When the White House decided to change February from “Black History Month” to “African American History Month,” it inadvertently narrowed the scope and the impact of this annual celebration. It put nationality at the center of the month’s events and put an even greater weight on what can sometimes be a limiting identity marker. But black history reaches across nations and cultures. Its story cannot be told let alone exalted by merely looking at American history, for, despite recent political rhetoric, the United States is a nation of immigrants. And that means that in addition to celebrating heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass (who really has done an amazing job, we hear), this month should also speak to Afro-Cubans in Miami and Afro-Mexicans in California. It should get people to look back at the history of Haitian refugees and to think through Brazil’s own slavery legacy. Often forgotten, let us focus also on highlighting those of mixed-heritage whose stories speak crucially about intersectional identities. And as Afro-Latinas Christina Milian, Tatyana Ali, and Judy Reyes remind us in a short doc called “Black and Latino,” straddling those lines can pose a challenge.
With that in mind we set about finding films that represented the Afro-Latino experience in all its forms. From Oscar-nominated crossover hits to ethnographic documentaries tracing cross-continental legacies, consider these 15 films a good place to start to see how filmmakers in the Americas have depicted Afro-Latinos on screen. Better yet, they’re all available to stream from the comfort of your own home, so you can plan your very own film festival.
They Are We
Available to stream on Amazon.
Emma Christopher’s ebullient They Are We began with a simple question “Can a family separated by the transatlantic slave trade sing and dance its way back together?” Tracing back the origins of the Afro-Cuban songs and dances brought by an ancestor during the trade to Perico, Cuba, Christopher eventually found a remote village in Sierra Leone where, upon watching a recording of the Cubans’ songs and dances the people exclaimed “They are we!” Christopher’s film is a colorful celebration of Afro-Cuban culture, rhythmically pulsing with the percussive songs that have survived through centuries.
Junior is a young boy whose outward appearance just doesn’t match up with what he feels inside. He fervently hopes for “pelo bueno” instead of “pelo malo”– for him this means elusively straight, free flowing locks that he can only achieve by applying enormous amounts of effort and sometimes oil or mayonnaise to his naturally curly, kinky hair. As the darker-skinned older boy of his mother’s two children, it’s not just his more African features but also his more effeminate ways that make him the brunt of her anger. However, his grandmother understands and even encourages young Junior’s differences. She helps him blow out his hair and encourages him to sing and dance along to saucy 60s tunes.
Marcel Camus’ retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set during Rio’s Carnival won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. (It’s also Barack Obama’s mother’s favorite film of all time!) Scored by a who’s who of bossa nova composers, including Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá and João Gilberto, the vibrantly-shot film follows trolley driver Orfeu who, despite being engaged to be married, falls for the young newcomer to the city, Eurydice. True to the myth it is retelling, their love story is doomed from the beginning, but French director Camus finds plenty of joy in their many scenes together, including the colorful dance sequences during Carnival, which map the Greek iconography of the Orpheus tale onto Afro-Brazilian and Candomblé traditions.
Ventos de Agosto
Brazil’s tropical coastline provides the stunning backdrop to documentary director Mascaro’s first dramatic film, which unfurls as a series of revealing accounts in the lives of Shirley and her boyfriend Jeison. When the latter finds a human skull while dive-fishing, it sets in motion a meditative sashay through themes of life and death, most poetically summed up by an elderly man: “Those who die here don’t end up in heaven or hell. They end up in the sea.” It is just one moment that captures the relationship between people and their environment, with the inevitability of death returning us to the elements from which we emerge. A mesmerizing and beautiful portrait of our place in the greater order of things.
Dólares de arena
The Dominican feature Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), by husband-wife directing duo Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, features none other than Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie and a brilliant actress in her own right) as an elderly French tourist who falls in love with a young Dominican woman and makes plans to move her back to France. Not your typical story of tropical romance told through the eyes of a white foreigner, this film is equally interested in exploring the predicament of the young Dominican woman, played by Yanet Mojica, and the shady power dynamics that may be at work.
Cidade de deus
Like the plucky little chicken that escapes death despite all odds in the film’s opening scene, so do a lot of the street kids depicted in Cidade de deus (City of God) get by on bravado and dumb luck in the tough favelas of Brazil. But mostly they die since their guns are not the make believe ones of child’s play but the real deal on the mean city streets of Cidade de deus, an incredibly rough favela on the edge of Rio. Rocket, a budding photographer whose way out lies in his camera rather than the gun, narrates the story of the gangs of children and youth he grows up with, armed to the teeth, who thieve and threaten their way through daily life to survive in a place that holds no other options. Ignored by the cops and social services their lives and livelihoods grow harder as petty pot dealing turns to major drug trafficking and the stakes get higher. With clever narration by Rocket that works in counterpoint to the violence onscreen, a soundtrack that makes shootouts seem like dance sequences, and virtuoso editing and cinematography that shows the Carnival-like craziness of these little kids larger-than-life lives of crime, Cidade de deus is a hyper-original epic of tragic proportions.
Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango
Tango is generally believed to have originated in mid-19th century Argentine slave societies, and the man widely recognized as the country’s first tango musician, Rosendo Mendizábal, was Afro-Argentine. Yet many Argentines are loath to accept the African origins of their most cherished and internationally recognized cultural expression. To set the record straight, an Angolan filmmaker by the name of Dom Pedro took to the streets of Buenos Aires and beyond to get the lowdown on tango’s African roots. Along the way, he discovered a nation deeply ambivalent about its African heritage.
O dia de Jerusa
As its title promises, Jerusa’s Day aims to present a day in the life of a woman living in the neighborhood of Bela Vista in São Paulo. Dealing with her loneliness in a community filled with widows and single women who live day to day, this short film offers a glimpse into what Jerusa’s world looks like with surprising candor and empathy.
Executive produced by none other than Spike Lee, Josef Wladyka’s debut feature follows two brothers, a desperate fisherman and a naive young man, who embark on a journey trafficking drugs up the Pacific coast of Colombia. And as they tow a narco-torpedo filled with million of dollars worth of cocaine, their differences will soon make their already dangerous trip: while Jacobo, still reeling from being left by his wife and losing his young son, wants to make enough cash to head to Bogotá, his younger brother, would-be rapper Delio, aspires to the glitzy gangster life. Both a thriller and a character study of these two Afro-Colombian young men, Wladyka’s film breathes new life into the Colombian drug flick, away from the busy streets and out into the green and oceanside outdoors.
Available to stream on Amazon.
Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas are the setting of this moving documentary. Focusing more on the sociology than the music per se, Favela Rising exploits the post-City Of God first world fetish for Afro-Brazilian slums culture by following the charismatic Anderson Sa, a reformed street kid who finds in music the power to transform his life and, subsequently, the lives of thousands of other kids who grew up, like him, seeing drug-trafficking as the only viable source of income and respect. Unfortunately, the trite movie scoring doesn’t match the favela aesthetics at all and Anderson’s musical accomplishments and the subculture of baile funk are barely glanced over in favor of grimy stories of drug lords, blood, guns and corrupt police.
Black in Latin America
Available to stream on PBS.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a Harvard professor, an expert in African and African-American history, and the host of Black in Latin America. Gates has taken his knowledge of African history and racial dynamics in the U.S. and focused his attention on the rest of the Americas in this four-part PBS documentary series. He uncovers the hidden history that most Americans, African-Americans, and even Latinos don’t know about. In the series, Gates teaches us that that more than 11 million africanos were taken to Latin America as slaves. That is 25 times the number sent to the United States. He visits Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. He discovers the similarities in religion, food, and music – tracing their common origin to Africa.
On Our Land: Being Garifuna in Honduras
This short ethnographic documentary looks at the Indigenous Garífuna culture in Honduras. Making use of interviews with community members, local politicians, and members of the Garífuna diaspora in the United States, On Our Land tries to give some history for this Afro-Caribbean group which continues to find itself neglected in a country they’ve inhabited for centuries.
De cierta manera
Sara Gómez’s groundbreaking film blends archival footage of poor neighborhoods in Havana following the Cuban revolution with a fictionalized romantic plot centered on a schoolteacher and a factory worker who butt heads and eventually fall in love. The hybrid film was one of the first projects in the island to really interrogate issues of race and gender in a post-Castro world. Gómez, a celebrated Afro-Cuban filmmaker who’d been working mostly on shorts prior to shooting One Way or Another died just after finishing principal photography for this feature project. Released posthumously, the film was finished by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García-Espinosa and Rigoberto López, and has become a classic in its own right, offering a rare look at mid-century Havana through a social lens.
La Playa D.C.
Available to stream on Reelhouse.
This hip-hop scored coming of age tale in Bogotá is told through the eyes of a trio of Afro-Colombian brothers who have been pushed out of their home in the Pacific coast by the war. Growing up in a city that remains openly hostile, young Tomas finds inspiration in his brother’s fly hairdo which he got while visiting ‘El Norte’ (aka USA), and he realizes he has a knack for giving neighbors and friends alike elaborate hair designs. But when their younger brother goes missing, he’ll have to face the concrete jungle that is the Colombian city on his own, navigating its bustling streets and confronting its own prejudices that’ll lead him to grow up quicker than he’d like.
Las manos de dios
Noted Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman (Voices That Heal), turns her eye to the Afro-Peruvian musical rhythms of Julio “Chocolate” Algendones Farfán. Chocolate was a world-renowned jazz percussionist, one of the most important interpreter of Afro-Peruvian Folk Music. He’s considered the master of the Peruvian cajón. With the use of archival footage and probing interviews with those who knew the famous musician, Ackerman traces his life story and his impact.