Last year was a banner year for black movies, as Tuesday’s Oscar nominations amply reflect: Black Panther earned seven nods, BlacKkKlansman, six, and If Beale Street Could Talk, three. Panther and KkKlansman were nominated for best picture.
In truth, however, black filmmakers have been doing revelatory work for nearly a century. The official Academy Awards recognition is just late to the party.
For proof, look no further than the second annual Black Filmmaker Series, presented by the Texas Theatre and the South Dallas Cultural Center. With five films spanning the years 1925 to 2018, from silent melodrama to superhero adventure, the series offers a diversity of subjects, styles and genres, further demonstrating that there’s nothing monolithic about black movies.
For a hint of that diversity, check out the two most recent films in the series. Medicine for Melancholy from 2008 was the calling-card film for Barry Jenkins, who has since gone on to glory with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Modest in scale, witty and wise, it’s a sharp slice of romantic life in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco.
And that guy over there with the killer cat suit? That’s Black Panther, now the third-highest grossing movie of all time in the United States. It, too, is an uncommonly smart and exciting piece of entertainment; aside from that, it could scarcely have less in common with Medicine for Melancholy.
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Director Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy will be showcased in the Black Filmmaker Series.
(Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
If you’ve seen Medicine for Melancholy on the big screen, you’re part of a small and fortunate group. This opportunity is well worth seizing. Two strangers (Wyatt Cenac’s Micah and and Tracey Heggins’ Jo) get up the morning after a one-night stand, disheveled and chagrined, and ask a logical question: Now what? From there Jenkins gives them a day and night in the city, accentuated by contention (Micah talks a lot about race and gentrification, and Jo gets tired of hearing about it) and genuine affection. Jenkins weaves pops of color into a predominantly sepia scheme and adds stylistic flourishes that bring to mind Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. Medicine for Melancholy stands as a bracing announcement of a major talent that has since blossomed.
Gallons of ink have already been spilled on Black Panther, but this is a movie we’ll be talking about and analyzing for years to come. A repeat viewing allows one to shift focus from the whirlwind plot and appreciate just how daring an enterprise Black Panther is.
Michael B. Jordan (left) and Chadwick Boseman star in Black Panther, which has been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios)
Yes, it’s a big, deftly made superhero yarn. But it’s also a resonant exploration of what it means to be black and have power, which certainly befits a film with this title. The villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, can be construed as Black Nationalist who has had enough. He wants all power, to all the people, by violent means if necessary. The hero (Chadwick Boseman) also seeks to uplift the race, but he wants to set a peaceful example. This embedded debate is Black Panther‘s secret weapon, the philosophical fuel for the year’s best thrill ride.
Every film in this series is of interest. The Watermelon Woman, co-presented by Cinewild, is a key work of ’90s queer cinema, written and directed by and starring Cheryl Dunye. House Party is, well, House Party, the hip-hop charmer that put Hollywood player Reginald Hudlin on the map and gave the late, great Robin Harris one of his finest moments.
Of the most historical interest, however, is Body and Soul. The director, Oscar Micheaux, was an independent filmmaker decades before that term existed. The star, Paul Robeson, was a star of stage, screen and the gridiron, and he was among the most prominent victims of the blacklist. In Body and Soul he plays two characters, a charlatan preacher and his more scrupulous brother. Micheaux was an early master of melodrama and a hustler in the best sense of the word. He was also the most important pioneer in black cinema.
The Black Filmmakers series is a testament to this pioneering spirit. Many more trails remain to be blazed.
The Black Filmmaker Series runs Feb. 2-22 at the Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd., and the African American Museum, 3536 Grand Ave. For more information, visit thetexastheatre.com.
House Party, 8:30 p.m. Feb. 2, Texas Theatre (after party to follow)
Body and Soul, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 9, African American Museum
Black Panther, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 10, Texas Theatre
Medicine for Melancholy, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 16, African American Museum
The Watermelon Woman, 6:30 p.m. Feb. 22, Texas Theatre