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  • Sarah E. Mason

Criterion Lifts Paywall Streams Selection of Films about Black Lives for Free

Criterion, the premier boutique cinema company preserving, restoring and curating collections of important classic and contemporary films, announced on Thursday, June 4, 2020 that it would offer a selection of films by and about Black voices for free.

Criterion Statement:

This has been a powerfully emotional time. The disproportionate toll that COVID-19 has taken on communities of color; the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade; and the casually lethal racism of the Central Park dog walker who called the cops on bird-watcher Christian Cooper have once again thrown into sharp focus the inescapable reality of systemic racism in our society and the many kinds of violence it inflicts on black Americans every day.

Black Lives Matter. The anguish and fury unleashed all across the country are rooted in centuries of dehumanization and death. This pattern must stop. We support the protesters who have taken to the streets to demand justice, and we share their hopes. We are committed to fighting systemic racism.

We’ve met as a company and a community to talk openly about the work we need to do to build a better, more equitable, more diverse Criterion, beginning with education and training for our ownership and our staff. We are also committed to examining the role we play in the idea of canon formation, whose voices get elevated, and who gets to decide what stories get told.

Today we are establishing an employee-guided fund with a $25,000 initial contribution and an ongoing $5,000 monthly commitment to support organizations fighting racism in America, including bail funds, community organizations, legal defense funds, and advocacy groups that address police reform. If you follow us on Twitter or Instagram, we’ll keep you informed of the organizations we’re supporting.

We are also using our streaming platform, the Criterion Channel, to highlight films that focus on Black Lives, including works by early pioneers of African American Cinema such as Oscar Micheaux; classics by Maya Angelou, Julie Dash, William Greaves, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, and Charles Burnett; contemporary work by Khalik Allah and Leilah Weinraub; and documentary portraits of black experience by white filmmakers Les Blank and Shirley Clarke. We’ve taken down the paywall on as many of these titles as we can, so even if you aren’t a subscriber you can watch them for free.

We are grateful for your continued support and hope that you will join us in speaking out and making a meaningful commitment to battling systemic racism in our country.

On the company’s streaming service, a collection of films highlighting Black Lives are available to stream for free, without a subscription.

In addition Criterion has established an “employee-guided fund” with an initial contribution of $25,000 and an additional $5,000 monthly to support organizations “fighting racism in America.” These include bail and legal defense funds, community organizations, and advocacy groups.

These films include titles from all across film history. Below is the list of movies:

Body and Soul – A 1925 silent film from a true pioneer of African American cinema, Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux was the first Black filmmaker to produce a feature film and became one of the most prolific and important directors of the era. This movie, starring the legendary Paul Robeson, follows a malevolent and sinister minister who corrupts the community.

The Watermelon Woman – Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film about a young, Black lesbian filmmaker (Dunye) who probes the life of a 1930s actress who played “mammy” stereotypes.

My Brother’s Wedding – Charles Burnett’s 1983 indie about a struggling man who has to be the best man at his lawyer-brother’s wedding to a well-to-do woman.

Black Mother – The 2018 documentary about Jamaica and its people, from filmmaker Khalik Allah. 

Portrait of Jason – The 1967 documentary about Black gay prostitute Jason Holliday.

Suzanne, Suzanne – The 1982 documentary short about Suzanne Browning, a substance abuse teenager, and the downward spiral of her family.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One – William Greaves’ fascinating 1968 pseudo-documentary about the making of a student film and the behind-the-scenes drama of making that film.

Black Panthers – A 1968 documentary short from the legendary Agnes Varda.

Shakedown – Leilah Weinraub’s 2018 documentary chronicling explicit performances in an underground lesbian club in Los Angeles.

Down in the Delta – The 1998 family drama directed by Maya Angelou in her feature directorial debut. The film stars Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Wesley Snipes and the hreat Esther Rolle in her final film appearance before her death.

Cane River – Horace Jenkins’ 1982 drama about the romance between two people from very different class backgrounds.

Losing Ground – Kathleen Collins’ 1982 comedy-drama about a college professor and her painter husband spending a summer out of the city, straining their already rocky relationship.

Daughters of the Dust – 1991 drama from writer-director Julie Dash about the Gullah culture in the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina.

Criterion said they have endeavored to take the paywall down for as many of these titles as possible. They have also provide a list of ways for you to take action after watching some films exploring the Black experience.