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National Black Movie Day is a celebration — and a call for action

Several cities across the country will participate by hosting events that include  film screenings and highlight the importance of supporting Black films.
Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in "American Fiction."
Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in “American Fiction.”Claire Folger / Orion Pictures

After the rallying cry “Oscars So White” emerged in 2015, calling out the general exclusion of Black filmmakers and movies from the annual awards ceremony, Agnes Moss stewed on it for a few years. The dismissal of Black-led films had offended her too, and eventually it led to the creation of National Black Movie Day.

Since 2019, Moss has made her own annual “call to action to support Black films,” a grassroots effort that has gained momentum through collaborations with local businesses and social media influencers. Saturday marks the fifth NBMD, and Moss said this year is distinct because filmgoers have multiple strong Black films to check out.

In Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston and Chicago, students at historically Black colleges, civic organization members and others are planning to flood theaters, host watch parties at home and bask in Black film.

"Bob Marley: One Love" Special Washington D.C. Screening
Agnes Moss started National Black Movie Day in 2019.Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures file

“It’s truly gratifying to know that movie lovers across the country will be gathering to celebrate the legacy of Black storytelling,” said Moss, the president of the National Black Movie Association in Washington, D.C., her hometown. “We are all celebrating Black life and culture on the big screen.”

The day has grown from its infancy, when awareness stretched to just a few cities. Moss said she expects thousands to participate in National Black Movie Day, with Oscar-nominated films like “American Fiction” and “The Color Purple” screened alongside thought-provoking movies like “Origin,” “The Book of Clarence,” “One Love” and many others in theaters or streaming.

“I’m a big believer in ‘You cannot be what you cannot see,’” said actor David Oyelowo, who supports NBMD.

“So National Black Movie Day is important. People need to know we exist. They need to know our films exist. We need to celebrate our films. And so, I support anything and everything that redresses the balance of the undervaluing of the things we make.”

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma."
Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” co-founded Mansa, a free online streaming network for Black filmmakers.Atsushi Nishijima / Paramount Pictures

But the fact that Moss felt compelled to create a day to focus on Black films underscores a point: Despite the uptick in movies, there’s always concern these efforts will erode, Oyelowo and others said.

“I don’t think we can afford to make the mistake we’ve made in the past or thinking that a moment like this is the new normal,” the actor said. “In the wake of the George Floyd murder and all of those promises and policies that were made not just by Hollywood, but beyond as well, we see a dramatic pullback and a dramatic lack of meeting those promises. There is a very real chance that in the next two to three years, there will be another call of ‘Oscars So White,’ so we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We cannot afford to stop keeping the industry accountable, but also we cannot afford to keep asking to be let into spaces and places that probably weren’t really designed with us in mind.”

One 2023 study showed that the number of films released in 2022 with at least one main Black lead actor increased by 30.1% over the previous year. However, the number of films with Black stories at the center decreased by 16.7% to just 35.

“We still have a really, really, really, really, long ways to go,” said John Gibson, vice president of external and multicultural affairs for the Motion Picture Association.

While more TV shows across different platforms feature Black stars and creatives, “we still have a very long way to go with movies,” he said. “But we know when studios put forth a concerted effort by hiring great writers that can speak to our shared experience and their lived experiences, they can produce authentic stories about us. And that’s important because nowadays you have to have authentic portrayals of our communities. The stereotypes of a lot of years ago, they’re just not going to work.”

Oyelowo, who starred as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” among many other distinguished roles, teamed with “Red Tails” co-star Nate Parker to form Mansa, a free online streaming network for Black filmmakers.

Colman Domingo as Mister in “The Color Purple.”
Colman Domingo as Mister in the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.”Eli Ade´ / Warner Bros.

Like Moss, he said they created Mansa “out of necessity. I love working in Hollywood. But we have been in the industry for a long time now and we’ve made things that we’re very proud of, but we almost always have to beg people who don’t necessarily share our cultural experience, or the value that we place on some of the things we make. We almost always have to go to them to distribute the work, to hopefully value the work, to market the work, to be the ones to communicate to our audience what the work is and what its value and intention are.”

The platform’s name pays homage to Mansa Musa, a 14th-century West African emperor who may have been the richest man of all time.

“There’s something incredibly empowering to know that the richest man and the richest kingdom the world has ever seen was African,” Oyelowo said. “And that’s how we think of Mansa. There is a wealth of films that the general public might not be aware of, or Black people might not be aware of, because they were not given the platform. There’s a wealth of talent. There’s a wealth of content. There’s a wealth of culture that, globally speaking, the value of it is not being yelled from the rooftops in a way it should be.” 

Those perceived shortcomings have driven National Black Movie Day and Mansa, which both aim to educate and inspire Black moviegoers while being a force behind Black films.

“It just felt like the right time — a combination of probably a buildup of frustration, but also just recognizing that streaming has shown us that there is a gap between what Hollywood says the global audience wants to see and what the data is telling us,” Oyelowo said. 

Gibson has studied the data as well, and he said for Black people and films, it comes down to a basic concept: “People want to see themselves and they want to see 360-degree versions of themselves,” he said. “And so you have to do accurate portrayals of communities, and they aren’t always pretty. But you balance them with the aspirational, the inspirational and escapism content.”

“So, we have a responsibility to make sure that we have writers and directors and cinematographers from all of these amazing communities to present fair and balanced portrayals.”

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