Platforms are flooding the market with episodic content, vying for a slice of a vast global television landscape. It’s a landscape that’s been forced to evolve in order to survive a chain of likely irreversible transformations. And audiences are understandably overwhelmed. The search for what to watch that suits any given mood has become an increasingly taxing process that can frustrate even the least flustered.
IndieWire is here to help carry some of the burden with monthly recommendations of films and television series to watch. For this feature, stories that foreground Black lives in a serial format are in focus. It’s a selection of eight shows, all from the last decade, crossing three continents, dominated by the onscreen talents of Black women. From soap opera (“Greenleaf) to action (“L.A.’s Finest”), science-fiction (“Nightflyers”), animation (“Yasuke”), and crime (“Top Boy”), there’s something here to suit almost every palate on earth and in space.
1. “Greenleaf” (2016—2020)
It’s one of the few truly adult primetime soap operas of the last decade, recalling the days when America made titles like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” television hits. And a dynasty is what is at the center of the story told by this Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) series from Craig Wright, whose credits include writing for “Six Feet Under” and “Lost.” It stars the inimitable Lynn Whitfield as the anti-heroine Lady Mae Greenleaf, family matriarch and the former First Lady of the Calvary Fellowship megachurch, who reigns over her family and business with a fiery streak. For five seasons, fans were entertained by the kind of drama within the Greenleaf family and their ministry typical of its predecessors. A family with dark secrets, when one of Lady Mae’s adult children dies under mysterious circumstances, long-estranged daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) returns to shake things up. The series also stars Keith David. All five seasons are now streaming on Netflix for viewers looking for a story that balances high drama with well-considered character building.
2. “Z Nation” (2014-2018)
The last decade has seen a rush of Black women in lead roles in American sci-fi television series, from Danai Gurira in AMC’s long-running “The Walking Dead,” to Dominique Tipper in Syfy’s “The Expanse” (later picked up by Amazon in 2019), and Sonequa Martin-Green in Paramount+’s “Star Trek: Discovery.” Tough, sharp, brazen and willing to go where few men have gone before, each would make Nichelle Nichols proud. Add Kelita Smith as the badass Roberta Warren, who leads a ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors in SyFy’s “Z Nation.” Essentially an economy class version of “The Walking Dead,” “Z Nation” is a grungier take on televised zombie lore, unapologetic in its splatterhouse gore. And Smith’s fearless, take-no-prisoners approach to efficiently advancing her team on its treacherous journey to a hoped-for promised land, is dynamite. Roberta Warren isn’t nicknamed “Chief” for nothing. All five seasons are streaming on Netflix.
3. “Queen Sono” (2020)
By Western standards, it may seem altogether unremarkable, but as the streaming giant’s first African original series, the spy-drama “Queen Sono” was a game-changer. Premiering in early 2020, the series was created entirely by Africans, with a majority African cast, produced on a Netflix budget (albeit nothing like what it spends on its top-shelf programming), and made available worldwide. Shot in 37 different locations across the continent, “Queen Sono” captures an Africa that slays longstanding, limited depictions. It’s carried by the equally captivating South African actress Pearl Thusi as the title character, a James Bond-like operative for an intelligence unit called the Special Operations Group (SOP), tasked with protecting the country, and the entire continent, from outside threats. It’s one dangerous mission after another for the queen, who also has to contend with personal conflicts. The expexted fight sequences, shootouts, and chases in cars, on motorcycles, and on foot abound, and will be enough to satisfy the average espionage movie/series fan. It aired for just one season which is on Netflix. A second may or may never arrive.
4. “Top Boy” (2013-2019)
The acclaimed British crime drama that aired for two successful seasons on the UK’s Channel 4 ended in 2013, much to the disappointment of the series’ many fans. Rumors swirled for the years after that a revival was in the works, when rapper Drake publicly expressed his love for it, and desire to reboot it for American audiences, possibly as one of its stars. Finally, in 2017, Netflix announced it had picked up “Top Boy,” and would bring it back with its original lead cast, with Drake on board as a producer. Premiering in 2019, the third season continued with the risky shenanigans of smalltime drug lords Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson), friends, partners, and sometime enemies, who, after laying low for years, return to the same streets that made them, older and wiser, even though they’re a little bit out of time. They quickly learn how brutal and youthful the game has become, when faced with an ambitious, ruthless gang leader named Jamie (Micheal Ward), a borderline psychopath who doesn’t care at all for any established code of the streets that his older turf rivals are accustomed to. This means winning the war by any means necessary. Comparisons were made to “The Wire,” although those are reductive. The East London-set “Top Boy” stands on its own style and merits. Netflix has all three seasons. A fourth is said to be on the way.
5. “Yasuke” (2021)
For years, Lionsgate teased a live-action film based on Yasuke, the African samurai who served under the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in the late 1500s. That project has yet to materialize, but what did eventually make it to the finish line is the Netflix animated series which stars a voice cast led by LaKeith Stanfield in the title role. Premiering in early 2021, it was an appetizer for fans who’ve been waiting seemingly forever for this story to be told on screen in some format. There isn’t too much research on Yasuke, but historians do agree that he was indeed a Black man who was given the name “Yasuke” by Nobunaga, a feudal Japanese lord, although why and what it might mean is unknown, as is Yasuke’s original name and how he found his way from the African continent to Asia, becoming a samurai in the 16th century. But the Netflix series pieces together the puzzle based on available info, to create a series that’s bloodily entertaining. The streamer was wise to surround Stanfield with a cast of primarily Asian voice actors, including Japanese actor Takehiro Hira as Nobunaga. The slick, well-crafted first season is now streaming. No word on whether it’ll get a second.
6. “Nightflyers” (2018)
Speaking of lead Black women in sci-fi television series, few Stateside were already familiar with Brit actress Jodie Turner-Smith when she basked in Lena Waithe’s “Bonnie and Clyde”-inspired BLM drama “Queen & Slim,” released in 2019. A year prior, she incorporated a little bit of Ripley from the “Alien” franchise into her manifestation of first officer Melantha Jhirl in this Syfy space opera based on a George R.R. Martin novella of the same name. Genetically enhanced, she’s statuesque with a commanding presence that centers the viewer’s eye in any scene she’s in, including those of Roy Eris, her captain, played by fellow Black British actor, David Ajala (currently romantic interest Cleveland “Book” Booker to Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham on “Star Trek: Discovery”). Nightflyer is the name of the space ship (built by Eris’ mother Cynthia Eris, whose spirit haunts it) where all the drama unfolds around a team of scientists tasked with navigating the galaxy in search of alien life. Syfy aired just one season of this slowburn that has more in common with Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” than the average thrill-a-minute space adventure.
7. “L.A.’s Finest” (2019-2020)
The “Bad Boys” spinoff follows Syd Burnett (Gabrielle Union), last seen in the second film in that franchise, taking down a Miami drug cartel, who has now left her complex past behind to become an LAPD detective. Paired with new partner Nancy McKenna (Jessica Alba), a working mom with an equally messy history, Syd and Nancy (their relationship isn’t as volatile as that of Sid and Nancy) team up to take on the most dangerous baddies that Los Angeles has to offer, while naturally skirting rules and speed limits, and having lots of fun in the process. It’s made-for-TV, so don’t expect the uproarious R-rated antics of its parent movie which starred Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. But Union is effective enough as a tough-as-nails copper with fists and feet of fury, as well as a precise trigger finger, whose devil-may-care lifestyle contrasts her co-detectives working-mom ethos. It’s enough fodder for the occasionally biting back-and-forth between the two. The series aired for two seasons on Spectrum, which limited its reach and led to its cancellation. Critics mostly panned it, but it’s an effortless binge. Both seasons are now streaming on Netflix.
8. “Hap and Leonard” (2016-2018)
SundanceTV’s genre-bending, darkly comic series set in the late 1980s was based on author Joe R. Lansdale’s novel franchise, which follows two lifelong best friends, Hap Collins (James Purefoy), a white East Texas conman with a weakness for Southern women, and Leonard Pine (the late Michael Kenneth Williams in a memorable performance), a Black Vietnam vet with a hot temper, who is openly gay. It’s not often a pairing of this makeup (in terms of both contrasting racial and sexual identities) is given three television seasons that allow its characters and their volatile relationship to evolve. Each season featured the duo’s attempts at get-rich-quick schemes which typically snowballed into violent chaos. Along for the ride is Hap’s seductive ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks), for whom he still carries a torch, even though she wants nothing romantically to do with him. In addition to its standout leads, “Hap and Leonard” drew notable guest stars including veterans Louis Gossett Jr., Brian Dennehy, and Irma P. Hall, as well as Jimmi Simpson, Pollyanna McIntosh, Cranston Johnson, and others. During its run, there was no other series quite like this southern-baked noir which reconsidered the buddy-action genre. It ran for three seasons. All episodes are now streaming on Netflix.
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