Art has potential to entertain as well as educate. With that idea in mind, the Criterion Channel, earlier this month, lifted the paywall on its site for many classic Black films in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Criterion organization also posted a statement about the importance of diversifying the canon and making sure these films are more widely available.
Now even nonsubscribers have access to films by Cheryl Dunye, Maya Angelou, Les Blank, Khalik Allah and many others. These directors present stories that stretch across the United States, from Philadelphia to San Francisco and Chicago down to Texas — and reach as far as the United Kingdom, Jamaica and elsewhere. The films explore everything from identity, joy, addiction, religion, expression, oppression, poverty, family and racism. The perspectives are just as diverse. Directors presents stories about everything from the Black queer experience in America to the underground reggae scene in the UK.
I’ve only started exploring these films. The first one I watched was “And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead” (2015) about the Beat generation poet Bob Kaufman. I was vaguely familiar with his poems from an anthology of Beat literature, but the documentary provided a fuller look at an extremely creative and tortured soul. Kaufman was a powerful voice for racial justice and wrote in a style highly influenced by jazz and street culture. As a younger man, Kaufman was heavily involved in the National Maritime Union and was an activist for the working class throughout this life.
I followed that film up with a short documentary by Les Blank called “A Well Spent Life” (1971) about the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb. The documentary captures Lipscomb, an amazing guitarist who I hadn’t heard of before, as he works his farm, talk about his life, his music and dispenses advice about love. The obligatory guitar-playing scenes depict a master of the blues. Lipscomb was born in 1895, began playing music at a young age, but wasn’t recorded until 1960.
Frank Rosso’s “Babylon” (1980) takes a look at the London's reggae scene and touches on themes of identity, self-expression, racism and police brutality. The gritty story focuses on a group of young men and women participating in dancehall dub battles with MC’s freestyling over booming sound systems in a society that doesn't understand them.
Agnes Varda’s short documentary “Black Panthers” (1970) provides a look about the often misunderstood revolutionary group. Varda lets Black Panther party members’ voices be heard, and those voices echo struggles regarding police brutality that still exist today.
I’ve spent some time with other films in Criterion Channel’s “Black Lives” series including Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother” (2018) and am currently in the middle of Maya Angelou’s “Down in the Delta.”
But one of my favorites is Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film “The Watermelon Woman.” I’d never heard of Dunye, so in my opinion the Criterion Channel’s goal of expanding Black voices to a wider audience is already a success. Dunye was born in Liberia, grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University and received an MFA from Rutgers University. Her film “The Watermelon Woman” takes place in and around Philadelphia in the mid-90s.
The movie centers on Cheryl, a wannabe filmmaker with a passion for movies and desire to make her own but doesn’t have a clear idea other than her film has to be about Black women. “Because,” she says, “our stories have never been told.”
Like all great films, “The Watermelon Woman” packs in a lot of themes. Dunye, a Black lesbian, explores mixed-race relationships, identity, history and creativity — all with a smart, but light touch. The two main characters work in a video store and, at times, the movie seems like Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” set in a different neighborhood.
The character Cheryl is exploring the world of Black films too. And she becomes intrigued by an actress only known as “The Watermelon Women.” Cheryl explains that in many movies made in the early 20th century, the names of Black actors rarely appeared in the credits. The main action in the movie stems from Cheryl searching for the identity of “The Watermelon Woman” and discovering her own identity as a powerful filmmaker.
I love watching movies. But there are definitely certain kinds of movies I find myself gravitating toward more regularly. It’s heartening to see services like the Criterion Channel are spotlighting artists that deserve to have their voices amplified to a bigger audience. Next time you’re looking for a film, I recommend visiting the Criterion Channel’s “Black Lives” section where there are stories for everyone.
Mike Andrelczyk is a features reporter. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.