What to watch: Black History Month recommendations

Feb. 24, 2022, 9:42 p.m.

In honor of Black History Month, The Daily’s screen beat writers shared their recommendations for their favorite films and television programs centering Black voices. 

Kirsten Mettler

“Abbott Elementary” is still young — only in its first season — but has already established itself as a fresh take on the workplace sitcom. The program is a single-camera comedy following the passionate efforts of teachers in an underfunded elementary school in West Philadelphia. Quinta Brunson created, stars in and writes for the show, drawing on her mother’s experiences as a teacher. “Abbott Elementary” plays to the deadpan documentary style of “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation,” but defies sitcom expectations by addressing important issues of class and racial inequalities head on. Rather than rely on cheap, identity-based jokes, “Abbott Elementary” focuses on punching up — poking fun at institutions and flawed power structures instead of historically marginalized communities. The show has received incredibly positive reviews; its Rotten Tomato score is currently a perfect 100 percent.

After a stressful day, “Abbott Elementary” is like a warm hug. The mockumentary is sweet without being corny. We quickly begin to root for Brunson’s character, Janine, as she works with unflinching optimism to best provide for her students. This is best exemplified in episode two: Janine goes above and beyond (as usual) in attempts to change a lightbulb because the dark hallway scares one of her students. The efforts quickly backfire, with Janine accidentally knocking out power for the school. Being the dedicated teacher that she is, Janine doesn’t give up, but tries to remedy the situation, even as her colleagues tell her that it is hopeless. 

My guess is that “Abbott Elementary” will soon be a core addition to the sitcom canon. Strong acting, heart-warming moments and laugh-out-loud comedy all meet to create a loving show on the beauty and struggles of working in education.

Leyla Yilmaz

“Last Black Man in San Francisco” captures the true story of Jimmie Fails, who plays himself in the movie, and focuses on his affection for his childhood home in San Francisco, built by his grandfather in 1946. 

The film follows Fails skating through the streets of San Francisco with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors). With Mont’s help, Fails trespasses into his childhood home, now owned by a white couple, to clean and repair it. The film displays San Francisco’s gentrification and the racial inequalities it breeds. The size and beauty of the Victorian house portrays Fails’s grandpa’s efforts in building it. Despite Fails’s efforts to make sure the house retains the history and culture, its current owners are quick to assume he’s a thief — demonstrating how racial discrimination and gentrification are intertwined. The film explores the role of class in displacement, but goes further by showing how communities critical to San Francisco’s development, like the Black community, have been impacted by gentrification.

Fails’s love for the house demonstrates how far people will go to protect their homes. The meaning of home might change from person to person: for some it is their friends, for others it can be a city or simply a house. In “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Fails will stop at nothing to protect his house, even as he is faced with homophobic comments, the affordability crisis and displacement from his childhood home.

Fans of plot-driven films will still appreciate the slow-paced, contemplative nature of “Last Black Man in San Francisco.” The movie hooks viewers with the immediacy of its themes and beautiful mise-en-scene. Fails skates down the hills of the city, followed by his best-friend, and the colorful houses set in motion with them, creating a flow of the vibrant colors and depicting the beauty city’s culture.

Aditeya Shukla

Even though it has been more than 30 years since the release of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” it continues to be as sincere and relevant as it was then. Partly inspired by the racially motivated killing of a Black man named Michael Griffith in 1986, this film serves as a lens into a country that has historically and systemically undervalued the lives of Black Americans. 

“Do The Right Thing” takes a unique approach in making the conscious choice of not offering a solution to the problems it depicts. The film chooses to act as a reflection of not only a section of society but also of the audiences’ own perspectives and prejudices. It is a rage-filled reaction to white supremacy that draws attention to systemically racist institutions and the injustices they produce. 

With this film, Spike Lee astutely and carefully depicts a microcosm of Black America and its identity. The movie is filled with scenes of pause, which are highlighted as moments for characters to reflect and express emotion. The film’s well-constructed soundtrack combines moments of loudness and softness to create a perfect mix of chaos and rest. The film score builds an atmosphere for the precise social environment that Spike Lee is trying to emulate. 

Altogether, the film’s visual and aural narrative gives the movie a multidimensional nature and helps Spike Lee to represent a section of Black America. Each decision in this film is carefully made and helps to spotlight various facets of racial identity, giving “Do The Right Thing” a unique outlook and making it a landmark in American culture and cinema.

Malia Mendez

“Selah and the Spades” is a wildly disorienting variant of the classic coming-of-age film in verdant hues. It debuted at Sundance in 2019 and was released by Amazon Studios in April 2020. Taking its teenage kicks from “Heathers” and its dark dealings from “The Godfather,” writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature pays homage to stock tropes but creates a world all its own. 

At Haldwell, an elite East Coast boarding school, five factions — each creatively introduced with a sketch of its leader and descriptions of their archetypal members — oversee the student body’s illicit operations. From math homework to hallucinogens, Haldwell students deal in anything that gives them greater control in the realm of teenage politics. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is a captivating antihero and queen bee of the Spades, who distribute high-in-demand “party favors.” To Selah’s vexation, the Spades are the only faction without a promising candidate to replace Selah when she graduates. But when shy shutterbug Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor) transfers in as a sophomore, Selah quickly appoints her as her protégé. Throughout the film, Selah and Paloma’s friendship veers into a fraught romance with an undercurrent of fierce rivalry — and Selah’s iron fist begins to rust. 

Though the film’s dreamy visuals and sinister storyline have garnered Poe critical attention, the most compelling aspect of her film is its depiction of Selah’s inner turmoil. In a surrealist sequence set at the school spirit squad’s practice, Selah delivers a speech on teenage girls’ scant cultural capital, saying, “they always try to break you down when you’re 17.” And throughout the film, we are mesmerized as Selah breaks down. Exhibiting a harsh reality for many teenage girls through expressionist film techniques, “Selah and the Spades” is a whirlwind of a watch. 

Betty He

The world in “Sorry to Bother You” is exaggerated, bizarre and intensely colorful. The dystopian film directed by Boots Riley follows Cassius Green’s (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to survive in a capitalist world where Blackness is devalued. Working as a telemarketer at a corporate conglomerate called RegalView, Cassius was one day let in on a trade secret by a colleague — he can get customers to listen and make more sales by using his “white voice.” Expertly employing this white voice, Cassius rises through the ranks to become a Power Caller, which gives him access to high power people, including a chance to meet the Chief Executive Officer, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). As Cassius delves deeper into the inner workings of RegalView through his interactions with Lift, Cassius becomes aware of Lift’s exploitative operations to maximize profit and fortuitously tries to warn the world.  

The film acutely addresses Black bodies’ lack of currency in the capitalist economy. Characters throughout the film masquerade to pass as white not only to gain power, but, most importantly, to survive. Cassius’s girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), puts on an art show attempting to recenter the world around Africa and African cultures, yet uses a white voice of her own during the performance. Her identity disintegrates in this carnivalesque moment and strips away her previously composed resistance to racial and economic oppression to reveal the raw pain underneath. 

The film stands out for its unique insights into how willing people are to become complacent with the status quo, no matter how bizarre or cruel it is. With impeccable acting and flamboyant aesthetics, “Sorry to Bother You” parodies modern society in a nuanced way to highlight deep-seated racial and economic inequality and examine its underlying causes.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Betty He is the Screen beat desk editor. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at' stanforddaily.com.Aditeya Shukla '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. He is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life. He enjoys making indie pop music and watching Formula 1. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Leyla Yilmaz '25 is the vol. 264 Reads desk editor for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Malia Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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