Queen & Slim
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Summer of 85
Director: François Ozon
Just before Covid-19 forced everyone to quarantine, 2020 kicked off in style with a road movie that was probably a foretelling swagger for the year ahead. Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim screened in cinemas in the first month of this strange year and at a time when nobody knew (or imagined) that cinema experience was about to be disrupted.
Who would have thought that cinemas would be forced to close for such a long time? With a magnetism that inspired us all, Daniel Kaluuya’s and Jodie Turner-Smith’s love at first sight was one of the two love stories to enjoy on the silver screen for a whole year. The other one was electric teenage love between Alexis and David in François Ozon’s Summer of 85. Both love stories lingered with us over the months that followed until the end of this strange year that saw film theatres open for short lengths and closed for long, uncertain months.
But we look into how it has come about this year and we look to the past and future of black stories, female filmmakers and TV in the UK and internationally. On 20 January 2020 the great Italian director, Federico Fellini was born 100 years ago this year. The BFI Player marked it by streaming a choice of the master’s films including La Dolce Vita (itself celebrating its 60th anniversary this year) and 8½. Juliet of the Spirits streamed on Amazon Prime, La Strada on YouTube and Fellini’s directorial debut The White Sheik on Mubi.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Sadie
A career-best performance by Adam Sandler as Manhattan diamond dealer in Uncut Gems was another highlight from the film theatres in 2020. Directors Benny and Josh Safdie worked with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein for an excellent crime drama script on toxic superpower delusion. Uncut Gems was executive produced by Martin Scorsese and lensed by Darius Khondji. The result was sensational and probably the funniest picture of the year.
Little Women (2019)
Director: Greta Gerwig
For those of you lucky enough to see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the big screen, I’m sure you’ll agree with me rating it as one of my ten top pictures this year. A blissfully gorgeous achievement, with performances that absorbed you in all sorts of trouble during a different Christmas. Yet humanity saves one from insanity and that’s exactly what this wonderful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel of the same title is about. It earned costume designer Jacqueline Durran an academy award and quite rightly so. You just want to to have every single piece of garment worn in the film.
Then everything went unexpectedly crazy. On 11 March the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a pandemic. Even worse, a few months later on 25 May, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer. Tens of thousands of us around the world were devastated by the injustice and protested against his death together with the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd uprising.
Da 5 Bloods
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Director: Spike Lee
On our home screens, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods captured the injustices that the forgotten black heroes of a ‘white man’s war’ faced during and after the Vietnam war. Now in quarantine when the film had its digital release in June, it was an invaluable response to the injustice of the horrible pictures that we saw in the news. Lee’s picture featured unforgettable performances from Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo as well as sterling support by Jonathan Majors.
Later in October Lee’s second feature for the year, David Byrne’s American Utopia, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival (7-18 October). This time a documentary – Lee follows former Talking Heads frontman during his timely Broadway show in 2019. It’s a superb satire, a comedy of horrors, sufficiently premiering at a time when the rollout of Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential elections was about to begin.
Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education
Director: Steve McQueen
Also premiering at the BFI London Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s first two parts of his Small Axe project – Mangrove and Lovers Rock – paved the way for the type of filmmaking we should look forward to in the years to come. Starting with the 1970s Mangrove Nine 55-day court trial that changed racial justice in the UK forever (episode 1), Small Axe (BBC One) is a five-part series about black power and the resistance that exposed police racism. All five episodes are so good but Alex Wheatle (episode 4) is especially important because it powerfully captures wicked racism and its ability to harm young communities.
The Good Lord Bird
Creators: Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard
Unusual, smart and funny, The Good Lord Bird (Sky) is awesome and refreshing. It’s based on the award-winning 2013 novel of the same title by James McBride and narrated by a fictional character, teenager Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford (an excellent Joshua Johnson) who joins abolitionist crusader John Brown (Ethan Hawke). When Henry’s father dies, Brown (Hawke in his career-best) takes him under his wing having mistaken him for a girl. But without trying to correct the weird-looking white man, trust and friendship begin to bond the two and so their camaraderie to end slavery.
I May Destroy You
Creator: Michaela Coel
The most thrilling series on our small screen this year, I May Destroy You (BBC One) is a sexual-consent drama by creator-writer Michaela Coel who also performs in the role of Arabella. Once you start with the first episode, you’ll just want more. It’s delicate, deep and funny. I couldn’t recommend this wonderfully brave work more – just start watching, if you haven’t already.
Director: Garett Bradley
Time is director Garrett Bradley’s remarkable documentary capturing a woman’s 20-year campaign to release her incarcerated husband from prison. It rightfully earned Bradley the Best Director award at Sundance Film Festival and it’s timeless for all around the world but especially for America now. A great achievement looking into the lives of Black communities that are repeatedly mass incarcerated and a powerful work of freedom and love.
to begin 2021 with…
Director: Deepa Mehta
Volatile, beautifully crafted, rich in colours and interpreted by amazing acts, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy is a love story set during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war. Adapted from Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel of the same title, it follows a young Tamil boy growing up gay and falling in love during the escalating political tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils. It is a ravishing achievement, an extremely effecting and warm portrait of romance and family bonding in devastating times that forced millions of people to leave their homes and became refugees. Funny Boy is now available to watch on Netflix.
Georgia Korossi is an activist and independent writer and curator. Her short film Devotion is available to watch on YouTube.