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2019: the year in black visual culture

December 11, 2019
509 Picks

We’re living in the golden age of Black visual culture, a time when there are lots of authentic movies and television programs about the Black experience being made by powerful Black creators and starring compelling Black talent. We’ve been in this golden age for a few years now. Its given us films like Black Panther, Moonlight, Get Out, and Sorry To Bother You as well as shows such as Insecure, Empire, Black*ish, Queen Sugar, and Dear White People. Most importantly, we now have a class of creators who seem entrenched in the industry, and able to create pretty much whatever they want — Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele, Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, Issa Rae, Donald Glover, and Lena Waithe, among others. Together they’re building a broad and fascinating era of Black visual culture that, at its best, feels organic and made for us, not for the white gaze. In this respect, it has been an extraordinary year. Here’s my top 10 pieces of Black visual culture (both movies and TV shows) of 2019.

10. A Black Lady Sketch Show

Robin Thede’s brainchild is consistently funny and smart in the way it mines Black culture for comedy, celebrating us and the Black women’s experience. The show gives love to Black ladies without looking down on Black men. Standout sketches: “Get the Belt,” “Invisible Spy,” “Angela Bassett Is the Baddest Bitch,” and “Hertep Masterclass.” Catch it on HBO and don’t miss the funny spin-off Quinta Versus.

9. The Black Godfather

Reggie Hudlin’s Netflix documentary about the consummate connector and entertainment business savant Clarence Avant took us inside an amazing life journey. One Black man of considerable interpersonal gifts rose to become a power broker, then fell, then rose again. Avant’s talent is in his ability to link people who could do business together and through that skill he has changed the world. If you’ve ever wondered how the powerful become powerful, this will give you some idea of how it’s done.

8. Pose

Janet Mock’s heartfelt nighttime soap/dramedy gave me all the feelings each and every week. Over 60 minutes, I would laugh, maybe cry, definitely worry, then exhale. Mock and her crew pulled me deep into a world I have never known — and when I watched it, felt out of place in, but in a good way, out of my comfort zone, given a chance to learn about an important Black subculture and the lives of people different from me. I love that it’s a show about trans women that gives us a slew of actual trans women acting, and writing, and telling their story through deeply compelling characters. And I couldn’t help falling in love with several of those characters, especially Hailie Sahar’s Lulu and Indya Moore’s Angel. 

7. Native Son

Rashid Johnson’s modernized, punk rock vision of Richard Wright’s iconic novel was powerful visually — which makes sense because Johnson is one of the best visual artists alive. But Johnson and star Ashton Sanders brought new life to Bigger Thomas, whose story is just as powerful and relevant today as it was all those decades ago.

6. Black Mirror: Striking Vipers

The Black episode of Black Mirror gives us Yahya Abdul-Mateen and Anthony Mackie bonding over a video game, as boys do, but once inside the game their bond takes on another level and their figurative fighting leads to passionate virtual sex between their avatars. Which leads to questions of whether they are gay in real life, or in love with each other, and if what they really want is to have sex in the offline world.

5. Homecoming: Beyonce

Bey brought HBCU culture to the desert, infusing Coachella with a deep and profound sense of Blackness. I stayed up late to watch the livestream of the concert, but the film about the concert is so much more powerful, because Beyonce’s poise and grace onstage masks all the work and grit it took to mount that epic performance. This was a comeback show — her return to the stage after childbirth — and it was inspiring to watch the Herculean effort it took to get back to the high standard she sets for herself, the endless rehearsal and sacrifices and the time away from her kids. She seemed more like a professional athlete fighting to get back to the top level of her sport, a family woman trying to reclaim her old self.

4. When They See Us

Ava Duvernay takes us through the depth of the pain that the Central Park 5 and their families had to live after being falsely accused for raping a jogger in New York in 1989. And while it’s hard to walk that long road with them, it’s powerful to watch their pain at that moment in history when they’re triumphant in life. This mini-series like a blues — giving witness to the hell these boys escaped now that they’ve been paid millions by New York City, and their side of the story has been accepted as the truth — with one of our greatest living filmmakers telling their tale on the biggest platform. That context makes it a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the possibility of achieving justice, even if you’re Black boys who’ve been convicted of heinous crimes and all but left for dead. If they can rise again from such depths, who among us can’t hope to see the sun again?

3. Queen & Slim

Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas’s film is a metaphor for living while Black. It’s about finding a way to keep on, surviving, making a way out of no way, as white supremacy imposes itself on you — and sustaining yourself by finding moments of joy in the Black community, finding allies who help you and love you, while still remembering that every brother ain’t a brother. It’s a polarizing film but I found it powerful, gripping, heartbreaking, beautiful, and unforgettable.

2. Watchmen

Regina King’s Sister Night is as badass as they come—she’s like the daughter of Shaft and Pam Grier—and she’s fiercely battling white supremacists as they rise in power with help from the baddest man on the planet, a “Black” Dr. Manhattan. Watchmen might be the Blackest show ever made by a white man. It’s all about race and it makes clear that the traumas of our racist past still have a huge, enduring impact on the present. I came to the HBO show without having read the graphic novel or understanding the movie, so don’t worry if you’re not steeped in the past history of this iconic franchise, you can love this show without knowing all of that. 

1. Us

Jordan Peel’s magnum opus is far more ominous and complex than Get Out which is great but almost cartoonish by comparison. Us is a metaphor for America where the underclass rises up to take back the country, it’s a horror film built on a brilliant concept, and it’s a movie anchored by an amazing pair of performances by one of America’s greatest actors, Lupita Nyongo. This is a film where the matriarch is the dominant figure and the savior, where dark skin is shown in its luxurious beauty, and where white people are the first to die. I do not like horror films but Peele doesn’t make hardcore horror, but he is trying to frighten you into seeing the world in a new way.

Your personal list may differ. You may have Waves or Dolemite or Just Mercy or Last Black Man In San Francisco or Harriet or Queen Sugar or Wu Tang: Of Mics and Men or Godfather of Harlem on it, and that’s cool. It’s amazing to have a moment in Black visual culture when there is so much great work. The fact that there is such a diversity of choices tells me that we as a community are winning. And from the insiders I’ve spoken to, this isn’t a fad. There are so many Black creators and insiders entrenched in the system, they can’t be easily flushed away, which means this golden era isn’t ending any time soon.