As #OscarsSoWhite fades into last Oscar season’s news, change is in the air: There’s a bevy of black films coming in the second half of this year, movies that tell the stories of African chess champions and American slave rebellions. The narratives speak to a black identity that’s multinational instead of monolithic: Nate Parker’s Sundance-winning “The Birth of a Nation,” the interracial romance “Loving,” and Denzel Washington’s fifties-era race relations drama “Fences” are all going to be a part of the conversation this fall.
But there are also a host of older films finally hitting coming out that should expand that picture.
So often black movies are historical, telling the stories of larger-than-life icons we ought to have grown up hearing about. At best they’re biopics that give behemoths like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ray Charles a granular humanity; at worst they’re a lesson in a necessary history that’s edited out of textbooks and never appeared in newspapers.
The awards circuit and studios are overwhelmingly white — but so is film history, as least as far as the canon is seen today. However, there’s a whole legacy of narratives with black people as more than mammies or magical negros. Redoubled efforts on restoration – instead of just production – are making this history more visible.
Reissues and restorations of seminal black films are rare. Neglected black titles like “Daughters of the Dust” (1991), “Black Girl” (1966), and “Valley of Peace” (1956), all of which are set for re-release this year are, first, great narratives. But they’re also gratifying reminders that thinking about black identity cinematically is not a new tradition. That itself is a revolutionary notion: During the 2012 Academy Awards telecast, Gabourey Sidibe said, “If I get to see myself onscreen, I know that I exist.” These movies help prove that we have existed, and suggest that we might continue.
In nearly every way, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” is a direct descendant of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (which Cohen Media will release this fall). Dash’s lyrical narrative deals with memory: The Peazant family has decided to move from their island coven of black independence to the mainland, and each Peazant woman wrestles with the legacies of their ancestors that seem to nurture some family members and ensnare others. Water is a healing agent, and black skin is adorned with lace and imbued with power. Dash’s vignettes show black women in concert with one another, scenes that are simple in composition but profound to watch. Towering, powerful oak trees – the ones infamous for dangling bodies of lynched black men in the American South – are recast in Dash’s film: they’re decorated with black women’s scars and strength.
Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” — newly restored by Janus Films — is the story of Diouna, a Senegalese maid who moves to France with her white employers. When she disembarks the ship that brings her to Europe, Diouna expects a cosmopolitan mecca of promise. Instead she’s trapped by a world she’s not allowed to inhabit. She’s in France, but her disillusionment shows that she’s only French-adjacent: Diouna, as her employer sharply reminds, only knows the grocer and the family she serves. By the film’s second act, she’s not really their maid, but a veritable squatter haunting the apartment’s halls.
“Black Girl” and “Daughters of the Dust” are connected by female memory. The Peazant women reckon with the legacies of their ancestors as they prepare to leave their homes, and in a foreign country Diouna is adrift without connection to her history to anchor her. Their respective directors are bound by their absence in the mainstream. “Ousmane Sembène is a name that, by all means, should be uttered in the same breath as Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci, and De Sica,” wrote Tribeca Film’s Matthew Eng. So too does Dash’s name belong of list of pioneers from her own generation. Restoring this bounty of black cinema shows that nothing produced today exists in isolation.
These movies about black women’s interior lives are bookended by a restoration of “Valley of Peace,” which follows a pair of war orphans and Jim, a black American pilot who befriends them as they flee to safety. (The film screened at Cannes Classics in May; a release date has not yet been announced.) Jim is no one’s accessory, and his black masculinity isn’t constructed of stereotypes and fear. The movie is about the orphans’ search for safety in a land ravaged by battle, but John Kitzmiller’s Jim is the star.
This collection of restorations points toward the same absence: There are so few historic images of blackness. So much space and time is devoted to revisiting familiar names and faces. Just as an expansive history of migration, colonialism, love, and identity exists, so do archives of black cinema. Restorations of Sembène’s “Black Girl,” France Štiglic’s “Valley of Peace,” and Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” are important because they finally allow these films to be experienced by general audiences, and provide new reference points for future filmmakers.