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This Black History Month, let's celebrate Black joy

With much of Western media stuck in the past, there is an overwhelming need for more film and TV that foregrounds Black joy

By Katya Spiers, Digital Editor

With much of Western media stuck in the past, there is an overwhelming need for more film and TV that foregrounds Black joy. Here are some of the best.

The 7th of October saw the release of Steve McQueen’s hotly anticipated Mangrove at London Film Festival. Part of the director’s timely five-part Small Axe series for the BBC, the film is a vivid, dynamic telling of the Mangrove Nine’s protests and the gruelling trial that ensued.

Twenty-seven years ago, while still a student, McQueen released Bear (1993), a short silent film focussed on two nude Black men wrestling each other, which was displayed at the Tate gallery the same year. As an institution which would have, at the time, been frequented almost exclusively by a white, middle-class audience, Bear was, and is, a moving critique of the homo-eroticisation and racialisation of Black bodies by white audiences, one that is still wholly relevant today.

Mangrove (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb

Like with Bear, films made by Black directors are all too often racialised by white audiences, albeit sometimes indirectly. The reductive idea that Black filmmakers should only make work that tackles racial oppression causes a catch-22 that denies such films of Hollywood’s support and, most importantly, funding, unless they centre on slavery, protest, or police brutality.

There is, undeniably, a lot of value in films that educate and empower, but when white audiences and industry members only feel comfortable with Black actors occupying the role of ‘oppressed,’ this serves to further reinforce racial binaries.

Here is a compilation of films that celebrate, champion and revel in joy.

Chewing Gum (2015-17)

Chewing Gum is a sitcom in which writer-director Michaela Coel plays Tracey, a 24-year-old shop assistant in her, largely unfruitful, quest to lose her virginity. As opposed to thematically comparable sit-coms (Miranda, Fleabag), Chewing Gum does not centre on the tribulations of an aggressively middle-class titular role.

Instead, the series is set on an estate in East London’s Tower Hamlets, where we follow Tracey, best friend Candice (and her nan), navigating car crashes, second-hand dildo sales parties, dates with Stormzy, and a whole host of other unfathomable sticky situations.

Chewing Gum is a refreshing and genuinely hilarious member of the cringe-comedy genre, full of cheerful takes on the awkwardness of sexuality that are overshined only by Tracey’s ever-clashing floral shirts.

Queen and Slim (2019) | Courtesy of IMDb

Queen and Slim (2019)

Although framed around a chilling scene of police brutality, Queen and Slim showcases a nuanced and touching portrayal of Black love and intimacy. Following an astoundingly average date, Queen and Slim (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) are roped together indefinitely as they are forced to escape authorities in an accidental and fairly melancholic police chase.

With slick cinematography and an infatuating soundtrack, this carefully-paced road movie is imbued with a magnetic charm that brings to light the profound bond that the couple forms.

I Am Samuel (2020)

Peter Murimi’s vérité-style documentary I Am Samuel premiered at London Film Festival earlier this month. It follows five years in the life of a queer Kenyan couple (Samuel and Alex) in a country in which homosexuality is criminalised, as Samuel’s family make the difficult adjustment to their son’s sexuality.

Without downplaying it, the film does not dwell on the adversities faced by the couple in a world where simply being themselves risks severe punishment, providing instead an intimate portrayal of Alex and Samuel’s love, their tight-knit group of queer friends and the bonds that form out of unlikely situations.  

Miss Juneteenth (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

A new addition to the pageant-movie genre, Miss Juneteenth is Channing Godfrey People’s heartfelt debut feature that centres around the eponymous beauty pageant in Texas, where the winner of the competition wins a full scholarship to ‘any historically Black institution’.

Though the idea of emancipation runs through the film, from the pageant’s name (which marks the 1865 liberation of enslaved people) to Turquoise (Rachel Robinson) and the labour of trying to give her daughter all the experiences she needs to succeed, it is the touching mother-daughter relationship and the beauty of the everyday that shines through.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (2018)

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation / 2017 CTMG, Inc

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is pure joy. It’s the story of Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager growing up in New York in one of many parallel universes, who joins the ranks of the many ‘Spiderpeople’.

As opposed to Black Panther, which highlights race, this film views Miles’ Puerto-Rican and African-American background as simply another part of him. In fact, the film almost completely dismisses the idea that Peter Parker, the original (white) superhero was ‘chosen’. Becoming super-powered could happen to anyone, and in this case, it happens to Miles, and he must learn to control his powers and help to save that day.

This isn’t just a superhero movie – it’s a coming-of-age tale, and it appeals to all audiences. With a fantastic voice cast and some of the most stunning animation (we’re still talking about it, two years later), Sony outdid themselves with Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse.

Featured: IMDb, Sony Pictures Animation / 2017 CTMG, Inc

What are your favourite films that showcase Black joy?

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