86. “Killer of Sheep”, Charles Burnett (1978)

Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep

dir, scr, cin. Charles Burnett (1978) with Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett

In 100 words: Notoriously difficult to find, Sheep had earned its legendary cult status in spite of or maybe because of its profound simplicity. A throwback to Italian neorealism, but with a distinctly American tone and subject, Burnett’s masterpiece of African American cinema exhumes the everyday mundanity of lives unfulfilled but lived with dignity. His camera magnificently captures faces, eyes, and bodies in stark monochrome, while his carefully curated music expresses the joys, sorrows, and love that fill these people’s lives. Poetically edited, unexpectedly funny, and quietly devastating, Sheep remains a landmark feature that ought to be experienced by everyone at least once.

Other Movies for Context: Charles Burnett’s film is so difficult to find, but remains one of the greatest films to explore African American lives, without dwelling on the stereotypes that the genre has been inundated with. Three movies come to mind immediately when I think of Burnett’s movie: Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016), Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), and David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000). These three offer enormously satisfying experiences because, per Viola Davis, they exhume the people who dreamed and never got anywhere. I love them all.

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98. “Do the Right Thing”, Spike Lee (1989)

Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen List.

Do the Right Thing

Do The Right Thing

dir. Spike Lee (1989) scr. Spike Lee cin. Ernest R. Dickerson with Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Rosie Perez, Ruby Dee

In 100 words: The definitive portrayal of racism in America, Lee’s angry and raw film takes place on the hottest day of the year, and it shows. Characters simmer with resentment as tempers flare with the temperature, culminating in spectacularly shot, choreographed, and edited chaos. The film’s incredible mixtape of protest rap songs and sensuous R&B grooves sets the tone for the film’s rage and grief, while Lee’s muscular direction and singular style inject tension and urgency within its humor-filled script that miraculously never lapses into didactic polemics. Its relevance today proves the film’s prescience, as much as it shows America’s depressing state.

Other Movies for Context: Spike Lee has a distinctive filmography that’s worth checking out. My favorite other than this is Malcolm X (1992), his ambitious autobiography of the civil rights leader. The early 1990s also saw movies about contemporary African American issues released; most of them owe a lot to Lee’s influence. John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society (1993) are both worth watching from the ones I’ve seen.