This is an amazing interpretation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. One of the things I love about it is how it depicts a Black woman so beautifully and shows her being adored. I’m Caribbean American, and I just love the the way the film reminds me of Caribbean culture, particularly celebrating the spirit and energy of Carnival. It’s a story that’s so complicated and rich, and it’s told in such an imaginative way. Seeing this was very inspiring for me as a filmmaker.
The Harder They Come
I remember seeing it in college and being so moved by it. I love the way the film celebrates music, and it has such an amazing soundtrack. The song “You Can Get It If You Really Want” captures the major themes of the film. Jimmy Cliff’s performance is just incredible. He’s such a compelling force.
It was really powerful to see this film at an early age, because even when I was in film school, there were so few movies that represented the worldviews of people who look like me. It was wonderful to see a Black story like this not only watched, but also studied and celebrated. It just reminds you that there are so many different kinds of great stories to be told, and that there isn’t one package that universal stories have to fit into.
Body and Soul
This movie came out early in the history of the medium, but it had so much to say. There’s such bravery in its artistry and in its message. It’s a film that’s critical of the Black church, and that’s something that’s been sustained in subsequent eras of Black art. It’s fascinating to see the kernels of that critique during a time when our voice and point of view were so greatly stifled.
Oscar Micheaux is a figure I wish I had learned about when I was in film school. I went to NYU, which is a place that really celebrates independent filmmaking—and for me, Micheaux is the best example of what it means to get your stories out into the world by any means necessary. He really did it. He shared his stories regardless of whether they would be recognized by Hollywood. And he has such a huge body of work.
I celebrate what Micheaux had to say and the boldness with which he said it. So much of his work was controversial at the time, and he didn’t always depict the best in us. He showed life in his community with a sense of honesty. Using his art as a mirror, he wanted us to be able to look at ourselves and address things rather than just sweep them under the rug.
Do the Right Thing
I think it’s wonderful to segue from Oscar Micheaux to Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee is a filmmaker I admire, and he’s one of my mentors. He was also one of the first people who made me aware of Micheaux. Micheaux certainly paved the way for Spike, and both of them paved the way for me.
Spike is someone who is making sure cinema is an art form that is diverse—not only in its makers but in its messages. Do the Right Thing is such an entertaining movie, but it’s also heart-wrenching and very painful. It provokes anger in you. The cast is also incredible, and the characters all create such an authentic sense of a neighborhood.
I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time as a kid, before I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker. As I got older and started directing plays in high school, I thought of this movie, and it helped me envision the way I saw myself in the world. I love how Spike is able to paint the world so fully in just his writing and his characters. As I’ve grown and discovered filmmaking for myself and written and directed my own films, I’ve pulled from the same place where that feeling started.
The Battle of Algiers
Seeing The Battle of Algiers for the first time was a turning point for me. I watched this in film school, and it was one of the first movies that made me think, oh, this is what I want to do as a filmmaker. The ways the film showcases a marginalized and underprivileged group of people really fighting for themselves and uplifting and empowering themselves is so powerful.
This is what I try to do with the characters in my own films, like Inez in A Thousand and One. I often get frustrated, especially as a Black filmmaker, when I see movies in which we can’t overcome what is thrown at our community unless some kind of savior comes to our aid. A film like The Battle of Algiers says what I always want to say: we are empowered and can stand up and fight for ourselves and create our own futures and paths and destinies.
I’m fascinated by politics and history, and I’m compelled and moved by the ways in which this movie is politically charged and captures the big picture of how the world works. The stunning visuals and craftsmanship, the sense of realism and the naturalism of the performances by a lot of nonprofessional actors—those aspects of the film have influenced me.
Vittorio De Sica
Bicycle Thieves is one of the greatest movies ever made. What I admire about it is the simplicity of the story. I would love to make something like this—something that is deceptively small but, through its narrative design, conveys so much about the human condition. It’s a very elegant and poignant film about hope and family and how the smallest things can make a difference in your life. It’s also a movie about our dreams of the future and the things we need in life that will make us feel like we can achieve them. Through discovering European cinema, and Italian neorealism specifically, I came to see movies as an art form in a new way. This film opened up the world for me.
The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor is the opposite of Bicycle Thieves. It’s a huge epic about a man’s life—and what a remarkable life to experience on-screen. I love how this film is a historical piece but also a portrait of one person. It was such an emotional thing for me to see this protagonist, a real historical figure who was born into one of the most powerful roles in any society, end up a pauper barely noticed by those around him on the street. By the end of the movie, I felt the magnitude of his fall from grace and what it said about the way culture was shifting in China at the time. There was something about that story and its reversal of the usual rags-to-riches tale that was so powerful.
Z is a stunner. I fall in love with it again every time I revisit it. It’s a movie that’s so raw and grounded in realism, and yet you can see the craftsmanship in it. It’s such an excellent political thriller, and the writing is genius. The way it explores political corruption is stunning, and it’s a tragic look at social injustice.
I saw this around the same time I saw The Battle of Algiers, during the last semester of film school. It was in seeing these films that I realized what I have to do as a filmmaker, beyond simply using the art form as a way to express myself. Z gave me a clear sense of how I wanted to make movies not just for me but for the world. I’m not a big believer in remakes, but if I were to ever consider doing one, it would definitely be an adaptation of this film. I aspire to use film to help the average person understand politics and corruption and the way they run our lives.
Paris Is Burning
I love the music in this film. I love the editing and the cinematography. I love the film as a piece of education and the way it shows us people who have been cast out of society. The film documents how these outcasts were able to translate what it means to be rejected by their families and their communities and turn pain into something beautiful. I also love how it depicts New York. It reminds me of a time when the city was more accessible. On the surface it looked rough and tough, and it felt chaotic and like it was in trouble—and all those things were true—but the irony is that no matter what you came to the city for, it was a place where you could exist. And you feel the beauty of that in this film.
Paris Is Burning also shows the birth of a culture that, decades later, has become a part of the mainstream. Here you see how it first started in Black and brown communities. It’s a stunning window into these people’s lives.
Even though this film is fictional, it feels like a documentary. In its first ten or fifteen minutes, it just hits you—the shock of experiencing this movie is like no other.
Cinema has a powerful way of mobilizing people to actually do something about the state of the world, and I’m so grateful for films like Pixote, which are examples of what it means to be honest and fearless in your art. This is a very intense movie, but there’s no denying that it’s a story that needed to be told.
Kevin Macdonald’s Top 10
Kevin Macdonald is the grandson of the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger. Macdonald’s directorial credits include 2000's Academy Award–winning One Day in September, about the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and 2003's Touching…
D. A. Pennebaker’s Top 10
Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room) and Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com), creative partners and husband and wife, offer these favorites.