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Nia Long in Love Jones (1997)

The forgotten gems of black cinema you need to watch

From Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah to Beyonce’s Lemonade inspiration, we asked some of the UK’s top film clubs to pick out their favourites

You get no prizes for pointing out that diversity in mainstream cinema is quite obviously lacking. One can hardly feign surprise at the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, or suppress the eye roll when token black actors are typecast into stereotypical roles in blockbuster hits that offer a one-dimensional view of women and ethnic minorities. That’s because sometimes black people fall in love, cry, make each other laugh and solve mysteries, but if you only keep an eye on popular films in the UK and the states you would be forgiven for thinking the only thing black people have done since slavery is get involved in organised crime.

Filmmakers from minority ethnic backgrounds struggle to get their work seen but there is no doubt many hidden and forgotten gems exist. Hence why BFI have launched Black Star, a season that conveniently coincides with Black History Month. Taking place over the month of October and beyond, BFI will be showcasing “the UK’s biggest ever season of film and television dedicated to celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors”. However, UK-based film clubs have been working tirelessly to tackle the inaccessibility of art-house cinemas, which they believe can be tainted with unwelcoming academic atmospheres and high prices.

Run by Grace Barber-Plentie, Maria Cabrera and Lydia Heathcote, Reel Good Film Club started because they became “sick” of films only being talked about in a certain way and aimed to start an inclusive jargon-free night that was “open to everyone”. After the discussion of diversity in Hollywood became widespread, Aurella Yussuf, a founder of Women of Colour (WoC) Film Club, started the web-based discussion group that celebrates films by and about women of colour. “I started the club primarily out of the desire for myself to see stories by and about women of colour, and thought others would also be interested,” she explains. “My partner Tasha was interested in the (re)burgeoning black indie scene, was concerned about creating a visible online viewer presence and thought this would be a good way to foster a more formal audience.” Both film clubs will be working in partnership with BFI to screen their favourite films.

So in honour of Black History Month and BFI Black Star, the girls tell us what they think is the best of black cinema:

SIDEWALK STORIES (1989)

Written, directed by and starring Charles Lane, this near-silent film is about a homeless man in New York who ends up looking after a little girl. The film is said to be the inspiration for Academy Award-winning The Artist (“which obviously got loads of attention because that was white people”). The little girl who stars in the film is Lane’s real-life daughter, which Barber-Plentie says makes their chemistry just that little bit more special. But it’s really hard to track down in the UK.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

This is one of the first films to bring awareness of police brutality to youths via the big screen. “It’s a slice of old NY life and a must see to this day,” Yussuf explains. It has gained recent relevance with recent controversial police killings and the death of Bill Nunn who played Radio Raheem.

THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)

“The first film directed by an African-American lesbian, in the all-too-recent year of 1996. Just like Lane in Sidewalk Stories, the film’s star Cheryl Dunye also wrote and directed the film which is centered around Cheryl, a video store clerk (one of the few things about the film that’s dated!) who decides to make a film centered around the Watermelon Woman, a mammy figure she discovers in old plantation films,” explains Barber Plentie. While the film focuses on some really serious issues, it still manages to make you laugh.

THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)

Written by Alice Walker, directed by Steven Spielberg, this film was the acting debut of Oprah Winfrey and put Whoopi Goldberg on the world stage. “It's a seminal piece with the intersection of internalised anti-black racial oppression, colorism, sexism, abuse. It's written with such humanity and has such high sweet notes - you can quote almost anything from the film and someone knows the responding quote it's that embedded in the culture,” says Yussuf. And now it's on Broadway (and also on YouTube).

LOSING GROUND (1982)

This is one of those great films that gains new meaning with each additional viewing. As the first film to be directed by an African-American woman, Barber-Plentie says it is now getting the love that it deserves. Kathleen Collins tells the tale of a female academic during one summer, during which she begins to notice cracks appearing in her marriage whilst also becoming self-actualised between her academic work and relationships, new and old. “It’s truly a unique film that’s been lost for a long time.”

I WILL FOLLOW (2010)

Yussuf describes the film as: “An absorbing, quiet introspective film about grief, memory and moving forward.” It was WoC Film Club’s first intro into the current indie black filmmaking scene and saw Ava Duvernay as the breakout star.

BESSIE (2015)

If not for the fact this film is a black feminist god’s dream, tune into Bessie for a rare nude Latifah. Queen Latifah is the ultimate Reel Good girl as the collective idolise her in her Hairspray, Chicago and The Secret Life of Bees roles. “She is unashamedly raw. She is quite literally completely naked in one poignant and memorable scene,” Barber Plentie explains. “What’s best of all is that everything from Bessie attacking KKK members that try to shut down one of her shows, to her strong friendship with fellow singer Ma Rainey is all true.”

Reel Good Film Club and WoC Film Club are teaming up to present the film and an esteemed panel discussion on October 20th. Find out here

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

The first feature film by an African-American woman to get a cinematic release. Yussuf calls the film a visual poem. “It's a challenging and ambitious film, drawing on themes of family, ancestry and heritage. The sweeping, atmospheric style of cinematography along with mesmerising performances by a predominantly black female cast have made this into a cult classic, even providing inspiration for Beyoncé's Lemonade.”

LOVE JONES (1997)

“What happened to the Black Rom-Com?” asks Barber-Plentie. The great genre was at its all-time best in the 90s. It stars the always brilliant Nia Long as Nina, a photographer who finds herself trying to resist falling for Marcus, a spoken word artist. From Nia’s hair and brown lipstick combo to the Neo-Soul soundtrack, Love Jones is “the very bougie-est” romantic comedy that proves that not all films have to be about black people suffering to be interesting. “Sometimes we’re allowed to just live and be in love onscreen.”

It goes without saying Nia Long was the ultimate black rom-com babe of the 90s, à la Soul Food – even Big Momma's House. To fill your boots with more Nia, Reel Good Film Club are having Nia Long-athon at Genesis Cinema. They will be screening two of her very best films – Love Jones and The Best Man.

Find out more here

PARIAH (2011)

Who doesn’t love a coming of age film? Pariah follows 17-year-old Alike (ah-lee-kay) as she embraces her lesbian identity in Brooklyn and tries to find a girlfriend. Cinematic auteur, Bradford Young’s work with Dee Rees is an excellent snapshot on queer adolescent growing pains.