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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