Black American Cinema: A Spotlight and a Celebration

Fandor's Spotlight on Black American Cinema

At Fandor, we believe in the power of film as a tool beyond entertainment value: A means to inspire empathy, explore new narratives and illuminate the incredible depth and beauty of the human experience. This week, our Spotlight is on Black American Cinema. While timed to coincide with Black History Month, the films in this collection live in our library as an ongoing testament to the excellence, artistry and vision of their makers and subjects.

Here are just some of the highlights from this week’s Spotlight, which features amazing films reporting from the heart and soul of the Black American experience, as represented on film:

Ganja and Hess

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You may remember Bill Gunn’s bloody gorgeous occult flick from our Spotlight on The Sin Within, or from Keyframe’s list of Essential Black Independents. Gunn’s final film, the capstone of a now-storied career as a playright, director and actor, endures as a stunning and complex tapestry of horror with a heavy philosophical bent. Dealing with themes of sexuality, addiction and spirituality in an incredibly experimental and poetic way, Ganja and Hess was long unsung by the mainstream. Recently, the film was revisited by none other than Spike Lee in his Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a tribute that is sure to breathe new life into a tale of strange immortality.

Sidewalk Stories

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An homage to Charlie Chaplin set in 1980s Greenwich Village, Sidewalk Stories is an enchanting New York City tale. Charles Lane wrote, directed and starred in the project, and cast his baby daughter as his onscreen ward. Shot in black-and-white and wholly unreliant on dialogue or inter-titles, Lane’s tale of a poor street artist charged with caring for an abandoned toddler in the wake of a brutal crime is and evocative and compelling portrait of urban humanity’s best and worst. In addition to this critically acclaimed feature, the short student film that Lane made as a preliminary sketch is also available on Fandor.

The Watermelon Woman

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A breezy, faux-cinema-verite account of a black lesbian film maker researching the life of an obscure actress from the 1930’s, the movie…walks a fine line between serious intellectual inquiry and outright spoof. That it succeeds in being both stimulating and funny is a testament to the talent and open-heartedness of Ms. Dunye, who wrote and directed the movie and is its star. — Stephen Holden, The New York Times

A meta-narrative on the intersections of history, race and romance, The Watermelon Woman was the first African American lesbian feature film to be theatrically released in the United States. It earned universal critical acclaim and a spot on Keyframe’s Essential LGBTQ Films. Watch for a cameo by one Camille Paglia!


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Meditative, rhythmic and bluesy to its core. Memphis is a portrait of both a person and a place. Director Tim Sutton, whose debut feature, Pavilion, is also available on Fandor, has drawn comparisons to contemporaries Gus Van Sant and Pedro Costa, and it’s easy to see why: languid pacing, exquisite framing and an emotional whallop. Memphis stars contemporary musician Willis Earl Beal as a musician searching through the spiritually steeped, surreal, desolate South — an unromanticized, utterly devastating study of the artists’s struggle.

Black Roots

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Lionel Rogosin’s breakout feature was a portrait of addiction and abject poverty on New York’s skid row (On the Bowery). As a Navy veteran of the Second World War, fascism and inequality had a profound impact on his filmmaking practice, galvanizing him to use his work as a platform to advocate for the rights of the underrepresented. This impulse, which also inspired the anti-Apartheid doc Come Back, Africa, led him to gather a group of African American blues and folk musicians, artists and activists to tell their stories of struggle and triumph. Black Roots is a result of that work. Rogosin’s willingness to listen, and thereby compel us to do the same, allowed him to create an incredible document of virtuosity, brilliance, commitment and community in the face of oppression.

Even after the month of February draws to a close, we’ll have tons of amazing Black American films available for streaming in our library, including the rest of the films in this week’s Spotlight. But why not take a moment to honor Black History Month, and immerse yourself in some of these incredible movies?

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