Discover more from 812: Film Reviews and Other Musings
My Sight & Sound List
Here Are The 10 Picks I Submitted for Sight & Sound
Every ten years, Sight & Sound reaches out to critics, academic, and filmmakers to ascertain the best films in the history of cinema, in other words, the canon. In the past editions, the ultimate list has skewed heavily white, heavily male, heavily European/North American. This year, in an effort to fully capture the range of cinema, Sight & Sound greatly expanded those they asked to participate.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in this monumental task. Unlike many, I put my list together quickly by cobbling together 15 titles that I later whittled down to 10. A few of the films that nearly made my list: Black Narcissus, Within Our Gates, Claudine, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Yankee Doodle Dandy—I still sorta regret not including. But I still love the ten that ultimately did make my list.
With my ballot, I wanted to take big swings while highlighting Black filmmaking: I included a film from Africa, two movies by Black women (one being a queer narrative), a documentary, and two personal choices that broke from the Black filmmaking theme of this list. I was strategic, and yet mindful of extolling what I consider to be truly great, visionary filmmaking that deserves to be included, while hoping to push certain titles into people’s minds for the next iteration of this survey. Here is my list.
A Screaming Man (2010) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
For my money, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun might be the best director out of Africa of his generation. Hailing from Chad, Haroun’s films deal with immigration, civil war, masculinity, generational grudges and economic disparity. This criminally overlooked filmmaker released his first picture Bye Bye Africa in 1999. Abouna and Dry Season are heartbreaking tales about young navigating their hostile country. He then moved to comedy with the France-set Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, a movie detailing a single father raising two boys in a strange land.
A Screaming Man represents a culmination of Haroun’s thematic interests. It concerns a father (Youssouf Djaoro) and son (Diouc Koma) working at a luxury resort. After the manager demotes the father from his prized position as pool attendant in lieu of the younger son, the father decides to enlist his son in the army so he might regain his once vaunted status. The father, of course, immediately regrets his decision once he discovers his son’s secret life. The water serves as the primary metaphorical entry point for a thoughtful, well-rendered character study of a man left so borderless he loses the one person he might call his country.
Field Niggas (2015) by Khalik Allah
I do not expect Khalik Allah will make the BFI list. In fact, I know I’m a couple decades ahead of when one might consider a movie as recent as this. But documentaries are often neglected, especially Black directed documentaries. A couple years ago, Allah’s film appeared on my list of the Best Black Directed films of 2010s. And I want to use my ballot to highlight this film for the next iteration of the S&S list.
Allah’s Field Niggas intimately captures the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem, New York City to track the effects of drug addiction, poverty, and police harassment. He relies on asynchronous sound and an enrapturing collage of interviews and fractured observational images rendered to poetic aims. Next to RaMell Ross’ visually arresting Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Allah’s film is a highlight of the decade for Black documentary filmmaking, and a time capsule of the systematic plagues that still hang over Black neighborhoods today.
Chameleon Street (1989) by Wendell B. Harris Jr.
I first watched Chameleon Street four years ago after reading Michael Boyce Gillespie’s seminal critical text Film Blackness. It remains transfixed in my mind, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the film gain greater attention in the last year or so with it appearing on the Criterion Channel and receiving a 4k restoration through Arbelos Films. It’s one of those pictures that was ahead of its time upon release, when Harris’ work won Sundance’s Grand Jury prize, and remains far, far ahead today.
A provocative tale based on a true story, Chameleon Street takes place in Detroit and centers conman Douglas Street, who’d go on to impersonate multiple professions and scam plenty of unaware bystanders. More than a film about crime or subterfuge, Harris takes great interest in Black identity within white spaces, particularly the practice of assimilation. To him, Street isn’t merely a con artist. He is a savant, a man capable of being anything if ever given the chance to do so. It’s a film concerned with upward mobility and the sly movement between desire and audacity.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) by Steven Spielberg
“I am. I was.” Those four simple words, spoken by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex working android, perfectly summarizes the briefness of existence. Originally developed by Stanley Kubrick from Ian Watson’s "Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” Steven Spielberg further developed the film, crafting the screenplay, after Kubrick’s passing. The existential sci-fi picture is a fascinating marriage between two legendary directors’ opposing styles filled with tension due to that uneasy partnership. Since its 2001 release, AI: Artificial Intelligence has become, in my opinion, Spielberg’s best movie.
I recently rewatched the director’s masterpiece earlier this year and was struck by its environmentalist aim, its critiques of exploitation, and what defines a human. Over twenty years later, it remains as expansive and audacious as before. And it totally altered what a Spielberg movie could be.
The Watermelon Woman (1996) by Cheryl Dunye
Of the films on my ballot, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman still feels most ahead of its time because movies about Black lesbians are still shockingly rare. Dunye plays a director trying to make a documentary about a 1930s Black actress known for playing Mammy characters. By exploring the titular Watermelon Woman’s career, the character sees herself in this actress of the past.
Apart from its importance as a lesbian narrative, a pioneer of New Queer Cinema, Dunye’s classic also concerns the erasure of Black folks from cinematic history, and the loss of self in interracial dating, back when it was still taboo. Dunye trusts the audience to sift through these varying fissures of identity. The performances are subtle, the visual language is nuanced—and the fact that stories centering Black lesbians are still quite rare makes the film’s search for a fictional cinematic example all the more cruelly ironic.
Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash
I suspect when this is published, we’ll discover that Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is among the films added to the S&S list. Long overlooked and long overdue, Dash’s tribute to Black womanhood spent decades as a misunderstood gem. Now, it’s regarded as what it was when it premiered: an instant classic.
A spellbinding cauldron of folklore, tradition and beliefs passed down from generation to generation within this proud Gullah community, Dash accomplishes the difficult task of imbuing the intimate into the epic while remaining slippery and elusive. Dash didn’t make this film for white folks. It’s not for them to totally “get.” She sketched a story that spoke a shared history specific to the progeny of the African diaspora. From the freeing costumes (white flowing dresses) to the anticolonial tilt, to the transformational, gorgeous photography, a pursuit to retain one’s identity thrums in every inch of Dash’s unflinching portrait.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) by Barry Jenkins
This was my hardest choice. I knew a Barry Jenkins film would make my list. He and his filmmaking is the embodiment of Roger Ebert’s maxim of cinema being an empathy machine. What project would I choose: Would I go with his enchanting debut about gentrification, Medicine for Melancholy or his groundbreaking Black queer romance Moonlight? Should I count his limited series The Underground Railroad as a complete film? I decided to remain closer to the prototypical definition of a movie and went with his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk.
You can see so much of what Jenkins worked on thematically, aesthetically and sonically building toward this film. It’s also the level of difficulty adapting Baldwin’s words that’s so impressive here. Every narrative choice Jenkins makes is perfect with a source material that doesn’t allow for missteps. There are several scenes which become affixed in the mind: Fonny and Tish’s first sensual night together, Ernestine telling Tish to unbow her head, Daniel visiting Fonny over beers. The summer of 2020, during Black Lives Matter, further solidified the film’s impressive impact as a text for Black empowerment in the face of systematic oppression. It’s a tremendous work of art that gives me joy and makes me ache, inspires and breaks me, nourishes and torments me. It is simply tremendous.
Killer of Sheep (1978) by Charles Burnett
“Seismic” is how I’d describe Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Emblematic of the LA Rebellion, Burnett’s picture takes place in Watts, Los Angeles. The haggard Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is a slaughterhouse worker barely scrapping by. His wife (the radiant Kaycee Moore) pleads for his attention while their children play through the scrap yard and dirt fields of Watts.
You can trace so many shots from this film in works like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere. Its influence is assured.
I often oscillated between choosing this picture or Burnett’s other brilliant offering To Sleep with Anger, but Killer of Sheep is so groundbreaking in its conception of a modern Black family dealing with the weight of economic oppression. The slow, stiff dance shared by Sanders and Moore, set to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” tells you all you need to know about the difficulties this family shoulders. They are Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill with the same strength they used the day before to accomplish the same task. It’s a film about resiliency that even in its most bittersweet seconds, never fully extinguishes hope or conjures a fantastical reality that doesn’t exist.
Bamboozled (2001) by Spike Lee
My hot take: Bamboozled is Spike Lee’s best film. And in a career filled with big swings, it’s probably his biggest. A racial satire, the film features his strongest team of fellow creators: Sam Pollard as editor, Terence Blanchard as composer, costumes by Ruth E. Carter, with Ellen Kuras as the DP.
Lee’s film begins on shaky ground: Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Black tv executive with designs of leaving his racist surroundings, decides to make a modern day Blackface minstrel show for television audiences. He thinks the show will bomb. But it becomes a major hit. Apart from the tremendous, artfully rendered musical scenes, Lee’s picture is at once a critique of the white-owned tv landscape and an exploration of Black cinema. What I love about Lee’s work here is how he looks at actors like Hattie McDaniel and Mantan Moreland not with pure disgust. Rather he sees the difficulty of their situation, having to choose between the craft they love and their self-respect. The film’s final montage, a series of racist iconography and clips from movies reduces me to tears every single time I watch it. Lee could’ve easily slipped with this film. Instead, he gives the most measured and empathetic take of his career.
8 1/2 (1963) by Federico Fellini
Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 changed my life, literally. I was freshman in college, taking an entry level film history course. We watched several stunners in that class: Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and more. But it was 8 1/2 that made me intrigued with the reach of cinema. I watch this masterwork every year. And with each turn of the calendar, my love of his vision deepens: the absurdity, the profundity, the sensuality and the dreamlike cool and internal disintegration—the story of a director afflicted with writer’s block is the full breath of the power of the moving image.
And as the band plays off into the distance, my same teenage self that couldn’t shake the power of Fellini’s creative spirit returns. It’s transfixing, and it is bold. And it remains ever so fleeting yet tangible. 8 1/2 is the pinnacle of personal love for this crazy medium.