The List: A newcomer's guide to black cinema

Cristyn Steward
“Fruitvale Station” photo by Ron Koeberer/AP

With the Columbus Black International Film Festival taking place this week, fest founder Cristyn Steward presents an introductory guide to black movies. (Visit for more information on the fest.)

“Crooklyn,” 1994, directed by Spike Lee

This story was actually written by Spike Lee's sister, Joie Lee, and his brother, Cinque Lee, as a semi-autobiographical portrayal of their upbringing. In this film, we see Spike Lee skillfully take on the nuanced issues facing the black family in the 1970s. Colorism in the black community, the effects of the Vietnam War on black vets, cancer, black love and family ties are all strong themes — and ones that weren't often highlighted at the time. “Crooklyn” was one of my first exposures to black film production at this high level, and is a major reason why I started making films.

“Belly,” 1998, directed by Hype Williams

Hype Williams, best known for being a music video director at the time, created a cult masterpiece with this film. By the turn of the century, Hype had already directed videos for all the big recording artists from the '90s (Puff Daddy, Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes). “Belly” was a music video turned hood film with high production value. Williams embraced an aesthetic vision that would forever challenge cinematography.

“Set It Off,” 1996, directed by F. Gary Gray

In this classic, we see — for the first and last time — women convincingly depicted onscreen as relatable anti-heroes. The four fully developed female characters, each at a different place in life but with similar responsibilities to family, have a bond that directors have been trying to emulate onscreen for decades. It's a welcome reprieve from the black female caricatures that had become popular at the time. “Set It Off” is another story-heavy film that humanizes us all. Taking place in Los Angeles, this film tackled police violence toward the black community, single parenthood and race in the workplace.

“Fruitvale Station,” 2013, directed by Ryan Coogler

This film, the debut from the “Black Panther” director, pioneered what would be a new wave of movies depicting police brutality with radical authenticity. Personally, this is the most intimate drama I have ever experienced. Coogler changed how we view director/writers.

“Eve's Bayou,” 1997, directed by Kasi Lemmons

This movie, which I was also exposed to at a young age, actually ties with “Crooklyn” as my favorite movie of all time. The star-studded cast and character narratives are why I hold this iconic piece of black cinema so dear. Unlike most films about the black family, “Eve's Bayou” intertwined the magic and voodoo of our country's Louisiana Creole heritage — themes rarely featured in black American films.

“The Learning Tree,” 1969, directed by Gordon Parks

This film is just a classic, filled with several themes concerning the spectrum of blackness and American history. Parks, a renowned photographer, brings his own story to life with picturesque depictions of Fort Scott, Kansas, in the 1920s.

“Daughters of the Dust,” 1991, directed by Julie Dash

This is the first feature film directed by a black American woman distributed theatrically in the United States. This film has everything: great story, great cinematography and great directing. As far as I am concerned, there is no other film that explores Gullah culture and the theme of migration to the mainland better than this masterpiece.

“I Like It Like That,” 1994, directed by Darnell Martin

This is the first film by a woman of the African diaspora to be produced by a major studio. This movie is lesser known and often falls under the radar with lists like these, but it definitely deserves its due. The film's central themes tackle marriage, love and responsibility. Martin explores representations of the black Latino heritage, and exposes viewers to a unique perspective.