While there are still too few African-American voices being recognized in Hollywood, recent films like Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus speak to a vital tradition of black independent filmmakers. Even controversial creators like Tyler Perry hail from a long line of filmmakers that includes the directors and stars of the “race films” of the 1920s and 1930s. Many pioneering African-American directors, like Melvin Van Peebles and Julie Dash, were trailblazers who found money for their fiercely idiosyncratic visions. They defied expectations and proved that there was an audience for films about black characters as told by black artists.
From now until February 19th, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986, an exhaustive survey of unsung movies about African Americans. In celebration of the retrospective and Black History Month, Flavorwire has compiled a list of 50 essential African-American independent films.
Spike Lee’s first fiction feature, She’s Gotta Have It was shot without retakes on a strict budget of $175,000 over the course of 12 days — but the film went on to gross more than $7 million. Lee’s frank portrayal of one woman’s relationship with three prospective lovers almost earned an X rating from the dreaded MPAA. The film also helped revitalize the ailing community of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the film’s setting, after attracting an influx of artistic tenants.