Why Are There So Few Movies by Black Directors in the Criterion Collection?

Criterion Collection header
The Criterion Collection needs to be better. 

The Criterion Collection, which comprises more than 1,000 films by more than 450 directors, has only 4 African-American directors with feature films in the collection overall. This is less than 1%. There are only 8 black directors represented in the collection at all. 

Come on. 

According to the New York Times, "Criterion began in the 1980s as a producer of high-end laser discs, and pioneered several special features for that format — letterboxing, director’s commentary tracks, deleted scenes — that would later become industry standards. Today, the company, which is privately held, oversees a sister streaming service with an independent catalog — the Criterion Channel — and employs a staff of around 50."

Criterion has been curating movies via disc releases and its streaming channel. 

“I think in a community of filmmakers, actors and people who are knowledgeable about cinema, that Criterion stamp means a lot,” said Prof. Todd Boyd, the chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California. “It’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It’s a stamp of cultural and filmmaking relevance.”

I proudly own several of their box sets and find them must-owns for cinephiles everywhere. 

But the lack of diversity in the catalog is troubling, especially since that's where many of us turn to learn about movies we have not seen and directors we've never heard of. 

Every year, 50-60 new titles are taken into the Criterion Collection, so it's worrisome to think that even during that mass influx, diversity has been ignored. Especially when you take into account that the New York Times reported there are more directors in the Criterion Collection with the last name Anderson than there are African-Americans.

Poster for Spike Lee's film 'Bamboozled'
'Bamboozled' is one of very few films directed by a black filmmaker that has been added to the Criterion Collection.

Yikes! The New York Times breaks it down:

4 African-American directors

  • Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger, 1990
  • William Greaves: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, 1968, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½, 2005 (released on the same disc)
  • Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing, 1989, and Bamboozled, 2000
  • Oscar Micheaux: Body and Soul, 1925

4 Black directors from outside the U.S.

  • Steve McQueen: Hunger, 2008 (Brittain)
  • Djibril Diop Mambéty: Touki Bouki, 1973 (Senegal)
  • Ousmane Sembène: Black Girl, 1966 (Senegal)
  • Euzhan Palcy, A Dry White Season, 1989 (Martinique)

(Palcy is also the only black female director in the Criterion Collection.)

What is Criterion Doing About it? 

“I think canons end up being defined as much by what they leave out as by what they let in,” Criterion president Peter Becker tells The New York Times. He continued, “There’s nothing I can say about it that will make it OK,” Becker said about the lack of Black directors in the Criterion Collection. “The fact that things are missing, and specifically that Black voices are missing, is harmful, and that’s clear. We have to fix that.”

Ava DuVernay told The Times, “There are all these gates that are closed to Black filmmakers. It’s a minimizing of the Black film canon. But also it’s a minimizing of the audience, to think that they wouldn’t be interested in Haile Gerima’s Sankofa or Ashes and Embers or would not want to see all the work of Julie Dash.”

These are reasonable requests. 

Becker had the chance to include Julie Dash's movie Daughters of the Dust into the collection, but he turned it down. In his words, “I didn’t understand what I was looking at,” he said, reflecting on the decision. “I didn’t understand it for what it was. And I wasn’t talking with people who were going to help me.”

This does not bode well...when you have someone as an arbiter of taste, not having diverse sensibilities will obviously stunt what we see and appreciate. 

Another knock, the Criterion Collection has no African-American directors born after 1957, with no word why they don't appreciate first features from people like Ryan Coogler and even Barry Jenkins. 

While there are rights issues with some of the titles, Becker knows that's no excuse. And he says he will do better. 

“We looked up, looked around, and went, ‘Oh my God, we have to actually really deal with the fact that, one edition at a time, we’ve knit together something that is almost all male and predominantly white,’” Becker said.

What are some movies you think should be added to the Criterion Collection? 

Let us know in the comments...      

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9 Comments

Jason, I realize you can't get away from these types of articles ...but seriously, nobody ...wait NOBODY gives a sh*t

August 25, 2020 at 2:14PM

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Not true. As a black filmmaker who consumes everything Criterion, I do. The president of the Collection admitted that certain voices are missing not because they lacked the merit to be included, but because he "didn't understand" them. That matters.

August 25, 2020 at 9:14PM, Edited August 25, 9:18PM

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The president of the Collection "admitted it" because its fashionable to do so, and they would crusify him if he didn't.

The truth is that certain voices are simply missing because there aren't as many black directors today, and they were even less back in the day of the classic movies the Collection is all about were shot.

Blacks come from poorer backgrounds, and are given less opportunities to become directors. That's a thing for the US society to fix, not something that's a problem in the Collection.

August 26, 2020 at 3:54PM

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It's both Jackie. You're first response is right on, but it's also the Collection's responsibility to seek out those few directors.

If the response was "We found the films by black directors and they were lacking," then honestly, I as a black producer would have a bit more faith in that response being honest.

I agree that response now is a little canned, and that black filmmakers are already starting at a severe disadvantage even compared to poorer filmmakers of other ethnic backgrounds, but there were certainly enough of the decades for more iconic films to make it into the collection.

August 27, 2020 at 7:40AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
591

I give a sh*t, but thanks for speaking on my behalf anyway Michael Silvey.

The film industry is woefully deficient in the representation department and that bleeds into things like the Criterion Collection's selections. Bringing awareness to these issues can lead to meaningful change.

August 27, 2020 at 11:59AM

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Sid King
Student
81

I think "Snowpiercer" by Bong Joon-Ho should be on The Criterion Collection, along with Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. I really should look at them more. Along with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, with a new documentary about the predictions the film made.

August 26, 2020 at 12:24AM, Edited August 26, 12:25AM

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Jesse J. Tripp
Screenwriter
130

Great article. Totally agree. Films shouldn’t be treated as intellectual art forms. They should serve the Marxist uniformity that “journalists” demand. We need more finger pointing and less individual art. Wish we could have more of these great political articles and quite wasting time discussing the craft of filmmaking.

August 26, 2020 at 9:51AM

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Again, the problem with your statement compared to the article is that BOTH are happening.

Black directors seek to make intellectual art and it's been ignored or passed over. It has merit, it meets the criteria, in some cases its better, but it's passed over or misunderstood.

If it wasn't, then we wouldn't have to turn a discussion of filmmaking (a medium which is, to your chagrin, political and intellectual by the very nature of being art) into a discussion of social issues and politics ........

Which again, is ignorant to think that art forms and other mediums of communication aren't.

August 27, 2020 at 7:44AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
591

It's amazing how triggered some get at the mere suggestion that more filmmakers of color should be, at the very least, considered; particularly considering that art is made from more than one perspective, and that perspective is often subjective. If that subjectivity is from the purview of one group then the result is a potentially homogenous idea of what is, and isn't, considered art.

August 27, 2020 at 9:41AM, Edited August 27, 9:42AM

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