What do the iPhone-shot High Flying Bird, Jordan Peel’s Us, Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name, or Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim have in common? They’re just a few of the notable films starring and created by Black talent that saw critical acclaim and mainstream success in 2019.
Mainstream cinema has always seen a multitude of Black cinematic projects and proteges; the classics of John Singleton and Spike Lee joint’s prove it. But as the New York Times detailed in a feature on black filmmakers from the 90s, not all were met with continued success after their debut due to industry gatekeepers and executives that favored white creatives. Today’s new class of Black filmmakers are continuing their stunted legacy by bringing the stories of Blackness to the big screen and are breaking Black talent at all levels.
In honor of the growing presence of Black stories, actors, and filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood, Vashtie.com highlights the who’s who and the what’s what of the modern black cinematic renaissance.
Who is Kelvin Harrison, Jr?
At 25-years old, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a man of many talents. The trumpet and piano player turned thespian has already been cast in top-notch dramas, including The Birth of a Nation, Monsters, and Men, the remake of TV miniseries Roots; Netflix’s Mudbound and is the star of A24’s Waves. His acting resume is populated with roles that resonate with today’s political climate, and his breakout role in Waves, which released in mid-November, is no exception.
Originally from New Orleans, Harrison Jr. grew up in a musical family, studying jazz instruments. It wasn’t until Harrison was 17 and decided to quit music and move from his native NOLA to Los Angeles, where he was cast as an extra in Ender’s Game and 12 Years A Slave in the same year.
In Waves, he plays alongside Sterling K. Brown and Alexa Demie as an athletically gifted high school wrestler grappling with and motivated by masculinity, his father, and the pressure to succeed.
In an interview with Refinery 29, Harrison Jr. spoke on some of his roles that represent the culture and struggles of youth today: I think the reason we are making these movies is because we are trying to get better at communicating with the youth, and bridging that gap between these two generations so that we can all be on the same page and grow together because the country is in a crisis. It’s a necessity to understand. It’s a necessity to listen. It’s a necessity to come together. When the stakes are that high, people are willing to watch and listen. We are craving understanding.”
2019’s Black Blockbuster: Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim is Bonnie & Clyde reimagined for 2019’s social and political climate. The two main characters Slim and Queen, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith respectively, start the night with an unassuming tinder date and end up killing a police officer in self-defense after a traffic stop turned violent.
The film was written by the Emmy winner Lena Waithe and is the directorial debut for Melina Matsoukas, known for is making the jump from directing music videos, including Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
Ahead of its release, the film saw favorable reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called it a film “unfolding in a dreamscape defined by love and community, empowerment and the art of survival.” And former Atlantic editor Adrienne Green says the move “shifts its focus toward love as a salve for oppression.”
The movie opened in theaters on Friday, November 27 and you can check out the soundtrack which features original songs by Lauryn Hill, Vince Staples, 6LACK, Mereba, Syd, Coast Contra, BJ The Chicago Kid, Lil Baby, Burna Boy, and Blood Orange, who also composed the film’s score.
Meet Dee Rees
Pariah, Bessie, and Mudbound are all the directorial love children of writer/director Dee Rees. She is an alumna of New York University’s graduate film program and a Sundance Screenwriting & Directing Lab Fellow who, with her film Mudbound, is the first Black woman nominated for an Oscar in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
The work of the Tennessee-raised and HBCU-made creative centers lesbian and rural life. Mudbound is about two American families struggling to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. Bessie is a look into the life of Bessie Smith and Blues singer’s family internal struggles, and industry battles. Her Sundance-favorite, Pariah, which she calls semi-autobiographical, tells the story of a 17-year-old African American embracing her identity as a lesbian. All are must-see films.
In a 2017 interview with The Independent, Rees talked of her professional, cinematic, and personal choice to highlight blackness in her work: “You cannot take on collective history, but you can take on your personal one. If someone can go back and find a slave, someone else can go back and find a slave owner. The lines are not disconnected. There’s a line that runs between everyone and their ancestors and you cannot severe that. Maybe disassociate from those ideas but not how you are connected to them. But, you can realize how you’ve benefited and change how you raise your kids.”