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Debate Club: The 5 best genre films by African-American directors this century
Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
Happy Black History Month: For this week's Debate Club, we're celebrating this century's best genre films from African-American directors. With that in mind, don't look for Widows on this list — Steve McQueen is British — or great movies such as Moonlight, which aren't genre-y enough for our purposes.
But that still left plenty of room for five terrific movies, including one from one of America's all-time finest filmmakers — and two from the most promising young voices in movies today. Hopefully there will be an influx of new contenders for this list very, very soon.
05. Training Day (2001)
It's been almost 20 years since this came out, but it's worth remembering how out-of-character Training Day felt for Denzel Washington when it was released. Washington was one of the most respected actors on the planet, but one who was so revered because of a certain nobility, a certain regalness, in his characters. You were supposed to root for him because he was Denzel Washington. Training Day turns that on its head, with director Antoine Fuqua getting a truly titanic performance out of him — one that, it turns out, might end up being the one he's most remembered for.
04. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele's second film might not have the breathtaking brilliance of Get Out, and we're not entirely sure the film's internal logic entirely tracks, but as a directorial achievement, it actually feels like a bit of a step forward for Peele. Us is more conventionally a horror film than Get Out, and the horror sequences are legitimately scary, particularly an inspired sequence involving Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.
And he gets a staggering performance from Lupita Nyong'o, the best work she's ever done and without question the most overlooked performance by the Oscars this year. And we’ll never think about Hands Across America the same way again.
03. Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee's career has taken countless twists and turns as he's done studio movies and scrappy indies and microbudget experimental projects. That Lee goes in all these directions is one of the most inspiring aspects of his career, but Inside Man is a reminder that he would have been simply a terrific director of high-quality, smart studio entertainment, if that had been the direction he wanted to go.
Inside Man is taut and compelling, and also feels like a Spike Lee Joint from start to finish. And it is one of the truly great New York City movies.
02. Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler had found commercial success with Creed while Chadwick Boseman had earned rave reviews for films like Get On Up. But nothing they had worked on before — or, frankly, will ever in the future — could match the popularity and cultural explosion of Black Panther, one of the few Marvel movies liked by even those who don't care about superhero flicks.
Introducing us to the high-tech and hidden world of Wakanda, the movie pits T'Challa (Boseman) against his vengeful brother Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) for the future of the African nation. With a supporting cast that includes everyone from Lupita Nyong'o to Danai Gurira to Daniel Kaluuya to Letitia Wright to Winston Duke to Angela Bassett, this MCU juggernaut didn't just conquer the box office — it was the first Marvel film to be nominated for Best Picture, winning three Oscars.
Beyond all that, though, the power of Black Panther was such that, as satisfying as the Avengers: Endgame finale was, it was a little disappointing that T'Challa didn't factor into it more.
01. Get Out (2017)
Writer-director Jordan Peele had a (slightly) similar experience to Chris, the protagonist of his Oscar-winning debut. "I had a Caucasian girlfriend a while ago," he recalled to The New York Times. "I remember specifically asking if the parents knew I was black. She said no. That scared me. It turned out to be totally fine, but I didn't want to even see an adjustment on someone's face when they realized it's not what they thought."
That anger and fear got turned into Get Out, an expert mix of comedy and horror that takes aim at America's racial divide — as well as white elites who think they're above such bigotry. ("I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could" will never not be darkly funny.) Not only launching Peele's filmmaking career, Get Out established Daniel Kaluuya as a leading man and made the idea of a teacup absolutely terrifying. More importantly, the movie spoke — and still speaks — to the times more forcefully than a lot of prestige pictures.