Black voices need to be amplified. Period. Not just during periods of unrest, but always and forever. In the category of film and television, there are countless Black writers, directors, and actors creating some of the most daring, original, heartfelt, funny, eye-opening, thrilling, and pressing stories out there. We are lucky to have some of them in our collection. In our effort to amplify Black voices, here are just a few of the Black creators you should get to know — but by no means is this a definitive list. Let this be just the start of your viewing experience.
A Topic Original, “The Work” explores toxic masculinity by dismantling it in the most unlikely of places: a maximum security prison. The poignant documentary follows a four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison for level-four convicts, who unabashedly talk about their feelings, freeing themselves of societal and gender expectations. “The Work,” co-directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, was a family affair for McLeary, whose brother Miles produced the film and whose dad, James, runs the prison therapy program, Inner Circle, that the film is based on. Jairus, Miles, and their brother Eon all volunteered and helped to facilitate sessions in order to gain the trust of the inmates. We should all be doing the work of self-healing, but for now, you can do your part by watching this astounding documentary.
For years, filmmaker Robin Cloud had heard family rumors about the “Nebraska cousins,” relatives of hers who moved from the East Coast to the Midwest to pass as white folks. In her documentary “Passing,” she meets with them to try to understand their motives and document how their progeny are dealing with the life-changing revelation that they are not who they thought they were. Cloud is also a comedian known for her narrative short film, “Out Again,” which has been screened at festivals around the world. When Topic spoke to Cloud about her work and how it feels to be a Black female filmmaker during the current socio-political-cultural landscape, she responded with a simple yet resounding, “I’m having a moment.”
From the boundary-pushing director duo, Coodie & Chike, “Soul City” is a horror anthology about the darker side of New Orleans. Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah’s first collaboration as directors was the massive hit right out of the gate: Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” video. From there, the duo went on to direct a slew of memorable music videos, including two more for Kanye and the controversy-sparking Erykah Badu video, “Window Seat,” which reenacts the JFK assassination with Badu’s naked body. Other works include their ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, “Benji,” and short film “Good Morning,” which won first place at the 2013 Black American Film Festival.
Inspired by the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which made interracial marriage legal in the U.S., this four-part documentary follows a generation of people born to one Black parent and one white parent. For co-director Lacey Schwartz, multiracial identity is a familiar subject, having been brought up as white and only learning about her African-American father in college, which inspired her autobiographical documentary, “Little White Lie.” Not only is co-director Mehret Mandefro the founder of two multimedia production companies — A51 Films based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Truth Aid based in NYC — but she’s also a physician and anthropologist, two disciplines she draws on when exploring social issues in film.
You may have seen Wyatt Cenac as a correspondent on “The Daily Show" or in his TV show "Problem Areas," or perhaps you’ve heard him — he’s voiced characters on “BoJack Horseman,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “King of the Hill.” In “aka Wyatt Cenac,” the comedian plays a version of himself who fights gentrification by day while his alter ego, the Viceroy, fights crime by night. If you want more Wyatt, you can also catch him in guest appearances as himself on “Maron” and Topic’s “Birds of North America.”
“Frame by Frame” spotlights photojournalists and their iconic photos that have defined and helped shape moments in American history. Photographer Alysia Burton Steele exposed the racial oppression in America’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Stanley Forman snapped a chilling image of a white man weaponizing the American flag against Black civil rights activist Ted Landsmark at an anti-desegregation protest in 1976. And former White House photographer Pete Souza always knew how to find President Obama’s best side. “Frame by Frame” director Yvonne Michelle Shirley has an impressive filmmaking resume — in 2016, she won best short film at the American Black Film Festival for her film “Flowers” and she produced Darius Clark Monroe’s award-winning doc “Black 14.”
Speaking of which, “Black 14” is a powerful documentary about a group of Black football players at the University of Wyoming who decided to protest racial injustice and were punished for it. Executive produced by Spike Lee, the short doc won director Darius Clark Monroe a slew of accolades, including Best Director at the Tacoma Film Festival, Best Documentary Short at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, and the Special Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. This isn’t his first award-winning film. In 2014, his feature-length documentary, “The Evolution of a Criminal” put him on the map and has been screened at over 100 international film festivals.
“Sakho & Mangane” follows two cops with polar-opposite personalities who must work together to solve supernatural crimes in Dakar, Senegal. Creator Jean Luc Herbulot is a Congolese director and screenwriter. After pursuing multimedia studies in Paris, he’s been giving a platform to African voices, winning his first award for a music video for French-Congolese rapper Youssoupha and French-Algerian rapper Medine. This year, he is releasing horror-thriller “Saloum,” about three mercenaries in the watery mystical region of Saloum, Senegal.
A particularly pressing documentary, “She’s the Ticket” takes a look at five women who are running for elected office, all spurred into action after Trump’s presidential win in 2016. They realized that if they want to see change, they have to help create it. Director Nadia Hallgren is somewhat of an expert in fearless women who get things done. She made her directorial debut focusing on none other than Michelle Obama. Hallgren’s documentary “Becoming” follows the former First Lady on her 2018-2019 book tour, showcasing the director’s knack for capturing the intimate side of unwaveringly formidable women.
Khalik Allah creates richly textured portraits not of people, but of places, animating them to life as if they are living, breathing beings. With “Black Mother” he does just that with Jamaica, documenting everyday people, from sex workers to holy men and everyone in between. The lush tropical backdrop of the island is also a character in itself, transporting the viewer right into the Caribbean heat. Before “Black Mother,” Allah trained his lens on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, a defining intersection in Harlem, New York, and a microcosm of urban life.
Co-directors Baron Davis and Chad Gordon’s documentary chronicles the Drew League, America’s foremost pro-am basketball league, that’s been a steady and positive influence on South Central LA for more than 40 years and has helped shape the skills of some of the most recognizable names in the sport. Many of these players are featured in the film, including the late Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Davis himself, a former professional player and two-time NBA all-star. He and Gordon are partners in more than just filmmaking. In 2016, they also started an online shop called The Black Santa Company that sells apparel and ornaments emblazoned with a Black Santa Claus.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic: One9 and Erik Parker
Hip-hop legend Nas's 1994 album “Illmatic” is widely considered to be one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. Director One9 and Erik Parker’s documentary follows the trajectory of making the album and features prominent musicians who have been influenced by the rapper, including Alicia Keys, Q-Tip, and Pharrell Williams. One9 has also chronicled the history of hip-hop in New York with his documentary “Truth to Power” while Parker’s other works of note include “LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” which visits the people who were in the middle of the unrest, 25 years later.