The New York Times put prestigious specialty home-video distributor The Criterion Collection under a microscope late last week, and the headline said it all: “How the Criterion Collection Crops Out African-American Directors.” The report looked at all 22 years and more than 1,000 titles in the Criterion’s revered selection of Blu-rays and DVDs of films, finding that only four African Americans are represented: Oscar Micheaux (“Body and Soul”); William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” and “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½”); Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger”); and Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing” and “Bamboozled”).
It’s a glaring omission for a company that prides itself on licensing and releasing what it describes as “important classic and contemporary films,” but also reflective of an industry-wide practice of shutting out Black filmmakers (annual academic reports like the “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” study published by The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, show modest progress on this front).
Despite America’s changing demographics, the industry’s most powerful leaders have been slow to respond to a demand for films that reflect cultural and racial shifts that have long been underway. This is due in large part to the lack of diversity among their ranks — the executives who ultimately determine which films should be seen. It confirms what has long been condemned as an insular industry run by primarily white men, even as it’s becoming increasingly difficult and unsustainable for them to continue to ignore the seismic demographic shift.
As Julie Dash, whose acclaimed debut was rejected by Criterion almost 30 years ago, put it: “It’s more than ‘They don’t get it’. It has to do with worldview. They don’t care to get it. They’re not interested.”
There are potential solutions here, such a specialty label exclusively dedicated to releasing significant work by Black directors. It could be a logical extension of the efforts underway by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY — a company that has been carving out a niche market for itself, by acquiring and releasing primarily feature film debuts by filmmakers of color and women, including idiosyncratic titles from Black filmmakers like Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Phillip Youmans’ “Burning Cane” and Sam “Blitz” Bazawule’s “The Burial of Kojo.”
Additionally, the work that other similar specialty distribution companies are doing for iconoclastic Black filmmakers should be recognized, like Kino (Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess,” and “Personal Problems”); Milestone Films (Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” and Billy Woodberry’s “Bless Their Little Hearts”); and Cohen Media Group (“Daughters of the Dust”) — each releasing state-of-the-art restored versions of noteworthy classic films, with substantial supplementary material.
The New York Times article includes a supplement asking readers to fill out a form and recommend titles that the Criterion Collection should add. Well, here are 10 possibilities — all trailblazers, listed in chronological order (some are already available from other distributors and may not be so easy for Criterion to acquire; nevertheless, they are worthy of inclusion in any definitive library featuring essential American cinema).
“Within Our Gates,” Oscar Micheaux (1920)
The oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director, Oscar Micheaux’s silent film “Within Our Gates,” was a noteworthy response to Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation.” Micheaux’s landmark film provided a rebuttal to Griffith’s depiction of Black violence and corruption, with a story of the injustices faced by African Americans. While Griffith represented Black male offensives on white female purity, Micheaux’s film sets the historical record straight with its depiction of the attempted rape of a Black woman by a white man. It’s a searing account of the U.S. racial situation of the early twentieth century, including the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Great Migration of Southern Black people to Northern cities. In 1992, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
“Within Our Gates” is included in Kino’s “Pioneers of African American Cinema” five-disc Blu-ray set of at least a dozen feature-length “race films” from the early half of the 20th century.
“Ganja and Hess,” Bill Gunn (1973)
Pioneering filmmaker Bill Gunn’s 1973 iconoclastic “Ganja & Hess” revolutionized the vampire genre and was effectively suppressed in the U.S. because it wasn’t the Hollywood horror movie that its producers had commissioned the artist to make. Gunn made a film unlike anything that came before it (and arguably even after), at a time when Black films weren’t allowed to be much more than empty sensation. It comes with a mythical backstory that should inspire all filmmakers, but especially young Black directors. The movie follows wealthy anthropologist Hess Green, who’s stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger, endowing him with the blessing of immortality and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. When his assailant’s wife Ganja comes searching for her vanished husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership. It’s an intriguing meditation on what it means to live and die as a Black man in America.
A restored “Ganja & Hess” is available on Blu-ray with bonus features via Kino Classics.
“Killer of Sheep,” Charles Burnett (1978)
Charles Burnett’s slice-of-life family drama examines Black life in Watts in the mid-1970s, through the eyes of sensitive slaughterhouse worker named Stan, whose long hours on the job have failed to deliver the American dream. Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a coffee cup against his cheek or slow dancing with his wife in the living room. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes bleak, sometimes filled with joy and humor. Stan represents the many Black Americans who’ve been disproportionately left behind by an expanding gap between rich and poor, in one of the world’s richest countries. The Library of Congress declared “Killer of Sheep” a national treasure as one of the first 50 on the National Film Registry.
A restored “Killer of Sheep” is available on DVD with bonus features via Milestone Films.
“Losing Ground,” Kathleen Collins (1982)
Barely released in 1982 and all but unseen for over three decades, Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” follows philosophy professor Sara Rogers and her bohemian artist husband Victor, who rent a summer country house to celebrate his museum sale. But what was to be an idyll summer (she’s researching “ecstatic experiences,” and he’s living them) is challenged where their conflicting intellectual and orgiastic pursuits collide. Chaos and confusion disrupt her carefully ordered life, when her painter husband — possibly experiencing a midlife crisis of his own — takes interest in one of his young subjects. Sara gradually drifts even further into herself, if only to escape the realities of a crumbling marriage. That “Losing Ground” still feels fresh, over three decades later, is not only a testament to its timelessness — it’s a sad indicator of how scarce complex depictions of the inner lives of Black women in contemporary American cinema remain to this day.
A restored “Losing Ground” is available on DVD and Blu-ray with bonus features via Milestone Films.
“Cane River,” Horace B. Jenkins (1982)
“Cane River” was an independent-film curio: a race and colorism-themed love story with an all-Black cast, written and directed by a Black filmmaker, and financed by wealthy Black backers. A charming “Romeo & Juliet” love story, “Cane River” is set in Louisiana, in one of the first free communities of color. The young couple confront class and color divisions in a lyrical, visionary film that lays bare the tensions between two groups both descended from slaves but of disparate opportunity: the light-skinned, property-owning Creoles, and the darker-skinned, more disenfranchised families of the area. “Cane River” was championed by Richard Pryor, but disappeared for decades after Jenkins died of a heart attack at the age of 42, just a few months after the film premiered. It was mostly unknown until 2013, when the Academy Film Archive selected the film’s original negative as part of a large group of materials brought from the vault of DuArt Film & Video.
Oscilloscope re-released the restoration of “Cane River” in theaters and VOD in February of this year, and it’s now on DVD/Blu-ray.
“Hollywood Shuffle,” Robert Townsend (1987)
Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans struck a chord in 1987 with “Hollywood Shuffle,” a biting satire about the dearth of roles for Black actors in Hollywood. The loosely autobiographical film follows aspiring actor and hot-dog stand worker Bobby Taylor, who catches the wrath of his grandmother when he auditions for a role in the regrettably-titled exploitation film “Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge.” When Tinseltown Studios casts Taylor in the title role, he has a series of conflicted dreams satirizing African-American stereotypes in Hollywood, and must reconcile his career goals with his desire to remain a positive role model for his younger brother. The film may be outmoded, but the issues it raises still exist. It remains an essential piece of Black Hollywood history that still has something to say about the industry today.
“Tongues Untied,” Marlon Riggs (1989)
Marlon Riggs’ landmark essay film gave voice to gay Black men, documenting their perspectives on the world as they confronted racism, homophobia, and marginalization. It broke new artistic ground by mixing poetry, music, performance with Riggs’ autobiographical revelations. The film was embraced by Black gay audiences for its authentic representation of style and culture, as well its fierce response to oppression. It opened up opportunities for dialogue across communities, while being lauded by critics for its bold vision. For those same reasons, it was vilified by homophobic audiences who used it to rebuke government funding of the arts. Nevertheless, the film earned its place in film history. Riggs’ rallying cry, which could conjure a life into being, declares: “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.” The film still speaks to some of the most basic cultural struggles of the present.
“Chameleon Street,” Wendell B. Harris Jr. (1990)
Winner of the Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990, “Chameleon Street” is based on the incredible true story of Black con artist William Douglas Street, Jr. — a man of high intelligence but little formal education. It’s a scrappy and brilliant adventure in filmmaking: The genius con man snuck into Yale, pretended to be a French foreign-exchange student, landed a job with Time, worked as a lawyer, and even performed a stunning number of operations as a surgeon, before he eventually was caught. The film tells a witty and sardonic tale of a master impersonator with invigorating and humorous results. Wendell B. Harris Jr. served as writer, director, sarcastic narrator and star. Sadly, he hasn’t made a film since.
“Daughters of the Dust,” Julie Dash (1991)
Julie Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 historical drama is arguably one of the most significant films in the last 30 years. The first U.S. feature film written and directed by an African American woman to receive a wide theatrical release, the story, which is set in the early 1900s, paints a vivid portrait of Gullah Geechee culture — communities descended from enslaved Africans who settled along the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The film captures the last gathering of the Peazant family as the younger generation prepares to leave the island and their matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), for the promise of the mainland. Shot in stunning color cinematography by Arthur Jafa, the restored “Daughter,” which continues to inspire Black creatives (including Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004.
A restored “Daughters of the Dust” was distributed by Cohen Media for its 25th anniversary.
Shorts films from Zora Neale Hurston, Madeline Anderson, Julie Dash, and others
The short films of trailblazing Black women filmmakers like Zora Neale Hurston, Madeline Anderson and Julie Dash are all worthwhile and could benefit from a special box set. Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic films of the late 1920s were part of her effort to collect folklore of Black communities in the rural south, and provide a rare glimpse of African American life in central and southern Florida, at a time when few were documenting these communities. Anderson is often credited with being the first Black woman to produce and direct a televised documentary film. Her most recognized works include her first film, “Integration Report 1,” a 1960 examination of the struggle for Black equality; and “I Am Somebody,” a document of a 1969 struggle for labor rights in Charleston, SC, led by 400 Black women hospital workers, featuring a rousing speech from Coretta Scott King.
And Dash, one of the members of the L.A. Rebellion film movement of the late 1970s, produced several short films before making her feature debut with “Daughters of the Dust.” They include “Four Women” (1975), a dance film set to the music of Nina Simone; “Illusions” (1982), which explores African American representation in 1940s Hollywood via the story of a Black studio executive passing as white; and “The Diary of a Country Nun” (1977), adapted from a short story by Alice Walker, which follows a nun who is torn between her beliefs in Christ, the Catholic church, and her vows, versus her own corporeal desires.
Now, tell us: What films would you like to see added to the Criterion Collection’s library?