By Ezra Haber Glenn
As we mark Black History Month this February, I'd like to use this space to celebrate a number of recent films that bring Black lives to the big screen and celebrate important and all-too-often overlooked stories.
Like planning — and just about every other aspect of American life — the history of cinema is inextricably linked to a painful history of racism. The lives of millions of Black people and other people of color have largely been excluded from popular cinema or characterized only by dangerous stereotypes revolving around villain- or victim-hood. Given the long-reaching realities of segregation and the racialized notions at the heart of our understanding of even the word "urban" (which is often used as coded language for "Black inner-city"), these criticisms apply doubly to depictions of Black communities in the city.
For a great introduction to the early years of this troubling legacy, see Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America's First Blockbuster, a 2017 documentary about William Monroe Trotter, editor of the African-American newspaper The Boston Guardian, and his campaign to ban screenings of the racist epic Birth of a Nation.
More recently, the industry has been called out for failing to include meaningful diversity behind the camera, too, pointing to a noticeable lack of Black scriptwriters and directors employed by major studios. While much work must be done to bend this arc toward justice, Hollywood has slowly responded with some excellent, high-profile films penned by Black writers, performed by Black actors, and directed by a growing cohort of Black auteurs.
With these voices comes a much more complex range of characters, emotions, lives, settings, perspectives, and stories for the cinema, extending far beyond the pat narratives of the past — which even when sympathetic, all too often cast Black lives as being limited to the subjects of oppression, especially in the urban context.
As Imani Perry, professor of African American studies at Princeton University, wrote in the article "Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not" last summer: "The injustice is inescapable. So yes, I want the world to recognize our suffering. But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy."
This profound yet simple notion is spreading and reframing the way mainstream film captures the experience of being Black in America. The Boston Globe's new documentary short series, A Beautiful Resistance from culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt, is one example. For planners of all races, engaging with these perspectives is crucial to creating communities that support the needs and wants of all who live there.
With special attention to stories that explore the interaction of people, places, and planning, here are a few others that planners can add to their streaming queue, this month and always:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Marvel Studio's 2018 Afro-Futurist live-action comic-book epic Black Panther was widely praised in Planning and around the globe, and is certainly worth revisiting frequently. The film's social commentary is exceptional for any film, superhero or not, and the visionary depictions of the urban techno-paradise of Wakanda are stunning.
But that same year, the studio released another Oscar-winning comic book movie equally worth our attention. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the comparatively modest, street-level animated feature reimagines Stan Lee's most famous superhero in a truly profound way.
The film takes place in an alternate reality that almost reflects ours, with one major change: Spider-man's alter-ego and secret identity is not Peter Parker, a nerdy white teenager from Queens, but Miles Morales, a nerdy Black and Puerto Rican teenager from Brooklyn. Through this clever conceit, the story provides a perfect setting to explore the complex ways race, class, gender, and other factors interact over time to shape how different communities experience urban life.
Of course, being a comic-book universe, things get trippy fast. But along the way, we come to recognize the commonalities and differences between Spidey's world and ours; the universal aspects of loneliness and our inadequacies; the ways our unique backgrounds and personal histories shape us. This addition to the Spider 'verse not only celebrates a beloved character — it also creates a more diverse and inclusive cinematic world that better represents our diverse and pluralist cities.
Following its December departure from Netflix, Into the Spider-Verse is currently available only via video on demand.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
If comics aren't your thing, there are plenty of great documentaries to choose from that explore a wide range of previously untold (or misunderstood) stories. For starters, RaMell Ross's debut film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, offers a visionary, intimate tour of daily life in a predominantly Black community in Alabama, as seen through his own wandering camera.
Before making films, Ross was a professional photographer, and his visual insight really shines here. Through a loosely connected sequence of impressionistic shots — a slow windshield-survey crawl down Main Street; a meal being prepared; overheard snippets of conversation while a kid fidgets in the living room — the film probes and meditates on a series of open-ended questions: "What is the orbit of our dreaming?" "Whose child is this?" and so on.
This isn't your standard documentary. Don't expect a lot of context or talking heads, or even clear answers to the questions being posed. But as the images wash past and the sounds and voices of Hale County drift in and out of your consciousness, you'll begin to feel that you know this place. You're familiar with these neighborhoods; you understand this landscape. And as geography and environment shape our communities and our lives, you realize you recognize these people, too: their restless souls and wishful dreams.
The net result isn't quite uplifting; there is a pervasive sadness lingering below the surface here. But the subject is so delicately handled and lovingly nurtured as to produce an achingly beautiful story. For planners who care about "preserving community character" or "creative placemaking," simply witnessing — and cherishing — this beauty is as important as any SWOT analysis.
The film won the special documentary jury award for creative vision at Sundance and was also nominated for an Oscar. You can watch it now with an Amazon Prime subscription or through video on demand.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
A second must-see documentary for any planner — more standard in form, but nonetheless radical in message — is Stanley Nelson's Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which sets out to revise our understanding of the 1960s Black Power movement. While many Americans have come to associate the Black Panthers with armed resistance and militancy, the movement was far broader, including a comprehensive program of social services and a platform calling for deep economic reforms.
Without ignoring the fierceness of the organization's revolutionary agenda, Nelson corrects the record, showcasing the many place-based — and free — supportive services the Panthers coordinated and provided, from day care and children's breakfast programs to education, political organizing, and other community development projects. There is much planning inspiration to take here.
According to the director, the film is the first part of a larger series. I look forward to seeing more, but for now, we can watch this installment for free on PBS. And for more about the Black Panthers, mark your calendars for Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King's eagerly awaited historic drama starring Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya and his Get Out costar LaKeith Stanfield. Find it on HBO Max starting February 12.
Small Axe (2020)
Lastly, while we're revisiting stories from the past, I want to give a shout-out to Steve McQueen's excellent five-part anthology Small Axe. McQueen, the critically acclaimed director of the Oscar-winning Best Picture Twelve Years a Slave (2013), uses this series to return to his roots: London's West Indian immigrant community in the 1960s and '70s, where he grew up.
The entire project is more tableau than miniseries. With over seven hours in total, the scripted series can be started from any installment; no need to view in order or keep track of an interconnected plot. The second episode, Lovers Rock, is the stand-out favorite, and a good place to drop in on the party (quite literally). The story revolves around an informal house party one night in West London, circa 1980. As the ladies cook up a goat stew in the kitchen, the Red Stripe gets passed around, and the DJ sets up his gear in the living room, a line of eager and smartly dressed partygoers queues up on the stoop.
Tales like this — the pathos of people working and partying, flirting and fighting, connecting and moving through a city bigger than any person alone — bring a human perspective to our work as planners. The neighborhoods we make and manage are much more than just bricks and buildings, streets and sidewalks; they are the stages where life plays out. It's worth taking the time to experience that energ as lived in different times and places by different groups and cultures.
Engaging with Black stories does not stop with the end of our shortest month. The work of Black filmmakers should be watched, shared, and celebrated throughout the year. You can be sure that in the months to come, we'll continue to bring you more stories that represent a full range of Black lives, communities, and planning on screen.