The platform has unlocked dozens of movies by the pioneers of African American film, including works from Cheryl Dunye, Charles Burnett, or Maya Angelou.
Now, let’s make a different list: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, George Floyd, Tony McDade. These are the names of some of the latest victims of racism in America, all killed unarmed and without an apparent reason. Who knows what they could have accomplished in the future if they hadn’t died a senseless death.
Their murders have unleashed an unending series of protests that are taking place across the United States and in countries worldwide. While they give hope that the current state of affairs is crumbling and that racism – casual, violent, and lethal – is going to stop being tolerated at all levels of our society, we are still far away from a world free of bigotry and hatred.
To get us a little bit closer, many companies have dedicated their platforms to contribute to the change. One of them is the Criterion Channel, a famous art-house streaming platform, which has made dozens of features shot and produced by black filmmakers available for free, creating a powerful capsule of works and artists that elude the mainstream consciousness.
To watch the movies, you don’t need a subscription nor an account. The selection includes oeuvre by early pioneers of the black film, classics by Maya Angelou, Julie Dash, William Greaves, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, and Charles Burnett, or contemporary work by Khalik Allah and Leilah Weinraub. Documentary portraits of black experience by white authors Les Blank, Agnès Varda, and Shirley Clarke complement the collection.
Below, we have made a personal compilation with direct links that will lead you directly to the Criterion Channel viewing page. Alternatively, you can browse the whole archive.
Apart from this initiative, the Criterion Channel has also established an employee-guided fund with an ongoing $5,000 monthly commitment supporting organizations fighting racism in America.
The Watermelon Woman
Cheryl Dunye’s bitingly funny, deeply personal feature debut is a landmark look at the black lesbian experience. The director herself stars as Cheryl, a twenty-something lesbian struggling to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a beautiful 1930s black film actress popularly known as the Watermelon Woman. While uncovering the meaning of Richards’s life, Cheryl experiences a total upheaval on her own when she embarks on an affair with a white woman.
My Brother’s Wedding
Pierce Mundy works at his parents’ dry cleaners with no prospects for the future and his childhood buddies in prison or dead. With his best friend just getting out of jail and his brother busy planning a wedding to a snooty upper-middle-class black woman, Pierce navigates his conflicting obligations while trying to figure out what he really wants in life. Charles Burnett’s second feature is an eye-opening revelation: wise, funny, heartbreaking, and timeless.
Portrait of Jason
On the night of December 2, 1966, Shirley Clarke and a tiny crew convened in her apartment at the Hotel Chelsea to make a film. For twelve straight hours, they filmed the one-and-only Jason Holliday as he spun tales, sang, donned costumes, and reminisced about good times and bad behavior as a gay hustler and aspiring cabaret performer. The result is a mesmerizing portrait of a remarkable, charming, and tortured man who is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.
Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda turns her camera on an Oakland demonstration against the imprisonment of activist and Black Panthers cofounder Huey P. Newton. In addition to evincing Varda’s fascination with her adopted surroundings and her empathy, this perceptive short is also a powerful political statement. Restored by the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata in association with Ciné-Tamaris and The Film Foundation.
Down in the delta
The only film directed by the iconic writer, poet, and activist Maya Angelou is a warm, richly evocative celebration of black southern family and resilience. Alfre Woodard delivers a brilliant performance as a floundering, drug-addicted mother living in Chicago whose own mother sends her to stay with an uncle in the Mississippi Delta, where she gradually reconnects with her heritage and discovers strength in her roots.
Body and Soul
Although the 1920s brought him acclaim as a stage actor and singer, Paul Robeson still had to prove himself as a viable screen performer. Mainstream avenues were limited, however, and his first films were made on the peripheries of the film business. Body and Soul, directed by the legendary African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, is a direct critique of the power of the cloth, casting Robeson in dual roles as a jackleg preacher and a well-meaning inventor.