s fantastic act of historical recovery, the documentary Summer of Soul? Then this 1970s doc about a gathering that took place at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to commemorate the Watts upheaval of 1965 should be on your radar. Stax Records sponsored the event and featured some of the Memphis-based, soul-nurturing company’s artists. Sure it was a kind of corporate self-promotion, but what a roster, what a day. Onstage: the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, bluesman Albert King, Luther Ingram, the Dramatics and Isaac Hayes, to name a few. Jesse Jackson was the day’s MC. Richard Pryor came on board the film production as host.
Watch it: Wattstax
Don’t Miss This: Did You Know There Was a 'Black Woodstock' in 1969?
Before the 2012 remake with Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston, there was this original about three sisters in Harlem who were trying to make it in the music biz. (Yes, the inspiration was the Supremes.) Irene Cara, who went on to star in Fame, and Philip Michael Thomas (Tubbs in Miami Vice) play the young lovers, Sparkle and Stix. Impeccable theater ace Mary Alice plays the mom and Dwan Smith is the middle sis. But it’s Lonette McKee as Sister — drug hooked, gangster dogged — who bore the film’s tragic vibe. Most enduring: Curtis Mayfield’s score and soundtrack. Just consider Aretha, who sang the soundtrack’s set piece song, “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” and En Vogue, who later covered it.
Watch it: Sparkle
Diary of an African Nun (1977)
Before she made 1991’s essential, enduring arthouse wonder Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash was among the firebrand filmmakers who were part of UCLA’s L.A. Rebellion movement. This short, based on a story by Alice Walker, won her a Directors Guild of America award for student film and confirms early her gift for visual poetry and interior depth. Barbara O. Jones (aka Barbarao) portrays the Ugandan nun who, over the course of 17 minutes, begins to express doubts about being a bride of Christ.
Watch it: Diary of an African Nun
Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-96) and Denver Post film critic (2003-15) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post, and others.