“Burn Hollywood burn, I smell a riot goin’ on first they’re guilty now they’re gone/Yeah I’ll check out a movie/But it’ll take a Black one to move me” –Public Enemy
That was not a problem in 2016.
The amount of quality feature films, documentaries and TV shows released in this year about the Black experience easily makes one of the best years ever. Never have so many high-caliber movies, documentaries and TV shows been released in a single year. It has truly been an unapologetically Black year in the industry as filmmakers brought to life some of the culture’s most fascinating stories and subjects with bold ambition, an eye for detail, and fresh storytelling perspectives.
Black viewers have been thirsty for quality movies and TV programming for minute. And it took a superstar singer from Houston, Texas to quench that thirst early in the year and get the Blackest year in movies and TV poppin’ with a raised fist, self-adoration for wide nostrils and hot sauce in her bag. Lemonade, a cinematic beverage concocted by Beyoncé and her team of creative assassins, was less an entertaining long-form video to help promote her new album and dish on relationship stagnation but more of cultural molotov cocktail for everyone to see, thanks to HBO.
While Beyoncé sidestepped stereotypical imagery in favor of full-on #BlackGirlMagic, she wasn’t just singing on a microphone but more like yelling into a bullhorn, “I’m Black and I am proud,” but with a sexier and more fashionable vibe than the one James Brown delivered more than 50 years ago. It was a reclamation of Black womanhood and a fiery, Black feminist call to arms. Black women, and many open-minded men, took notice and used Beyoncé’s lyrics and imagery to add life to a new millennial movement of re-claiming Blackness with a positive spin.
Lemonade was a daring proclamation of Black sisterhood, a reconfirmation that Black lives matter, and an examination on the governmental neglect of people who live in poorer communities. More than anything, Lemonade set into motion a year of Blackness in movies and TV not seen in years. And many mistakenly thought Lemonade was just an angry tirade about relationship problems. Nah, it was this year’s Rosa Parks.
After Bey kicked things off, it’s only fitting that the year ended with a little known story about three Black female mathematicians who helped send White boys into space. Hidden Figures told the shamefully ignored story of these super intelligent Black women who worked at NASA during and era when Jim Crow was still America’s best man. Taraji P. Henson, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and newcomer Janelle Monae represented the rarest of characters. They were multi-dimensional and intelligent Black women on screen not reduced to objects of affection or forced to clean up the White man’s slop. They were the brains behind the plot all while being showcased as mothers, lovers and normal human beings.
It was truly a year free of the cinematic ills and typical buffoonery that has haunted Black people for years on screen and on the telly. For the most part. Still have those pesky reality shows to deal with but that’s a different narrative. This year there were no slave narratives, maid movies or Bagger Vance type stories. Yes, there were movies and TV series that took place during the era of slavery but they were all presented with a pro-Black swag and authenticity missing from the past movies and TV shows dealing with the subject. Except for 12 Years a Slave, which ranks as one of the best movies ever made.
Roots, the classic-history making miniseries from back in the day when disco music was king, was redone with an eye for more detail and realism. The TV series Underground, which depicted those who dared to get their freedom, looked at enslavement from a different perspective. The Birth of a Nation told the story of Nat Turner, perhaps the most famous famous rebel in history. Though that history rarely makes it in the history books.
Birth was an astonishing film which broke records at Sundance (it was purchased for a record $17.5 million) and received a ton of critical acclaim until the film’s director, writer, producer and star Nate Parker, was ambushed and killed by the mainstream media after a decades old rape case was given new life. A case in which he wasn’t even convicted.
Judicial missteps were examined in 2016 with two brilliantly executed documentaries 13th and OJ: Made in America, two of the best docs ever made. And the OJ Simpson trial was re-staged with the superbly produced mini-series The People V. OJ. Simpson.
It was also a banner year for non-fiction movies. Documentaries about James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Sharon Jones were some of the best released this year.
And fictional stories that seemed more like non-fiction thrived on TV. Both Donald Glover and Isa Rae delivered insightful, brutally honest and painfully funny TV series based more on the reality of real life than reality show ignorance. Atlanta and Insecure both offered keenly examined slices of commentary and observations of urban Black life with pristine execution, fresh thought and intelligent humor.
The comic book universe also got a serious dose of Blackness. Marvel’s Luke Cage borrowed inspiration from the blaxploitation era to present a new Harlem populated with a renaissance of characters. The Netflix series also featured a reverence toward the culture of hip-hop never before presented in any medium.
This year Black America’s first real-life superhero finally got a feature film as Race told the story of Jesse Owens and his spectacular performance at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Speaking of games, after back to back years of #OscarsSoWhite things are setting up for their to be a record number of Black people to receive Oscar nominations. Sorry April Reign, but it looks like we’re going to have to put your hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on hold this year.
Four movies about the Black experience deserve and could get nominated for Best Picture: Moonlight, Fences, Loving and Hidden Figures. This could also be the first time that two African-Americans are nominated for Best Director, Barry Jenkins for Moonlight and Denzel Washington for Fences.
In the acting categories expect at least one Black person to get nominated in each of the four categories.
There will also be some behind the camera love as well. Kimberly Steward, who produced Manchester by the Sea, should be nominated as her film gets a Best Picture nomination. August Wilson, who died in 2005, should also get a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Fences, and Barry Jenkins should garner a nod for Best Original Screenplay for Moonlight. Finally Bradford Young deserves a nomination for his work on Arrival as the director of photography and so does Joi McMillon for editing Moonlight.
This has been an exceptional year, so it is important not to mistake it for the norm. But if we keep having years like this, there will never be a need for the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite ever again. Being Black and heavily involved in movies and TV shows will just be the norm.
Shawn Edwards is the co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association.