Normally, IndieWire’s Stream of the Day feature focuses on movies that you can watch at home. Today, we’re using this space to call out a few that should be available, but aren’t. At one time or another, we have all probably experienced this frustrating conundrum: You want to watch a movie or TV show that sneaks its way into your consciousness, or was recommended by a trusted source, and, like most people, you first try the streaming services — especially in the current environment — but none of them carry it, not even as a rental or purchase on Amazon or iTunes. That’s especially true for films from black filmmakers.
For example, none of the films from key L.A. Rebellion filmmaker, Haile Gerima (“Bush Mama,” 1976; “Ashes and Embers,” 1982; and others) are available to stream on any platform, nor is Ivan Dixon’s classic “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” (1973), or Jessie Maple’s 1981 film “Will,” which was one of the earliest feature films directed by an African-American woman.
Obviously, the older the film, the less likely it is to be available in digital form. And if it is available, there’s a good chance that the quality of the image will be inferior, and you’d have to pay up for it. For example, Wendell B. Harris Jr.s “Chameleon Street” (1989) is only available as a grimy $10 purchase on Amazon.
Non-American films directed by black filmmakers are even harder to find on American streaming platforms. Seminal work by black British filmmakers like Cannes winner Isaac Julien (“Young Soul Rebels,” 1991) and Menelik Shabazz (“Burning an Illusion,” 1981) aren’t available for American audiences.
It’s even worse for African titles. Landmark work by one of the godfather’s of African cinema, Med Hondo, can’t be found on any platform. His feature debut, “Soleil O” (1970), which screened at both the Cannes and Locarno International Film Festivals (receiving a Golden Leopard award at the latter), was restored in 2017, with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. The restoration screened around the world, but has yet to be released on any home video format.
Meanwhile, a classic film like Michael Roemer’s much-loved 1964 romance, “Nothing But a Man,” is almost impossible to find online. It’s not carried by any of the major streamers, and not even on any cable TV network. To watch it, you’d have to pay for a subscription to an obscure service called FlixFling. But at least it’s available somewhere.
If you want to watch a consequential documentary like “When We Were Kings,” your only option is to subscribe to Cinemax, because it’s not available to stream anywhere else. Marlon Riggs’ seminal “Tongues Untied” (1989) and Bill Gunn’s “Personal Problems” (1980) can only be found on Kanopy. “Putney Swope” (1969) is only available on a streamer called Tubi and on SundanceNow. And the list goes on.
That is not to say that there aren’t any noteworthy black films available to stream on major SVOD platforms, but it’s remarkable how short that list has become.
Still there are several major works of black cinema that are currently unavailable to stream on any platform. In chronological order, here are 10 that absolutely deserve a home on any one of the major streaming services, making them accessible to millions of viewers.
“Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
Diana Ross stars in the tragic story of the turbulent life of songstress Billie Holiday. Sexually assaulted as a young girl, then compelled to work as a domestic in a Harlem brothel, Holiday is encouraged to take on a singing career by the bordello’s pianist (Richard Pryor). She rises as high as it is possible to go in the white-controlled world of show business in the 1930s, but can’t handle the pressure and turns to drugs. The film does take several liberties with the 44-years-long life of the woman who would come to be known as “Lady Day.” But it’s a classic that earned five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Ross for a performance that would come to define her career as an actress.
“The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973)
Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema, but the underseen 1973 adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” (which was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012) was potentially even more lethal in its crafting and message, and really had the ability to inspire a revolution at a time when black people were maybe most susceptible. Greenlee adapted his autobiographical rhapsody about a token black CIA operative turned liberation leader. Ivan Dixon directed the film which might long have been recognized as one of the great African-American calls to arms, had it not been suppressed for 30 years.
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Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is a single New York City mother who endures a taxing commute to the suburbs where she works as a maid for wealthy white families. She meets Rupert (James Earl Jones), a charismatic but somewhat reckless garbage collector. Romance quickly ensues, but Claudine doubts that their relationship is good for her six children, and Rupert, despite his good nature, is reluctant to take on fatherhood. Diahann Carroll (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for this role) and James Earl Jones are dynamic in this romantic drama. It’s a sweet-spirited film that realistically portrays the struggles of the black working class and the effects of the welfare system on people pigeonholed by systemic oppression.
“Bush Mama” (1976)
Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones) is a mother in Watts, who, despite the odds, tries to raise her daughter decently in an environment of harsh poverty. She becomes pregnant, the man in her life becomes incarcerated, and the welfare department insists she have an abortion. After protecting her daughter from a rapist, Dorothy herself is jailed. The film explores the struggles and oppression that working class African-Americans face. It offers a raw perspective on class, race and gender inequalities, not typically addressed in mainstream American cinema. Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, was a member of the Los Angeles School of black filmmakers, also known as the LA Rebellion, along with award-winning filmmakers Charles Burnett, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark and Julie Dash.
“Passing Through” (1977)
Eddie Warmack (Nathaniel Taylor), an African American jazz musician, is released from prison for killing a white gangster. He isn’t willing to play for the mobsters who control the music industry, including the clubs and recording studios, Warmack searches for his mentor and grandfather, the legendary jazz musician Poppa Harris. Director Larry Clark theorizes that jazz is one of the purest expressions of African American culture, embodying the struggles of generations of blacks, but is now controlled by white people who exploit black artists for profit. Clark completed the film while participating in the fellows program at the American Film Institute (AFI), and the film won a special jury prize at the Locarno Film Festival.
Shot on location in ’80s-era Harlem, Jessie Maple’s feature debut focuses on the title character, Will (Obaka Adedunyo), a basketball coach fighting through a heroin addiction, while mentoring a 12-year-old street kid, adopted by himself and his wife (Loretta Devine in her very first film role). It’s a hard-hitting, slice-of-life drama that’s also notable for its unapologetic depiction of underage drug use among black male youth. Maple’s love for her neighborhood and her neighbors is obvious, as she paints an unflinching portrait of the struggle and resiliency of the community. It was one of the first feature-length films directed by an African-American woman. Maple would go on to direct just one more feature, “Twice as Nice” in 1989.
“Ashes and Embers” (1982)
John Anderson plays an African-American Vietnam vet named Nay Charles, who returns to Los Angeles after his tour ends. He struggles to adjust to civilian life, and soon becomes involved in minor crimes. The film explores Charles’ rapidly disintegrating personal and professional relationships. One of the few constants in his life is his caring grandmother, who tries to help him understand his place as a black man in America. In the end, the film places its faith in African American youth, who represent a future in which they will be valorous. “Ashes and Embers” earned director Haile Gerima, the FIPRESCI Prize for Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“White Dog” (1982)
Samuel Fuller’s unflinching exposé on racism in America was initially under-appreciated and suppressed when it was made. The scandalous film is now revered for its bold use of metaphor and sensationalist storytelling. Kristy McNichol stars as a young actress who adopts a lost German shepherd, only to discover through a series of terrifying occurrences that the dog has been trained to specifically attack black people, and the late Paul Winfield plays the animal trainer who tries to cure him. It’s an uncompromising vision that paints a rather tragic portrait of vile racist tendencies taken to a shocking extreme.
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“Paris Is Burning” (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at the golden age of New York “Drag Balls,” where rival fashion houses come together to celebrate, vogue and compete for bragging rights. This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag ball scene. Shot between 1985 and 1989, the narrative cuts between individual stories that chronicle the experiences of the African-American and Latino, gay and transgender culture in a time when the city was maybe most consumed by materialism and glamour. It’s eye-opening, tragic, sad, funny, and uplifting all at once.
Directed by Cauleen Smith, the term “Drylongso” is an African-American expression that means “getting by with very little.” The film follows the story of a young woman in just that situation. Living in Oakland, California and frustrated with her own life, Pica (Toby Smith) picks up a camera and decides to document the existence of young black men, whom she feels are a breed on the verge of becoming extinct. Through this project, she meets many colorful characters and also suffers the death of her boyfriend, while learning the importance of her own existence and finds her own place in the world. The film should’ve served as a calling card for Smith, but she never made another feature and is currently is a faculty member for the Vermont College of Fine Arts.