120 Best Films That Center BIPOC Experiences

120 Best Films That Center BIPOC Experiences

June 14, 2024

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It’s time to amplify the voices that have long been marginalized and bring to the forefront the rich tapestry of BIPOC experiences. Delve deep into the diverse narratives, struggles, triumphs, and resilience of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. Prepare to be moved, educated, and inspired as we embark on a cinematic journey that expands our horizons and fosters empathy. These films are a testament to the beauty, strength, and unwavering spirit of BIPOC individuals, reminding us of the transformative power of cinema.

1. Fruitvale Station (2013)

best

9.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Ryan Coogler

Actors

Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Thought-provoking

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

2. The Intouchables (2012)

best

9.6

Country

France

Director

Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache

Actors

Absa Diatou Toure, Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, Alba Gaïa Bellugi, Anne Le Ny

Moods

Challenging, Funny, Intense

A wealthy paraplegic needs a new caretaker. His choice is surprising — an ex-con down on his luck. Both of their lives are changed forever. Based on a true story, it is funny, touching, and very surprising.  It will have you rolling on the floor laughing one minute and reaching for your hankie the next. Intouchables is one of those perfect movies, that will easily and instantly make anyone’s all-time top 10 list.

3. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

best

9.5

Country

Finland, South Africa, Sweden

Director

Malik Bendjelloul

Actors

Clarence Avant, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Dan DiMaggio, Dennis Coffey

Moods

Emotional, Inspiring, Suspenseful

American folk singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez recorded two albums in Detroit in the 1970s, which he played live across the city, but never to critical acclaim or commercial success. Disappointed, he soon quit his musical career, bought a run-down house in the Motor City, and lived a simple life working in construction. So far, this sounds like the biography of many musicians that never quite made it, talented or otherwise.

However, a strange thing happened. By the mid-1970s, his albums were getting significant airplay in countries like Australia, Zimbabwe, and Apartheid-era South Africa, where he was soon considered a musical voice on par with the Beatles. While living a reclusive life in Detroit, Michigan, he unwittingly became a star on the other side of the globe. This engaged and visually appealing documentary by the late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells his story and spells out a fascinating footnote of global music history.

4. A Prophet (2009)

best

9.3

Country

France, Italy

Director

Jacques Audiard

Actors

Adel Bencherif, Antoine Basler, Farid Larbi, Foued Nassah

Moods

Raw, Thrilling, Well-acted

A Prophet, or Un Prophete, is an unconventional French film that combines prison drama with the Goodfellas-styled narrative of the rise to criminal power. Shot by the inimitable French director Jacques Audiard, A Prophet is a future classic from the get-go, taking age-old cliches and turning them on their heads. It’s not often that a film leaves us giddy with enthusiasm and constantly thinking back to it, but A Prophet is so intense, you won’t be able to let it go. Incredible acting, especially by then-newcomer Tahar Rahim, fantastic pacing, a great narrative arc with a brutal and uncompromising take on morality, self-realization, and life on the fringes of society. There are only two, quote unquote, action sequences in this movie and they are as brutal and realistic as they are unexpected. Look past the subtitles, do yourself a favor and watch this film.

5. Head-On (Gegen die Wand) (2004)

best

9.3

Country

Germany, Turkey

Director

Fatih Akin

Actors

Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck

Moods

Character-driven, Raw, Romantic

Winner of a Golden Bear and a slew of awards at the European Film Awards in the early noughties, Head-on is named after the suicide attempt of Cahit Tomruk (played by the late Birol Ünel), a Turkish-born German in his mid-40s. At the psychiatric clinic where he is treated, he meets the equally damaged Sibel Güner who is also of Turkish descent. (The first ever feature film of famous German actress Sibel Kekilli, who you might know from Game of Thrones.) Sibel persuades him to marry her in an attempt to break away from her traditional-minded parents.

If you think this plot summary was tough stuff, it gets even grimmer from there. Directed by famous German filmmaker Fatih Akın, the intensity with which Kekilli and Ünel perform the character’s unhinged self-hatred is as raw as it gets. Head-on is a brutal, gritty, and heart-wrenching story about the violence of love and hedonism – and the struggle of third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany.

6. Paris Is Burning (1991)

best

9.3

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Female director, Jennie Livingston

Actors

Dorian Corey, Kim Pendavis, Octavia St. Laurent, Pepper LaBeija

Moods

Discussion-sparking

Though the drag scene is alive and well today, Paris is Burning is an important reminder that it didn’t always used to be that way. Over the course of seven years, Director Jennie Livingston leads us underneath the crime-ridden streets of 80s New York, where a glittery drag subculture is flourishing, despite all odds. Leading the community are the so-called mothers, the best performers and most fashionable of them all, tasked with inspiring and caring for newcomers. Nevermind that they’re shunned by society and suffocated (sometimes literally) by hateful homophobes and racists; when there is a ball, all that matters is that they strut, dance, and put on the best damn show of their lives. What they do is art, and Livingston makes sure to exalt the craft and pride that goes into it. At the same time, intimate interviews with iconic queens like Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja reveal the heartbreaking nature of the community. Most, if not all, have endured some form of abuse, and many risk their lives to earn a decent living. But again, Livingston refuses to reduce them to pure tragedy; she gets them to share their wonderfully big dreams, then gets us to hope along with them that they might just come true.

7. Farewell My Concubine (1993)

best

9.2

Country

China, Hong Kong

Director

Chen Kaige

Actors

Dan Li, David Wu, Fei Zhenxiang, Ge You

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Depressing

Thirty years after its release, the first ever Chinese language Palme d’Or winner has finally been made more accessible through Criterion Channel through its uncut 4K restoration. Farewell My Concubine is one of those classical epics that is considered essential viewing, but even with its near 3 hour runtime, the film still holds up all these decades later with its startlingly heartrending love story and depiction of the tumultuous shifts of 20th century China. Director Chen Kaige masterfully balances both sides, tapping into the pain Dieyi (Leslie Chung) chooses as he clings to the classical opera, the very art form that allows him a sliver of his unrequited love to be realized, but that is also limited depending on whichever government is in charge at the moment. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful and most miserable films ever made.

8. The Farewell (2019)

best

9.1

Country

China, United States of America, USA China

Director

Female director, Lulu Wang

Actors

Aoi Mizuhara, Awkwafina, Chen Han, Diana Lin

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Inspiring

Many things clash in this beautifully layered, semi-autobiographical film of American director Lulu Wang: cultures, morals, and emotions. The result is a type of comedy that is complex and bittersweet⁠—and based on a true lie: this is the story of a Chinese grandma whose family won’t tell her that she is fatally ill. Instead, they organize a fake wedding in China, where everyone gets together to bid a farewell to the unwitting matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen). The fake wedding is, in fact, a premature funeral for a person unaware that she is going to die. Played by rapper and comedian Awkwafina, Billi, a New-York-based Chinese-American with a complicated relationship to China, embodies the cultural and moral question at the heart of this story: is it right or wrong not tell grandma? It is thanks to Wang’s deft writing and Awkwafina’s outstanding performance that The Farewell homes in on answers without ever being melodramatic. Warm, honest, and beautiful.

9. Fallen Angels (1995)

best

9.1

Country

Hong Kong

Director

Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Actors

Benz Kong, Benz Kong To-Hoi, Chan Fai-Hung, Chan Man-Lei

Wong Kar-wai’s dreamlike masterpiece is a perfect portrayal of the wilderness of a city at night. A hitman trying to get his job done, a woman hunting the prostitute who stole her boyfriend, and a mute who loves his father’s cooking: each of the characters in Fallen Angels is eccentric and interesting in their own way. Along the watch, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all the events taking place as each character fights to stay alive and satisfy their desire, but this is exactly where the beauty lies. A hazy view of Hong Kong is the backdrop for the characters’ riveting stories, blending loneliness, lust, as well as missed opportunities. Fallen Angels is a remarkably balanced film that not only exposes the coldness of people in the city, but also their warmth.

10. Divines (2016)

9.0

Country

France, Qatar

Director

Female director, Houda Benyamina

Actors

Bass Dhem, Déborah Lukumuena, Farid Larbi, Houda Benyamina

Moods

Character-driven

Winner of a Camera d’Or, the debutant’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Director Houda Benyamina’s first feature film is fast-paced and full of energy. Deep in the impoverished suburbs of Paris, the infamous banlieues, it tells the story of Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra), a mouthy teenager who is not content with what society is prepared to hand out to her. She’s angry; she wants more. And so, together with her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), she decides to finally make some cash as a runner for a drug dealer. While there’s obviously some feminism in there somewhere, that’s not at the heart of what this film is about. It’s about the economic reality in a world of poverty and about two friends and their desire for freedom—no matter what the cost. An exhilarating and thought-provoking debut helped along by Amamra’s amazing acting.

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