Watch Free Films by African American Filmmakers in the Criterion Collection … and the New Civil Rights Film, Just Mercy

The Michael B. Jordan- and Jaime Foxx-starring Just Mercy had “the misfortune of hitting theaters at the same time as Clemency, a more daring and better film set on a prison’s Death Row,” wrote Odie Henderson in a December 2019 review at Reading the statement now feels like looking through the wrong end of a telescope (“hitting theaters?”). None of the movie’s middling reviews could have predicted the kinds of misfortunes that lay just around the corner.

If Just Mercy is your kind of distraction, you can watch it free of charge through June. Henderson’s review gives me the impression it may not be equal to the moment.

Since the days of ’50s-era message pictures, the majority of films about African-American suffering have always been calibrated the way “Just Mercy” is, with an eye to not offending White viewers with anything remotely resembling Black anger. We can be beaten, raped, enslaved, shot for no reason by police, victimized by a justice system rigged to disfavor us or any other number of real-world things that can befall us, yet God help us if a character is pissed off about this. Instead, we get to be noble, to hold on to His unchanging hand while that tireless Black lady goes “hmmm-HMMMMM!” on the soundtrack to symbolize our suffering. There’s a lot of “hmmm-HMMMMM”-ing in this movie, so much so that I had to resist laughing. 

Only one critic’s opinion, but if such pious, boilerplate films haven’t changed anything since the 50s they probably aren’t about to now.

The Criterion Collection offers a refreshing alternative for representations of the black experience on film, as envisioned by black filmmakers, writers, actors, producers, etc. “This has been a powerfully emotional time,” the Collection writes, citing a string of high-profile, well-documented racist threats and murders that lead up to the breaking point:

Black Lives Matter. The anguish and fury unleashed all across the country are rooted in centuries of dehumanization and death. This pattern must stop. We support the protesters who have taken to the streets to demand justice, and we share their hopes. We are committed to fighting systemic racism.

The Collection has established an “employee-guided fund with a $25,000 initial contribution and an ongoing $5000 monthly commitment to support organizations fighting racism in America.”

More to the point of their central mission, they’re allowing visitors to the Criterion Channel to stream “works by early pioneers of African American Cinema” as well as those by current filmmakers. These are films that can be difficult to find outside of arthouse cinemas and college screening rooms. “Titles streaming for free,” notes IndieWire, “include Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers, Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, and many more.”

Also streaming free on the site is “contemporary work by Khalik Allah and Leilah Weinraub; and documentary portraits of the black experience by white filmmakers Les Blank and Shierley Clarke,” Criterion writes, noting that they’ve “taken down the paywall on as many of these titles as we can.”

This announcement will have little effect on people committed to a particularly vicious way of seeing things, but it offers a rare opportunity to watch a diverse collection of enlightening, often bracing, often deeply moving films, stretching over a century, for free. This body of work offers new perspectives on the past and wider understanding of film history. They may just be what you need to get through June. Check out the Criterion Channel collections here.

Related Content:   

Watch the First-Ever Kiss on Film Between Two Black Actors, Just Honored by the Library of Congress (1898)

Watch the Pioneering Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-American Filmmaker

The Art of The Black Panthers: A Short Documentary on the Revolutionary Artist Emory Douglas

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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