We’re halfway through the year 2019, and lord am I exhausted already. With a world awash in madness, how will we find the strength to get through the next 6 months? Lo, Let us not despair! Even in the face of great strife, there is still much to rejoice. Today is Juneteenth, an African-American holiday commemorating our emancipation from slavery. I myself hadn’t heard of the holiday as a child growing up in New York, but more and more I see black people from all over celebrating the holiday in the name of solidarity and empowerment, so I figured I’d do my part. Separately, this time of year is also when entertainment publications and film critics put out their midway through the year best-of film lists, and I felt i should respond in kind. As such, I chose to combine the two occurrences into one celebration of cinema featuring people of color from around the world. Make no mistake, this is no paltry appeal to “diversity” and “inclusion”. This is a resounding declaration recognizing the incontestable fact that many of the best films on this earth are stories about and/or created by people of color, despite what any Academy or white gatekeepers have to say.
Alright, I’ve said my piece, so I’ll leave my descriptions brief and to the point so that you can go watch these movies as soon as possible. Onward!
SEW THE WINTER TO MY SKIN
Sew The Winter to My Skin is one of the best films of the year. Loosely based on the exploits of the real life South African folk hero John Kepe, this captivating Western uses the barest dialogue possible to tell a fascinating story of perspective. Fans of Five Fingers for Marseilles will love this stylish western.
AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL
A feat of passion, a test of endurance, a cry for help, a masterpiece of cinema. An Elephant Sitting Still slowly drowns us in the waking misery of the downtrodden and cast aside of contemporary Chinese society. Four lives intertwine, suffering the abuses of a broken city where the corroding infrastructure reflects the decay of morality and human decency — it’s not surprising that it’s the work of a man who would sadly end up taking his own life. However, in all the sorrow and misanthropy, there is a glimmer of hope and appeal to perseverance. Our worst enemy and our best chance of survival is each other. We’re in this together, for better and for worse.
BIRDS OF PASSAGE
A sprawling epic of a crime drama that maintains a sense of mystical intimacy, Birds of Passage is another of the year’s very best films.The indigenous Wayuu language and spirituality sets it apart from typical stories about the rise & fall of criminal empires.
Remember The Musketeer from 2001? The terrible re-imagining of a classic tale with white dudes delivering stilted dialogue and poorly edited Kung fu choreography in pointlessly elaborate set pieces? Shadow is the complete opposite of that! In all seriousness, this glorious return to form by renowned director Zhang Yimou uses a striking charcoal color palate to reinforce a gritty tale of grey morality that’s equal parts political thriller and martial arts extravaganza. The line between chivalrous heroes and double crossing bastards is never black and white.
The 300 Spartans of Thermopylae ain’t got shit on the 21 Sikhs at the Battle of Saragarhi. You may have low tolerance for heavy melodrama, outlandish heroism, blatant nationalism, and cinematic myth making of real events. All I know is that I felt Kesari all the way into my blood & bones. There are so many “last stand” war stories and films that paint people who are in reality on the side of power as “underdogs.” This is why I appreciate movies like Kesari, where the heroes face great odds and also the tyranny of an oppressive regime.
Experienced a fantastic cinematic revelation watching this, the kind of thing you love truly love movies for. Aamis is an incredible love story that softly, subtly, gently nudges you into exploring a shocking taboo. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Extreme Job is flat out one of the best police action/comedy movies I’ve seen in years! A cast of seasoned actors dive head first into foolishness and the results are an infectious good time. A hilarious farce that also leaves some room for sly social commentary. And by the way, when you finally see this, don’t do it on an empty stomach; this movie will have you hard core fiending for some Korean fried chicken.
A beautiful and moving work of art that recalls the Cambodian Genocide, one of the most horrific events in modern history. There is an elegance to the simplicity of the pace, tone and animation style of Funan that reveals more complex elements at play upon further examination. Like a spiritual successor to Waltz With Bashir and Grave of the Fireflies, it is a fine addition to that pantheon of animated films about war. Don’t get thrown off by the French-speaking cast portraying Cambodian characters; like Persepolis, another kindred spirit animated film reflecting dual nationalities, the semi-biographical ruminations in Funan emphasize our universal humanity and what happens when we forsake it.
HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCÉ
Beyoncé’s Homecoming is a legitimate Best Picture of The Year contender in any medium. Everything noteworthy in other challengers (ruminations on grief, sexuality, technical marvel, unabashed spectacle) are all found in abundance here. My biggest takeaway from #BeyonceHomecoming is that my wife is my own personal Beyoncé and my sorry ass don’t deserve her and by extension this world doesn’t deserve black women, yet through their/God’s grace they continue to love us anyway. The other big takeaway was the realization that, my God, what an eye for cinema she has, on top of all her other talents.
WE ARE THE HEAT
A thunderous exclamation of Afro-Colombian culture. We Are The Heat is a grand new addition to the pantheon of black-led gangster movies, the evolution of dancing on film, and a badge of honor for the Afro-Latin people of Colombia that they should be proud to showcase to the world.
After a woefully limited release and poor adverting support, the Sci-Fi drama Fast Color is finally available on streaming for the masses. This genre bending story about three generations of black women with superhuman abilities eschews the template of most superhero movies, and in doing so bests them all with its unique perspective. At the same time, you can also see and feel the strands of other Sci-Fi, supernatural, and psychological thrillers in its DNA, everything from Logan to Take Shelter to The Brother from Another Planet to the sorely underrated TV series Alphas. A real gem in what I thought was an oversaturated genre. This one was worth the wait.
Thank you for joining me on this brief celebration. As the breadth of this list shows, there is literally a whole world of cinema out there that rarely gets its due, and its well past time that we start appreciating it all. If there are other works of international film or stories made by people of color that you feel are worthy of praise, please share them in the comments. We can never get enough quality movies, but we have to do what we can to let everyone know they exist in the first place, beyond the veil of the Hollywood status quo. Peace.