Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Even in the midst of a low point in American race relations, black storytelling, both on screens and in print, showed a broad multiplicity of voices and made a deep impact on pop culture throughout 2018.
Defying industry expectations, “Black Panther,” an action spectacular featuring Marvel Comics’ first mainstream superhero-of-color grossed more than $700 million in domestic box office receipts since its February opening. The film, directed by Ryan Coogler, amassed almost as much from overseas markets, breaking down the Hollywood shibboleth that black-themed movies appeal only to the black community.
At the tail-end of the year, writer-director Barry Jenkins proved to audiences and critics alike that “Moonlight,” his Academy-Award-winning story of a young boy growing up in Miami, was no fluke. His follow-up, a ruminative and sensually-evocative adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was released this month to rapturous reviews – and some speculative chatter surrounding a new round of Oscar nominations for Jenkins in January.
While Coogler and Jenkins can be seen as bookends representing two very different approaches to film-making, there were plenty of other black-directed features that fell somewhere in between this year. They include Boots Riley’s satiric farce, “Sorry to Bother You,” Spike Lee’s incendiary “BlacKkKlansman,” based on police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, Ava DuVernay’s ambitiously-mounted adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time,” Antoine Fuqua’s edgy and underrated “Equalizer 2,” Charles Stone III’s rambunctious basketball comedy “Uncle Drew” and Steve McQueen’s neo-noir heist melodrama, “Widows.”
Movies oftentimes garner more of a buzz than books do. But here’s some breaking news: books are better than movies. And this year especially saw a bright flowering of young African-American fiction writers with critically lauded debuts.
Jamel Brinkley (“A Lucky Man”), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (“Heads of the Colored People”), Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (“Friday Black”), and JM Holmes (“How Are You Going to Save Yourself”) published moving, trenchant and vividly rendered short story collections, some vibrating with the up-to-the-minute urgency of contemporary events. These writers displayed, in their own individual styles, the kind of prodigious talent that makes readers anticipate what they can do with longer forms and bigger canvases.
Speaking of novels (with room enough to name only a few): Tayari Jones’ award-winning fourth novel, “An American Marriage,” stunned and swept up millions of readers with its depiction of newlyweds separated and nearly destroyed by an unjust conviction.
Black Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan expanded the possibilities of the antebellum novel with “Washington Black,” an epic adventure that begins with an 11-year-old slave boy’s escape from a Barbados sugar plantation – by hot-air balloon! Among the many African writers who emerged on this continent with notable work, Oyinkan Braithwaite made an impressive, accomplished debut with “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” a crafty, sardonic psychological thriller taking place in the streets and hospital rooms of Lagos, Nigeria.
It was also a banner year for black poets with collections by poet laureate Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Terrance Hayes (“American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”), Natasha Trethewey (“Monuments: Poems New and Selected”), Kevin Young (“Brown”), Tiana Clark (“I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without The Blood”), and Justin Philip Reed (“Indecency”). All of these books are as penetrating and intensely personal as they are politically-attentive.
Of course, television is really where it’s at in 21st-century storytelling. While there have been plenty of noteworthy cable and streaming series, ABC’s family sitcom “black-ish” has hit its artistic stride in the midst of its fifth season. The second seasons of both FX’s incomparable hip-hop-at-the-edge-of-civilization series, “Atlanta” and Netflix’s campus comedy-drama, “Dear White People,” have proven to be as provocative, uproarious and poignant as their first.
But by far, 2018’s most original, boundary-breaching work of narrative art by African-Americans in any medium was the first season of HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness.” Terence Nance’s sketch-comedy series displays a wide range of styles and motifs, from stop-motion animation to stand-up routines with abstract expressionist visual aids.
By turns sexy, fierce, bewildering and riveting, “Flyness” sends two indelible messages to audiences. The first is that black people should not, and cannot, be judged at first glance. The second is that there are as many ways to be African-American as there are to be, well, American.
You could argue that both these points needed to be made long before 2018. Now, even in times like these – with the abundance of black voices across so many different mediums – the message is inescapable.