Spike Lee forever changed black film with the 1986 release of She’s Gotta Have It. Although a black-film movement had been afoot before Lee joined its ranks, his first independently produced feature film put Hollywood on high alert. As the modern godfather of black film, Lee ushered in a golden age of black cinema that, to date, continues to yield the largest crop of black film professionals in American cinema history.
The combining of independent filmmaking with a heightened interest from a then-much nimbler and braver Hollywood produced such enduring classics as New Jack City, Menace II Society and Friday; Lee’s School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X; and more. But for every classic, there are a few other films spanning the late 1980s to the end of the 1990s that are either unacknowledged or underappreciated.
If these films have one thing in common, it’s their desire to tell complex and insightful stories, often through myriad styles and techniques. Ultimately, Lee gave his contemporaries and even his predecessors, as well as the future filmmakers he would inspire, permission to break all the rules.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.
This winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival has been rediscovered in recent years. Starring director Wendell B. Harris, also an actor, as real-life Detroit con artist William Douglas Street Jr.—who successfully posed not only as a gynecologist, performing 36 hysterectomies, but also as a journalist for Time magazine, a Yale student and a lawyer before being arrested for his betrayals—Chameleon Street is now lauded as a timeless examination of race, identity and class.
Charles Burnett was making films long before Spike Lee, with his breakout film coming in 1978 with Killer of Sheep, but there’s no denying that Lee helped create a more welcoming environment. To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover, is an interesting post-Great Migration tale in which a Los Angeles couple originally from Mississippi welcomes in an old friend from home. It’s a rare depiction of blues on the big screen through a black director’s lens.
A mockumentary that premiered at Sundance in 1993 and was finally released theatrically in 1994, Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat, in which he also starred, questioned the state of hip-hop, particularly gangsta rap. In the film, inspired by the satirical This Is Spinal Tap, Kasi Lemmons stars as a sociologist following the members of N.W.H. (N—gaz With Hats) for her thesis.
The premise of Drop Squad, which is based on an initial 1988 effort by director David C. Johnson and presented by Spike Lee, treads somewhat familiar territory even in 2016: Vondie Curtis-Hall stars as the leader of an organization charged with kidnapping assimilated black people, like the advertising executive played by Eriq La Salle, who are in need of a “drop” (deprogramming and restoration of pride).
As noteworthy as Get on the Bus is for its focus on an eclectic crew of black men who board a bus in Los Angeles bound for the historic 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., so was the independent fundraising and creative collaboration behind the film, which matched the march’s message of black male empowerment. Produced by Reuben Cannon, written by Reggie Rock Bythewood, directed by Spike Lee and starring Ossie Davis, Charles Dutton, Isaiah Washington, Hill Harper, Andre Braugher, Bernie Mac, Roger Guenveur Smith and Harry Lennix, Get on the Bus remains a rare look into the varying black male perspectives on myriad African-American issues.
Clifton Taulbert’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book about his childhood growing up “colored” in the small Mississippi Delta town of Glen Allen in the 1950s made it to the big screen courtesy of an independent BET Pictures prior to the Viacom buyout. It is popular actor Tim Reid’s feature-film debut and Phylicia Rashad’s first big-screen role, with a cast of characters played by Leon (aka Leon Robinson), Isaac Hayes and Salli Richardson-Whitfield.
Heralded as the first black-lesbian-directed feature film, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman is a complex exploration of black lesbianism intertwined with literally documenting (the making of an actual documentary is featured in the film) and reclaiming early black female actresses relegated to mammy roles, particularly one known as the Watermelon Woman.
Incest, infidelity and voodoo make for an intriguing combination in Eve’s Bayou, actress Kasi Lemmons’ directorial feature-film debut. Set in a Louisiana town of the same name, the film, which stars Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan and Diahann Carroll, served as a wonderful introduction for both Jurnee Smollett-Bell, the 10-year-old Eve Batiste whom the film centers around, and Meagan Good as her sister Cisely. Lemmons won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
Although largely seen on Showtime, Blind Faith, directed by Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule alum Ernest R. Dickerson (who is better-known for directing 1992’s Juice), got a small theatrical release. Charles B. Dutton is a New York City policeman whose son is accused of murdering a white boy in 1957. As his lawyer-brother, Courtney B. Vance, tries to defend him, some uncomfortable truths about homosexuality and interracial relationships emerge.
Karyn Parsons traded in the racial cluelessness of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hillary Banks, the character for whom she is best known, to play Nia, a biracial young professional of Jewish and African-American ancestry in search of her black identity and her identity as a person, period. This one and only feature-length film from Bermudan director Alison Swan also stars a post-Love Jones Isaiah Washington.
The only feature film directed by Maya Angelou, Down in the Delta ambitiously tries to address the devastating destructiveness of the “promised land” decades later when a mother sends her grown drug-addicted daughter, played by Alfre Woodard, and her children back to her native Mississippi as a last-ditch effort to save her. Esther Rolle, in one of her last on-screen roles, is memorable as an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
Hav’ Plenty became an early success for what is now known as the American Black Film Festival, where it premiered, when Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and then-wife Tracey Edmonds decided to attach their names to it for a theatrical release. Written and directed by Christopoher Scott Cherot, the film, starring Cherot, Hill Harper, Robinne Lee and Chenoa Maxwell, revolves around relationship drama among the bougie set.
Matty Rich was just 19 when Straight Out of Brooklyn was released a month before Boyz n the Hood. Unlike Boyz, however, there was no silver lining in Rich’s gritty tale about the toll of trying to escape project life in the bleak, pregentrified Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Red Hook. The film, which Rich bootstrapped through credit cards, donations from family and friends, and a radio drive, won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 1992.
During the 1991 festival circuit, the breathtaking beauty of writer-director Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, set in 1902 and highlighting South Carolina’s Gullah culture as three sisters prepare to migrate north, blew festival attendees away. Its many honors include the Sundance Film Festival’s coveted Cinematography Award and a Grand Jury Prize nomination. It also received critical acclaim when it was released theatrically. Daughters has recently enjoyed some critical resurgence thanks to observed resemblances in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Carl Franklin’s One False Move, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Michael Beach, didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, but it did rebrand Franklin, then known more for his character Captain Crane on the hit TV show The A-Team, as a serious director. In addition, the casting of Williams and Beach in major roles in a film extending from Los Angeles to a small Texas town and revolving around drugs, secrets and murder is still a refreshing change.
Legendary Ethiopian filmmaker and Howard University cinema professor Haile Gerima’s best-known and arguably most influential work remains Sankofa. Taking it far deeper than Roots, Sankofa explores the impact and lasting effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the U.S. through a fashion model transported back in time as a house slave on a Southern plantation.
Today, Leslie Harris, the Cleveland native who wrote, produced and directed her only known feature-length film, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., may rarely be mentioned, but her achievement was monumental at the time. In the 1990s, her film was a rare coming-of-age tale focused on the urban black female experience. Her portrait of Brooklyn teen Chantel trying to navigate the pitfalls of womanhood in the hood won a slot at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September 1992 and also made Harris the first African-American female director, writer, producer and executive producer to win a Special Jury Prize for Best Feature Film at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1993.
Adapted from a 1986 play of the same name and filmed in Zimbabwe, Bopha!, the only feature film Morgan Freeman has directed to date, stars Danny Glover as a police officer in apartheid South Africa in conflict with his son, who is determined to buck the racist system.
Darnell Martin’s debut feature film, I Like It Like That, is heralded as the first major studio film directed by a black woman, but most importantly, its central story—about a young, black Puerto Rican married mother in the Bronx, N.Y., against the backdrop of the indie Latino music industry—was most people’s first exposure to the Afro-Latina experience as well as the first glimpse at a transgender Afro-Latino. It was a major breakthrough for star Lauren Vélez, who is better-known now for New York Undercover, Oz and Dexter.
In this film, plush Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts replaced the gritty streets and the extreme limitations of the projects of director Matty Rich’s debut, Straight Out of Brooklyn. Starring Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Joe Morton, Morris Chestnut and Vanessa Calloway, the second and, to date, last film Rich directed was a then-rare big-screen slice of affluent black life primarily exploring the sexual angst of Tate’s awkward character, Drew.