Sketch comedies, family dramas, surrealist horror, and a couple of heist flicks
By now, we’ve all seen the anti-racist reading lists that have been popping up recently. Books like How To Be an Anti-Racist, White Fragility and So You Want To Talk About Race have topped bestsellers lists in the wake of the protests following the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Streaming services have also made their own form of this type of list. Many have sections about movies by Black directors or movies centering on the Black experience. Some services, like Disney+ and The Criterion Channel, offer a great variety of stories highlighting the full spectrum of Black lives. Most others, however, simply highlight movies, documentaries and TV shows about Black trauma. It’s important to understand history and the struggles Black folks have faced and are facing in this country. But it’s also important to highlight films that get to show Black people just living life, whatever that looks like.
To that end, here’s a list of 10 alternative streaming options for anyone who wants to watch something by a Black creator or starring Black people that isn’t about trauma.
Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix)
HBO Max’s “Celebrating Black Voices” section features Ma, a Blumhouse exploitation flick starring Octavia Spencer. Check out Dolemite Is My Name instead, which stars Eddie Murphy and details the production of the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite. Amazon Prime also features the original Dolemite.
A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO Max)
This sketch comedy show’s meta-narrative centers around a group of friends hiding out at a house as the world ends, but the incisive sketches are anything but gloomy. Cast members Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Gabrielle Dennis riff on everything from The Cosby Show to barbershop quartets to the rarity of being in a courtroom filled with just Black women. HBO just renewed it for a second season.
Southside With You (Amazon Prime)
Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson get the Before Sunrise first-date treatment in Richard Tanne’s fictional film. Parker Sawyers’ Obama portrayal is uncanny, but Soutside’s true joy is watching a Black couple get to populate a film genre that usually only highlights white couples. Barry Jenkins does the same slice-of-life riff with his Medicine For Melancholy, which you can rent on Amazon Prime.
The Wood (Amazon Prime)
Rick Famuyiwa’s debut film is a coming-of-age tale about a group of men reuniting for a wedding. When the groom disappears, the group goes looking for him, reminiscing about their youth growing up in Inglewood along the way. It’s funny and heartfelt, with fantastic lead performances from Omar Epps, Richard T. Jones and Taye Diggs.
Inside Man (Netflix)
Spike Lee’s 2006 bank robbery drama is Peak Spike Lee: It’s set in New York, it has a great jazz score, it’s got his signature dolly zoom shot and the bank robbery has more of a socially conscious motive than most. Lee’s more outspoken films sometimes overshadow his genre films, but even when he’s directing a film like this one, he’s fun to watch.
Set It Off (HBO Max)
Another bank robbery film. Before Widows, there was Set It Off, F. Gary Gray’s socially conscious caper about an all-Black woman heist crew consisting of Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise. Those three films might make a fun triple-feature, come to think of it.
Hollywood Shuffle (Amazon Prime)
Robert Townsend’s semi-autobiographical sketch film about Hollywood’s stereotypical casting practices for Black actors is a clear precursor to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and everything Key & Peele have ever done. Townsend plays a fictionalized version of himself who keeps hearing that studios need “more of an Eddie Murphy” type. This leads to a series of imagined sketches that lampoon slave films, noir films, Siskel and Ebert’s TV show, and Rambo, among other things.
The Watermelon Woman (Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Prime)
The Watermelon Woman is back in cultural conversation after the Criterion Channel included it in its “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” collection. Cheryl Dunye’s dramedy deals with growing up as a Black lesbian and also deconstructs the “mammy” stereotype in film. It was also the first film directed by a Black lesbian and is now considered a New Queer Cinema classic.
The Fits (Prime, Criterion, Tubi, Kanopy, Sundance Channel)
The Fits, a thought-provoking surreal horror film, that doesn’t conform neatly into any genre box. It’s a coming-of-age film about an 11-year-old girl who joins a dance troupe, and soon the older girls start to succumb to something only known as “the fits.” First-time director Anna Rose Holmer uses the genre as a way to ask more questions about adolescence than she answers.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Hoopla)
This is the only feature film that director Leslie Harris ever made, and it’s just as powerful now as it was in 1992. Just Another Girl centers on Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson), a 17-year-old Black girl trying to rise above her circumstances in New York. It’s funny and heartbreaking and a bold coming-of-age portrait.