The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen from Black Directors

Dry Season (2006)

A civil war in the country of Chad has come to an end, and the government has given amnesty to all war criminals as a step towards reconciliation and the future. A teenaged boy hears the news, but instead of seeing a peaceful tomorrow he chooses a violent one as he sets out on a journey of revenge to kill the man who murdered his father many years ago.

Revenge is a familiar theme on the big screen with tales of vengeance being popular in acclaimed films (The Limey, 1999), populist movies (Gladiator, 2000), and exploitative gems (Rolling Thunder, 1977), and this feature falls into the small subgroup among them about kids seeking revenge over a parent. Young Atim is driven as much by his grandfather’s demand for vengeance as he is by his own anger and frustration over having never known his father. He’s instead known only a landscape at war, and as he maneuvers closer to his prey he discovers a man far removed from the violence that binds them together. It sets the stage beautifully for tension, catharsis, and the ever-spinning wheel of tragedy.

Writer/director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun captures the atmosphere and anxiety of a country and people all too familiar with violence, and the intimacy in his visuals serve as a reminder that this country is his own. The film feels at times as if it’s borrowing from Western genre films in its story and suspense beats, but the specifics — these characters, this locale — leave it feeling like its own creation. It’s ultimately a suspenseful film, but its power comes mostly through its look at people trying to pick themselves up and move forward after years of violence and loss.

Belle (2013)

Dido Belle is the mixed-race daughter of a slave woman and a British Admiral, and after her mother’s death she’s moved to England and raised as a free woman of privilege. Her father’s death leaves her with a generous annual stipend, but her race still leaves her with numerous challenges when it comes to relationships, love, and marriage.

This is a very attractive period piece brought to life through strong production design and cinematography, an extremely talented cast — Gug Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, and more — and a fascinating story. The film’s based in fact, and while it plays loose with some details it scratches an itch you may not have known you had in offering a look at a black character in an 18th-century setting who isn’t a slave or servant of some kind.

The film is the creation of two black female filmmakers — director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay — and it serves as a reminder as to why all kinds of voices are so damn important. They’ve crafted an entertaining and engaging film, but it took their perspective to bring this centuries-old true story to the screen. Belle’s life is paired with a dramatization of a real-life court case that influenced 1807’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, and while her journey stands apart from it in many ways her connection to it adds weight to the costume drama.

Beyond the Lights (2014)

Noni is a singer on the rise, but the combined pressures of fame, her overbearing mother, and an industry built on sex appeal takes its toll. A moment of weakness sees her contemplate suicide, but a stranger steps up to save her. She’s a troubled star, he’s a street cop with political aspirations, and they might just be the best things in each other’s lives.

Yes, I’m well aware that I’ve picked two films starring the effortlessly talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a lead role, but you’ll get no apology from me. She’s stunning here as a young woman who’s alternately fragile, sexy, and strong, and you believe her quiet moments as easily as you do her performances on stage before cheering crowds. Nate Parker is equally consistent as the man pulled in varied directions that always bring him back to her, and while the plot engages well it’s their growing love story that seals the deal. It’s not a film that tries to break molds, but it captivates in rewatchable ways all the same.

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood crafts a story that feels both familiar — think a little Notting Hill (1999) with a dash of The Bodyguard (1992) — and fresh in its tale of redemption and love. Race plays a role here, but Noni’s struggle as a female star rings equally true and relevant. We first meet her in a label-orchestrated relationship with a white rapper, her photoshoots lean heavily towards sexualizing her, and her career-minded mom approves of it all. The price of success, both for a star and a budding politician, is revealed as higher than some of us might consider paying.

Read about more of the best movies you’ve never seen.

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