Why aren’t there more African-American filmmakers in the Criterion Collection, the prestigious Blu-ray/DVD archive of cinema from around the world?
That was the question the New York Times reporters Kyle Buchanan and Reggie Ugwu set out to answer this month in a report that examined the archive, prized by cinephiles and film schools alike. Of more than 1,000 titles, only six are by African-Americans.
The answer came down to the president of the collection, Peter Becker, who ultimately makes the decisions about which features and artists are included. He said he had personal “blind spots,” and added, “The fact that things are missing, and specifically that Black voices are missing, is harmful, and that’s clear. We have to fix that.”
Your recommendations were impressively knowledgeable, and ranged from the 1922 feature “A Woman’s Error” by Tressie Souders, often considered the first African-American woman director, to Phillip Youmans’s “Burning Cane,” a Times Critic’s Pick released in October.
By far the most popular reader recommendation was Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (1991), the first theatrically released film directed by an African-American woman. As our original article explained, the Criterion Collection turned down the film, set in a Gullah community in the South, after it was first released. As it happens, a rival archive, the Cohen Film Collection, reissued it in a special edition in 2016.
More than 350 readers responded with hundreds of other suggestions. In order of popularity, here are the movies that showed up on at least 20 of your lists. A note of caution: Rights may not be available or directors may have other ideas for their work, meaning just because you want a Criterion edition of a film doesn’t mean it’s possible.
‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins
After Dash’s movie, “Moonlight,” winner of the Oscar for best picture in 2017, was by far the consensus choice of readers, including Ryan Michaels of New York, who wrote, “Barry Jenkins is America’s key expressionist right now, so yes indeed: ‘Moonlight.’” That drama, about a young Black gay man’s coming of age, wasn’t the only Jenkins film readers would like to see get the Criterion treatment. “Medicine for Melancholy,” his influential debut, and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” also received enthusiastic thumbs up. Becker has said he is in discussions for “Medicine” and hopes to add it in the near future.
‘Get Out,’ Jordan Peele
Another very popular choice was Peele’s horror film about white liberals and Black Americans. “A pretty mainstream title, yes,” Cory Glenn of Knoxville, Tenn., wrote, explaining his recommendation, “but ‘Get Out’ is a culturally important film that redefined the horror genre.” Peele’s most recent horror outing, “Us” (2019), also received several votes.
Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmons
The Criterion Collection currently includes no films from African-American women. If readers had their way, several would be included, starting with this 1997 drama about a tormented Louisiana family. It “deserves renewed attention as one of the great films of the 1990s,” argued Cameron Jappe of Los Angeles.
Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton
This wrenching drama about a Black teenager growing up amid gangs in a racist Los Angeles was actually put out on laser disc by Criterion in the 1990s. When the archive transitioned to Blu-rays and DVDs, “Boyz N the Hood” didn’t make the leap even though many other titles did, and readers are eager for the beloved film to get the Criterion treatment. Edward Wang of Los Angeles wrote, “I still have my Criterion laser discs of John Singleton’s ‘Boyz N the Hood’ and the Hughes brothers’ ‘Menace II Society,’ and would love to see them return to the collection.” (See below for more on “Menace.”)
Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler
Though Coogler’s 2018 Marvel outing, “Black Panther,” was a smash hit, it was “Fruitvale Station,” his small docudrama about the last hours of Oscar Grant III, a Black man killed by a white Bay Area transit police officer, that readers picked again and again.
‘Killer of Sheep,’ Charles Burnett
Burnett is one of the few African-American directors with a film already in the Criterion archive. That would be “To Sleep With Anger” from 1990. But readers clamored for this earlier work from him. Ryan Michaels summed it up: “‘Killer of Sheep’ is ground zero. Every film student in the country needs to know that film, hold that film.”
‘Pariah,’ Dee Rees
This biopic was the most recommended Lee film. But so many of the director’s movies were suggested (“BlacKkKlansman” and “25th Hour” especially) that Lee was easily the director who appeared on most lists. “Give Spike Lee a box set retrospective,” Eduardo Garabal of Seattle wrote. “He deserves it as much as Bergman and Fellini. But at least get ‘Malcom X’ and ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ out in the meantime.”
‘The Watermelon Woman,’ Cheryl Dunye
The first feature by an out Black lesbian, this tale of an aspiring filmmaker making a documentary about uncredited Black actresses in Hollywood was another must-include for many readers. Dunye “is not afraid to address the viewer and to openly question the violent structure which underlies our society and culture,” Angela Riva of Munich wrote. “This urge to rewrite history in order to describe the present reality is cathartic to watch,” she went on. “As a human being that makes mistakes but still wants to live life to the fullest, I felt loved by this film, and I love it back.”
‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley
Readers repeatedly nominated this surreal debut feature about a Black telemarketer who uses his “white voice” to climb the corporate ranks.
‘Love & Basketball,’ Gina Prince-Bythewood
Several movies by Prince-Bythewood made it onto readers’ lists, including her most recent for Netflix, the superhero action picture “The Old Guard.” But it was her more intimate 2000 romantic comedy, “Love & Basketball,” that received the most mentions.
‘One False Move,’ Carl Franklin
This Arkansas-set film noir — Franklin’s feature directing debut — “holds up superbly on repeat viewing,” Abner Greene of New York wrote. Readers suggested this movie as often as another Franklin noir: “Devil in a Blue Dress,” from 1995.
‘Selma,’ Ava DuVernay
Like Lee, DuVernay was nominated often and for several different projects. Her period look at the 1965 civil rights demonstrations in Alabama was the film that came up the most, but readers repeatedly mentioned her 2012 drama “Middle of Nowhere,” which, as our report noted, Criterion rejected.
These films showed up on at least 10 lists:
— “Tongues Untied,” Marlon Riggs (1989)
— “Chameleon Street,” Wendell B. Harris Jr. (1991)
— “Losing Ground,” Kathleen Collins (1982)
— “Shaft,” Gordon Parks (1971)
— “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles. (Criterion issued this 1971 movie on laser disc, but it didn’t make the transition to the Blu-ray/DVD era.)
— “Ganja & Hess,” Bill Gunn (1973)
— “Menace II Society” (1993) and “Dead Presidents” (1995), the Hughes brothers. (Criterion issued both films on laser disc, but neither made the transition.)
— “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” Ivan Dixon (1973)
— “Friday,” F. Gary Gray (1995)
— “Hollywood Shuffle,” Robert Townsend (1987)