The 25 Defining Works of the Black Renaissance
rooting for everybody Black. So said Issa Rae on the red carpet at the 2017 Emmy Awards, capturing the electricity of a moment when Black referred to quite a large group of ascendant voices only those up for awards that night, and not only those in Hollywood, but artists across the cultural landscape. While there has never been a shortage of Black artists making great work, the past six or so years have seen these creators claiming the spotlight like never before.
In fact, the hardest part of compiling this list of 25 works that have defined the current Black Renaissance was coming to terms with what had to be left out: vital films, series, albums, books, poetry collections, plays and works of fashion. For guidance, TIME assembled some of the era most influential figures who have also become advocates, mentors and changemakers help curate the list. These luminaries across disciplines voted on hundreds of works to reach a compilation of original, ambitious art, from paintings that will live in perpetuity in the National Portrait Gallery to music that became the soundtrack to a movement; books about marriage and memory and TV series that are as weird as they are wise.
The works of this new canon are defined by their breadth and diversity movement of pop stars and public intellectuals, superheroes and screwups, horror and ecstasy, individuality and unity. Collectively, they are a trove of epochal masterpieces that have revolutionized their mediums and shaken the culture at large whose influence we have only just begun to see take hold.
Matthew A. Like all of Kara Walker art, the 35 foot tall sugar sphinx in Brooklyn historic Domino Sugar Factory just before it was demolished to build luxury condos painful stereotypes by exaggerating them. With startlingly prominent sexual characteristics and a kerchief tied around its head that evoked the offensive mammy archetype, the nude figure memorialized the enslaved Black people who once harvested sugarcane, daring audiences to witness generations worth of humiliation and abuse. The project stirred controversy for offering crowds of white gentrifiers the spectacle of a giant, naked, hypersexualized Black woman body to violate with crude jokes and lewd selfies. But Walker was steps ahead of her critics. Predicting that the installation would attract bad behavior, she surveilled visitors via social media and video. In doing so, she expanded a work that reckoned with America original sin to make a potent argument that our shameful past is still with us.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
In her devastating dissection of a marriage, Tayari Jones reinvents the contemporary American love story. Her 2018 novel follows newlyweds Roy and Celestial, a young couple who are just beginning to build their life together when everything falls apart. After he accused of a crime Celestial knows he didn commit, Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison. Five years later, his conviction is overturned and Roy ready to return to his life, but Celestial is already on to her next chapter. While Jones narrative is rooted in the tragedy of Roy wrongful imprisonment, it not centered on the American legal system. Jones, who studied race and criminal justice during a fellowship at Harvard, instead examines how her hermes mens bag replica
protagonists have to learn to navigate such turmoil. The result is a quiet and unnerving meditation on time as Jones reveals all that was lost in the years Roy and Celestial were forced to spend apart. The novel, a commercial and critical success that made President Barack Obama 2018 summer reading list, flips between the pair voices and includes letters they write to each other during and after Roy incarceration, revealing their innermost thoughts and worries. The breakdown of their relationship is illustrated in heartbreaking specificities.
There aren many TV shows that you can switch on every week and encounter something wholly unexpected. Donald Glover wildly imaginative, generally hilarious and often profound FX series Atlanta is the exception. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), the show exists at the intersection of surrealism and harsh reality. One standout episode is a mini horror flick drawn from the cautionary tales of Black pop stars like Michael Jackson, while another offers the thought experiment: what if Justin Bieber were Black? Another haunting half hour flashes back to a tragedy from the men childhoods, examining both the roles they played in each other lives and the outsize importance of status symbols within Black culture. Along with giving free reign to one of the most innovative creators of our time, the show has brought richly deserved attention to co stars Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz.
Between the World and Me, Ta Nehisi Coates
Journalist Ta Nehisi Coates explores the realities of being a Black person in America in a potent work of nonfiction that blends memoir, reportage and history. The book, written as a letter to his 15 year old son, was a 2015 National Book Award winner and 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and declared reading by Toni Morrison. In it, Coates attempts to make sense of a society where he feels he can never be free, mining his own past as well as that of the United States. Coates employs clear and urgent prose to ask challenging questions about what it means to inhabit a Black body in a country set on destroying it.
Although Ryan Coogler 2018 Black Panther is technically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it more apt to consider it a universe of its own. The late Chadwick Boseman stars as T the noble king of an isolationist nation called Wakanda, a land of great scientific, economic and artistic riches. T has another guise, too: that of superhero Black Panther, a graceful and dazzling protector of justice. This performance is astonishing, reverberating with grace, warmth and grandeur; it painful to think that we lost this superb actor for good. But it a consolation to know that Boseman spirit is forever embodied in Black Panther, and in the vision of Wakanda Coogler has so carefully crafted for us. This is a place but nevertheless symbolic built by Black people, representing an Arcadia of achievement and unity. The look of the film alone Ruth E. Carter dynamic Afro futuristic costumes and Hannah Beachler luminous production design it as a work of bold originality, a detailed landscape of an ideal republic come to life. Wakanda seems so real that it hard to reckon with the fact that it doesn actually exist. But even so, it gives us something solid: a dream to walk toward, one that feels more achievable with every step.
Read TIME Cover Story on Black Panther
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
In some ways, Claudia Rankine 2014 book Citizen was written directly in response to a specific moment in time, in which Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown had recently been killed by police or their neighbors. But in much larger ways, Citizen was written to the whole of the American past, in which anti Black racism has pervaded in all parts of society. Through prose poems, monologues and photographs, Rankine documents evidence of institutionalized racism across police forces, academic institutions and sports, as seen in the vilification and muzzling of Serena Williams in tennis. And through phrases both clipped and overflowing, she conveys the everyday weight of oppression and the psychological toll of aggressions both macro and micro constantly being perceived as other or lesser. Her enduring goal to dismantle white dominance feels more and more urgent with each passing year.
SZA almost didn release her debut studio album Ctrl. But it was that wounded, spellbinding honesty that made Ctrl a landmark record for a young and anxious generation. On Ctrl, SZA stripped away the sheen and bravado of modern R conventions, instead fusing hip hop, electronic and neosoul to tell stories of mental health struggles, sexual desire, misplaced aspirations and body insecurity. In her unflinching openness, she helped destigmatize conversations on those topics, and gave space particularly for young Black women to see themselves in ways that had been rarely reflected in mainstream culture. and Jamila Woods, while songs like Barrymore and Weekend remain generational anthems.
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele 2017 directorial debut is one of the sharpest and most original horror movies of a generation. It unsettling and funny in equal measure, even as it wrestles with thorny questions about race in America. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a charming, accomplished photographer, goes with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents for the first time. Mom and dad (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are your standard, well intentioned liberal white people, happy to welcome Chris into their home. But their avowed progressiveness has sinister underpinnings. Get Out is partly an allegory about the way white people have historically appropriated Black culture for their own profit, or at least for their own enjoyment. But more broadly, it an expression of the difficulties inherent in talking about racial divisions in America.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter is a 16 year old living in the predominantly Black fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights while attending an overwhelmingly white prep school. Her delicate existence moving between two very different worlds is completely undone when she witnesses a police officer fatally shoot her childhood best friend Khalil. In the aftermath of his death, protestors are out on the street, Khalil name is in the news and everyone seems to have an opinion on what really happened that night. Only Starr holds the real answer. Thirteen publishing houses bid for the book, which debuted to instant success. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for over 200 weeks, was longlisted for a 2017 National Book Award and was adapted into a 2018 film starring Amandla Stenberg as Starr. Beneath all the accolades is a narrative feat which speaks to readers of all ages. In detailing her young protagonist ascent as an activist, Thomas creates a powerful narrative about police brutality.
In his 2018 memoir Heavy, Kiese Laymon weighs the cost of loving honestly even when believing in longstanding lies holds a deeply familiar comfort. To examine this, Laymon turns an unflinching eye to the most loving but complex relationship in his life: the one he shares with his mother, a brilliant Black academic from whom Laymon learns every lesson, including heartache. In his relentless pursuit of the truth, Laymon excavates the many secrets they each kept from one other while living under the same roof and eating disorders, sexual abuse and theft, shame and lies. In facing these struggles head on, Laymon also considers the role that structural inequality and racial violence played in their generational trauma. The path to healing isn easy, but Laymon ultimately finds hope in the ability to give and receive love truthfully. While the MeToo movement flooded popular entertainment with relatively sensitive depictions of sexual assault, multitalented British auteur Michaela Coel, who created and starred in this semiautobiographical HBO series, had no interest in retreading old ground. In 12 episodes that repurposed the fearless sense of humor that fueled her TV debut, Chewing Gum, Coel brought the full force of her incandescent intelligence to bear on an interrogation of how to exist as a sexual being one who is also a Black, millennial woman artist at this moment in time. Where other onscreen treatments of sexual violence have reduced survivors to their victimhood and shied away from exposing character flaws or even a minor lapse in judgment for fear of any perception of victim blaming, I May Destroy You embraces its protagonist complex humanity. Subplots involving Arabella friends introduce an array of realistic scenarios in which the boundaries of consent are blurred and complicated. As Arabella examines the way she constructed a narrative around her own life, the series raises thorny questions about identity, creativity, social media and how childhood experiences shape adult relationships. This is intersectional Black feminist art at its most ambitious.
There is no such thing as a monolithic Black experience no one understands this better than Issa Rae. Her sensibility has found its greatest expression to date in HBO Insecure, which she created and stars in as Issa Dee, a self sabotaging Angeleno whose big dreams have given way to a stagnating career and relationship. Issa best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) has different problems: a successful lawyer, she unlucky in love and tokenized at work. Insecure is a show about Black female friendship, Black romance and building a life for oneself while Black. But on April 23, Beyonc absorbed all of the chaos and became the hurricane. Few who were watching the debut of her visual album Lemonade can forget seeing her emerge floating atop a flash flood, like a modern day Cavalli clad Venus, and proceed to smash the living daylights out of one car window after another. Thanks to that scene and others, many read Lemonade as a revenge project. But it was so much more: a clever blend of autobiography and myth; an hourlong audiovisual experiment that conjured sumptuous imagery out of both real American tragedy and the glorious Black imaginary; and a hero arc spanning infidelity, depression, bargaining and self actualization. To add richness and texture, Beyonc called on a phalanx of voices from across the decades and the diaspora, including the young British poet Warsan Shire, the Nigerian born artist Laolu Senbanjo and Malcolm X. And she placed Black women from the South like herself at the heart of the story, showing their perseverance in the face of marginalization. Lemonade ends with which she had performed at the Super Bowl. It drew the ire of many who didn want to be confronted with the idea of white supremacy while watching football. The performance and video served as a rejoinder to other pop stars who might have been wary of wielding their platforms for political purposes. After and Lemonade, it was no longer an option to just shut up and sing.
Barry Jenkins 2016 Moonlight is a potent coming of age movie and a tender love story, adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and anchored by the uniformly superb performances of its cast, including Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Mon and Mahershala Ali. The movie won three Oscars: one for Ali performance and one for Jenkins and McCraney adapted screenplay, as well as the award for Best Picture. But it notable for another reason: it is a celebration of the beauty of Black skin. As Jenkins told TIME, throughout cinema history, film emulsion has been largely calibrated for white skin. He wanted to do something different in Moonlight, which was partly influenced by his own experience growing up in Miami. In filmmaking, Jenkins has explained, always placed powder on skin to dull the light. But my memory of growing up in Miami is this moist, beautiful Black skin. So we used oil. I wanted everyone skin to have a sheen to reflect my memory. The result is a picture that both of its time and evocative of a shared history, a reflection of memory so vital that you feel you could reach out and touch it.