Upholding Black Voices: An Annotated Table of Contents


The following table of contents contains reviews, interviews and essays both new and republished that have been featured on RogerEbert.com in allegiance with a critical American movement that upholds Black voices. For a growing resource list with information on where you can donate, connect with activists, learn more about the protests, and find anti-racism reading, click here. Click on each of the titles below, and you will be directed to the full article. #BlackLivesMatter.


“Fruitvale Station” directed by Ryan Cooler and reviewed by Steven Boone

“‘Fruitvale Station’ is about what we can imagine when we cast our gaze across the longstanding divides in this persistently, cancerously segregated American society. […] It has one solid, irrefutable piece of reality on which to anchor its fable-like teachable moments: The protagonist, Oscar Grant (the brilliant Michael B. Jordan ), was a real 22-year-old man. The first thing we see in ‘Fruitvale’ is the fatal moment that will lead to Oscar’s death. Camera phone footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit cops beating Oscar and his friends on a subway platform ends with a gunshot. The rest of the film dramatizes what Oscar was up to the day before he was killed, New Year’s Eve 2009. I must paraphrase ‘The Elephant Man’ to explain what it all amounts to: Oscar was not an animal. He was a human being. He had dreams and feelings. He cared for many people, and many people cared for him. His death left a giant crater in several lives.”

“Selma” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“The prescient timing of ‘Selma’ could not have been planned. Its opening scene is a casual reminder of what life was like before the Voting Rights Act, with poll taxes and absurd literacy tests suppressing the Black vote. […] This is an emotional movie that aims to anger, sadden and inspire viewers, sometimes in the same scene. ‘Selma’ takes no prisoners and, while it welcomes moviegoers of all hues, it has no intention of sugarcoating its horrors for politically correct comforting. This film—one of the year’s best—is an announcement of a major talent in Ms. DuVernay, but its core message will not be lost nor hidden by the accolades it receives. Through the noise, ‘Selma’ speaks to us: From the top of the hill of progress, it is just as easy to slide down backwards as it is to move forward. Attention must be paid.”

“13th” directed by Ava DuVernay and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Several times throughout ‘13th’ there is a shock cut to the word CRIMINAL, which stands alone against a black background and is centered on the huge movie screen. It serves as a reminder that far too often, people of color are seen as simply that, regardless of who they are. Starting with D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’, DuVernay traces the myth of the scary Black felon with supernatural levels of strength and deviant sexual potency, a myth designed to terrify the majority into believing that only White people were truly human and deserving of proper treatment. This dehumanization allowed for the acceptance of laws and ideas that had more than a hint of bias.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” directed by Raoul Peck and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

Turning Baldwin into a chorus and occasionally a bystander in a story drawn from his own experience proves to be a masterstroke as well. Baldwin is bearing witness in the narration, and Peck turns him into a witness onscreen, too, briefly putting up pictures of Baldwin alongside politicians and artists but never holding them for long, and locating Baldwin within photo montages of important, sorrowful events (such as King’s funeral), establishing that he was there but never privileging his grief over the grief of others. This is not a portrait of one man, James Baldwin, but of the nation he wrote about, as seen through his eyes. It’s a film that bears witness to a writer bearing witness.”

“Whose Streets?” directed by Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis and reviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz

The fact that the movie contains no interviews with police officers or government authorities has sparked some backlash among film critics who, one assumes, wanted more of an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach. But there are dozens of written and filmed accounts of Ferguson that have already done that. This account is entirely concerned with what activists and ordinary citizens, and ordinary citizens who became activists, saw and felt in the weeks that followed the killing of unarmed Ferguson resident Michael Brown, a black man, by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, a white man. The race and class of the participants is central to the movie, because they help explain not just the point-of-view of the filmmaking, but the movie’s relationship to the rest of American media and society.”

“Strong Island” directed by Yance Ford and reviewed by Sheila O’Malley

Ford does not open up his gaze in order to loop his brother’s story into the national issue of African-Americans not getting a fair shot in the justice system (although it is implied everywhere). He keeps the focus narrow. [..] At one point, Ford’s mother, remembering her initial response to the news of her son’s death, says, ‘How are we gonna make it without him?’ It’s heartrending. There is no full recovery. In many ways, the family did not ‘make it without him.’ In a very poignant way, ‘Strong Island’—painful, probing, intimate—reiterates Mrs. Ford’s question so strongly that it hangs in the air as the credits roll.”

“The Hate U Give” directed by George Tillman, Jr. and reviewed by Monica Castillo

“In my screening of ‘The Hate U Give,’ there were tears, gasps, laughs and cheers. A shiver rippled through my skin when the shots rang out, and I choked back sobs in many more scenes. […] We feel for Starr and we are with her in moments like when she confronts a racist friend or questions a reporter for fixating on Khalil’s checkered past. We get a sense of the isolation she feels in her school’s hallway and when she’s forced to watch her friend bleed to death. If the story ever seems too basic, too ‘intro to race in America,’ it’s because this is the story of a 16-year-old girl who’s learning that the world is even worse than what she knew. In the audience, there will likely be many more girls who will either be hearing a story like Starr’s, or recognizing their own experience onscreen, for the first time.”

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” directed by Joe Talbot and reviewed by Odie Henderson

“‘Weird as it sounds, this movie is a love story about me and a house,’ writes Jimmie Fails in the film’s press release. Fails is one of the co-leads, and screenwriters Talbot and Rob Richert based the film on Fails’ life and friendship with Talbot, a relationship that grew from childhood. Talbot spins the tale, expanding it to include sharp commentaries about gentrification, home ownership, toxic masculinity and how Black men are supposed to navigate friendship. But at its core, ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ is a bittersweet romance whose protagonist will go to untold lengths to be with his object of affection. Unlike many tales of amour fou, however, this one is smart enough to consider whether the guy deserves his beloved.”

“Da 5 Bloods” directed by Spike Lee and reviewed by Odie Henderson

Lee is one of the few directors who takes to heart Godard’s comment that ‘In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.’ There is critique here, especially of films like ‘The Green Berets,’ ‘Rambo’ and ‘Missing in Action,’ with one character joking about how Hollywood went back to Vietnam to ‘try winning the war’ on-screen. There’s also commentary on just how White these movies were, with people like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone achieving mythic glory while blithely erasing the fact that 32% of the soldiers in the jungle were Black. It’s this type of whitewashing of veterans that Lee chips at with his cast and his story, the same type that would allow an NFL quarterback to imply that his White grandfathers were more patriotic than the soldiers of color who fought in the war with them, yet came home to inferior circumstances.”


A Conversation with “Selma” Director Ava DuVernay and Actor David Olyelowo by Sergio Mims

[DuVernay:] “The chokehold is illegal; the coroner ruled [Eric Garner’s death] as homicide; there’s video that is as pristine as day—better than any bodycam can give you, and still no indictment. So I think what this is is that we feel that we are in this moment. But what I hope ‘Selma’ does is to illustrate that this is not a moment, this is a continuum. It’s a cycle, a vicious cycle. So when you realize that, then that’s when you stop and you try to figure out a better way. ‘O.K we have done that—NOW what do we do?’ I don’t want ‘Selma’ to advocate necessarily being “on the nose’ with the tactics that were done then. I think that there’s a lot to learn from that time that’s not being executed. The question is how do you take what that was and move it to the next step? Because it seem like we always start over.”

All Your Buried Corpses are Now Beginning to Speak: Raoul Peck on “I Am Not Your Negro” by Matt Fagerholm

The question now is who dictates the narrative. We didn’t own that Hollywood narrative, the narrative was put upon us and was using us. Now you are starting to see all these filmmakers and writers who are capturing their own narrative and looking back and criticizing everything that has been made before, while unearthing the skeletons. As Baldwin would put it, ‘all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak.’ In order to keep doing that, we need to also have the power to decide what is being made. That’s where this whole discussion of #OscarsSoWhite falls short. You cannot just make a very limited and superficial change. You need to change the power structure. That includes the people who give the green light, the people who decide what films will live and what films will die, and what subject is of interest. This is when you will really be able to make actual change in Hollywood and the Oscars.”

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis on “Whose Streets?” by Nick Allen

[Folayan:] “This film is mostly for people who … there’s something in their power that they can do and they need that energy, they need to be activated, they need to see their work in a larger context, they need to see it connected to historical legacy. They need to know that it’s valid. Because a lot of us, especially those who are connecting on social media, people who are young, who are being told that this is not a real movement, and that we’re not doing it like the civil rights movement, and that it’s just a moment, that it’s just a trend. So we just wanted to take the energy of this movement and bring it to … just represent it in the way that it really is and really feels when you’re engaged and when you’re standing with people who are very thoughtful about it, who are very analytical, very strategic.”

We’ve Heard This Story Before: Yance Ford on “Strong Island” by Christina Newland

The ten-year production and edit really allowed us—well, me—to cycle through a few realizations as a filmmaker. For example, it allowed me to understand the justice system and how Mark Riley got away with killing my brother. The explanation for that is actually quite simple. It was simple in 1992, and it is now: it’s relatively easy to take a black life and not be punished for it. So, at one point there was all this other stuff—but it was like, no, what’s the most essential thing about this experience? The essential thing was the ease with which you can get away with killing someone if you’re white and the victim is black. What is essential is that black victims of crime almost always need to be the perpetrators of their own deaths. You’re the victim of a crime, but somehow you get turned into the criminal.”

A Fidelity to the Truth: Chadwick Boseman & Reginald Hudlin on “Marshall” by Nell Minow

[Hudlin:] “We’re at this historical moment where the country’s literally tearing itself apart and it’s very easy for people to feel overwhelmed. I watch the news and I can’t take it. It feels like we’re losing something precious and we’re not going to get it back. But what this movie says is: we faced even bigger obstacles and we overcame them. All we have to do is come together as allies and be smart and have a fidelity to the truth. All these characters came to the case with their own baggage, their own -isms but they believed in a fair version of our system that takes their finger off the scale and says ‘but here’s the truth and it’s messy; it’s not clean but here’s what happened.’ When truth resonates like that it cuts through the nonsense.”

Amandla Stenberg and George Tillman, Jr. on Bringing Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” to the Big Screen by Nell Minow

[Stenberg:] “I fell in love with the book because of Starr and one of the first things she does is speak so candidly about having these two versions of herself that she presents depending on the environment that she’s in. That was so special to me as someone who has experienced that. I think it’s part of the contemporary black experience that you understand that your success is often conditioned upon how you present yourself. Often showing up all the way as black in white spaces doesn’t really work. So I fell in love with that idea and I already understood it because I had a really similar experience growing up in a black neighborhood but then going to a school across town that was white and privileged and where I presented myself differently and tried to make myself fit in as much as I could.”

Paving the Way: Shola Lynch on “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed” by Matt Fagerholm

Black Lives Matter is a continuation of the conversation that has happened since Emancipation. It is about overcoming the missing two-fifths in the equation of equality and the “American” perspective. […] I think if Shirley Chisholm were in Congress today, she would be active and voicing her opinion regardless of whether or not it was the popular opinion. She would also take heart in the protests and the young folks expressing themselves. I don’t think she would be afraid of that, even if she didn’t agree with it. She started off as a schoolteacher, and I think she always had confidence in the next generation. Now we are talking about a new generation. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and George Floyd being the tipping point of so many people who have been killed by police officers, if we can take this moment and create change, she would be for that. That’s why she got into politics.”


How the Image of Black Women Has (and Hasn’t) Changed in the Last Two Decades by Carla Renata

When Zoe Saldana was attached to star and produce a film loosely based on a relationship with Nina Simone and her personal assistant Clifton Henderson, many in the community were outraged. Why? Mostly due to the fact that Saldana donned dark makeup to portray the icon. How is this problematic to the image of black women? The problem is Nina Simone was one of the most famous faces of the Civil Rights Movement and took much pride in being a woman of color. Nina Simone, in the ’60s and ’70s was the poster child for the quintessential image of the Black women in America. As much as I believe Saldana simply just wanted to share a “love story,” this decision again solidified the cluelessness of power players failing to understand how disrespectful and damaging this all felt was disappointing and unbelievable on many levels.”

22 Years Later, Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou” is Still Making an Impact by Whitney Spencer

Hailed as the best film of 1997 by Roger Ebert, Kasi Lemmons’ ‘Eve’s Bayou’ has solidified its role as one of the most successful independent films in American cinema. A coming-of-age story set against the Southern beauty of 1960’s Louisiana, the film garnered praise among arthouse lovers and cinephiles alike. […] 22 years later, the film and the filmmaker’s contributions might be framed as catalysts for a significant shift within independent film. In ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ Lemmons created a story and visual that centered the experiences of black women and girls. Those visions made space for future black women filmmakers within the independent genre.”

Ebertfest 2018, Days 4 and 5: “Daughters of the Dust,” “The Big Lebowski,” “13th” and More by Matt Fagerholm

One of the most rapturous ovations I’ve seen in the six years I’ve been attending Ebertfest was received by Ava DuVernay, the celebrated director who flew to Champaign, Illinois, amidst a busy schedule, in order to attend the Saturday morning screening of her Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, ‘13th.’ I immediately rose to my feet when she appeared on the stage, not just because her film is a towering achievement but because its call to action is overwhelming in its potency. […] DuVernay recalled how the reviews penned by Roger Ebert and Ebertfest guest Carrie Rickey of her 2011 feature debut, ‘I Will Follow,’ played a crucial role in launching her career. ‘Don’t knock on closed doors,’ she advised the aspiring artists in attendance. ‘Build your own house and your own door.’”

Roger Ebert on the Films of Spike Lee by Nick Allen

It’s safe to say that one of Roger’s most unforgettable viewing experiences in his life concerned seeing “Do the Right Thing” at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. While he wrote more about that in his Great Movies essay on the piece, he officially reviewed the movie back in June 30, 1989. Awarding the film 4 stars, the piece brought out some of Roger’s most passionate writing, especially with how the movie does not take a particular stance in its ideas of race and community, which reaches a tragic end one summer night in Bed-Stuy. Roger writes: ‘I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters. Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations.’”

60 Minutes on: “The Hate U Give” by Matt Zoller Seitz

The film is a primer on systemic racism in the United States, aimed at young people as well as any older relatives who might not have gotten the memo. It embraces the idea that riots are the language of the unheard, inevitable and necessary if the people are being lied to, silenced, or micromanaged by authorities. A climactic clash between heavily armored police and anti-police brutality protesters in their street clothes is shot to evoke news coverage of Ferguson, but also images of sadly similar incidents dating back to the origins of visual media. It’s also about how slavery and lynching continued in the United Staes under different labels. Starr’s Instagram page juxtaposes recent victims of police brutality with a graphic closeup of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, flat-out telling us that when American police kill unarmed black men for no good reason, they’re committing acts of racist, vigilante terror, however strenuously they refuse to call them that.”

The Fairytale of Homeownership in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” by Robert Daniels

America is a kleptocracy, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once surmised, and Jimmie employs the country’s tactics. He moves into the vacant home overnight, hoping to live there while what he presumes will be a prolonged estate battle plays out. Like Jimmie’s plan, his grandfather triumphing over the oppressive and unfair system of homeownership reads like a soon-to-be-broken myth. Jimmie tethers himself to his grandfather’s ‘victory.’ As a child, he recounts his grandfather’s story to the other children, and later to Montgomery as an adult. His waking dream could only be a dream, only evoked as such to viewers through Talbot’s long shots of Jimmie skateboarding down San Francisco’s hilly streets as gleaming buildings rise around him, trapping him within this near-inescapable gentrified nightmare.”

The Unloved, Part 78: “The Siege” by Scout Tafoya

Art can’t give life back, and it can’t force cops and politicians to behave like human beings. Apparently nothing can. I’m angry every day. I want justice for George Floyd and everyone else killed by the increasingly militarized white supremacist police force. I want justice. I want our depraved monarch to vanish and take the whole diseased GOP machinery with him. I want my friends who are hurt, who feel like their country is persecuting them, to feel safer in the place they have made their home. I want this time to stop taking from us and start giving us something. Donate to the right causes, speak out, do what you have to to live and survive and feel alive and safe.”

“Malcolm X”: Spike Lee’s Timeless Sermon by Omer M. Mozaffar

“It seems that nothing has changed in a century. When I ask young people—even children in 2016 who grew up under an Obama presidency—to describe someone ‘American,’ they unanimously describe someone White. Today, my social media is peppered with a mosaic of faces of dozens of young Black men who have been killed, with their killers seeming to escape consequence. The overarching message is that our system crushes people, especially African Americans. Even though none of us started the system, we—especially members of other communities – are complicit as beneficiaries.”