Written by Graham Byrne, Mitali Shukla and Micaela Bastianelli
We missed out on a lot of things this year. But, thankfully, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to cuddle up with our pets or quarantine buddies to watch entertainment on a variety of streaming platforms. The Panther staff has compiled all the best movies, television series and stand-up specials starring our favorite Black artists.
British Academy Film and Television Arts awarded Best Documentary to “13th.” The movie details the history of America’s prison system dating back to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except for those who serve time. An outstanding film from Ava DuVernay, “13th” features interviews with activists like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and Van Jones that help paint the entire picture of racial bias in America’s prisons.
“Sorry To Bother You” is characterized by its ominous undertone of corruption and facades. There’s an underlying feeling viewers get while watching the film that something in Oakland, California, is not quite right – the world that debut filmmaker Boots Riley presents is not quite ours, but a magical realist portrayal that exposes some of the more uncomfortable realities of society. Lakeith Stanfield stars as protagonist Cassius Green, who kick-starts his telemarketing career by using a different persona. “Sorry To Bother You” boasts a great script and precise direction, but the real achievement is the acting by a stacked cast that features not only Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer and Terry Crews, but also Jermaine Fowler, David Cross and Patton Oswalt.
Narrated by protagonist Clementine “Tish” Rivers in early 1970s Harlem, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is widely known as one of the first novels completely centered on a Black love story. What began as James Baldwin’s 13th novel was translated to film in 2018, and the on-screen adaptation beautifully navigates love within Black life, focusing on the emotional connections holding two Black families together. The entirety of the film is encapsulated in Baldwin’s opening quote: “Every Black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the Black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York, Beale Street is our legacy.” Director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation completely embodies Baldwin’s image, incorporating this quote into the film’s opening scene.
Actor, writer and director Michaela Coel created the British comedy show “I May Destroy You” in 2020, a mystery-comedy-drama about an up-and-coming British writer who is a survivor of sexual assault and is left to piece together exactly what happened. Coel gives a great performance as Arabella, while also co-directing many episodes and giving the show an incredibly strong visual experience. Justin Simien, creator of “Dear White People” and Chapman alumnus, commented on the show saying that “if you’re a writing nerd, you’re seeing the things that they’re doing on that show and the things that they’re getting away with in a TV show (are) so inspiring and liberating.”
In no way an easy watch, Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-award-winning TV series “When They See Us” tells the true story of the “Central Park Five,” beginning in 1989 when a jogger was slain in New York City’s Central Park. Released in 2019 on Netflix, the show chronicles the lives of the five boys – Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam – who were coerced into false admission of guilt by police officers, and follows them as they navigate America’s broken prison system while still maintaining their innocence. “When They See Us” is a must-watch for those who want to see the power of unexpected friendships and unwavering resilience.
Recently premiering on Hulu Sept. 9, “Woke” is based on real-life cartoonist and series co-creator Keith Knight – with the main character subtly named “Keef Knight.” Played by Lamorne Morris (known for his role as Winston in the hit series “New Girl”), Knight is a Black cartoonist who is on the verge of reaching success. He constantly chooses humor over discussing controversy, but after his first incident being racially profiled and attacked by the police, he is left traumatized, finding himself able to physically see and hear inanimate objects talking to him. It’ll simultaneously keep you laughing and keep you educated.
The opening line of Jerrod Carmichael’s 2017 stand-up special hits harder now more than ever: “Are we going to be okay?” Following his first stand-up special “Love at the Store” in 2014, “8” discusses the politics of climate change, his identity as a black man, animal rights and being a good boyfriend. Carmichael takes some big swings with the way the special is shot, as well as its pacing and subject matter, and he hits home run after home run. Carmichael co-created “The Carmichael Show” for NBC in 2015 and was the executive producer for Hulu’s show “Ramy.” The beginning is emblematic of the brilliance of this hour: it starts in the middle of a sentence in a close-up, extremely unusual for a stand-up special. Carmichael does not care for the conventions of the genre; he presents a unique, carefully cultivated piece where every moment is deliberate, especially the first one.
In her first stand-up special, actress and comedian Yvonne Orji seamlessly blends documentary footage of a trip home to Lagos, Nigeria, with her stand-up. She details the struggles of being a female Nigerian-American comedian from Maryland, especially when it comes to her parents, who cannot wait to marry her off. Orji was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her performance in Issa Rae’s HBO show “Insecure.” In “Momma, I Made It,” the archival footage is the highlight – the whole special is formatted with Orji telling a story about some aspect of her life, before cutting to the documentary footage and to reveal to the viewer how spot-on her storytelling is.
In our humble opinion, Hannibal Buress is one of the most underrated comedians working today. Known for his roles in “Tag” and “Blockers” and as a co-star of the “The Eric Andre Show,” Buress is a razor-sharp and prolific comedian. His most recent special, “Miami Nights,” is his greatest achievement yet. Buress still writes amazing jokes, but he takes it to the next level with the editing and special effects in this special, punctuating each joke with an astute understanding of the fact that stand-up specials are viewed more on a screen than in-person.