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Streaming Highlights For Black History Month ~ At The Movies With Kasey

I must start by admitting that this selection is not close to exhaustive. Most streaming services have a collection of shows and movies celebrating Black Joy, Black History, Black comic book characters, and a full spectrum of creativity. These options are what caught my eye, new productions within the last year.

On Amazon, Surrounded uses a classic Western setup in an interesting historical context. The story opens five years after the Civil War on Mo Washington (Letitia Wright), a freedwoman and ex-Buffalo Soldier who is passing as a man. She finds herself stranded with a stagecoach robber, Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), waiting for the new sheriff to come retrieve him, and searching for a treasured family Bible.

I am not a fan of Westerns, so I cannot fairly judge how this film performs within that genre, but a striking tension permeates the story, not only because of the inherent stakes of the plot but also because of the emotional baggage Mo brings to the story. The risks she shoulders as a Black woman in her situation ratchets up the drama and the poignancy of her reactions. Letitia Wright gives an amazing performance, reserved and subtle until she can no longer take the disrespect. She skillfully captures how Mo is both strong and shrinking, hiding in plain sight. For his part, Jamie Bell continually makes it hard to tell how Mo should feel about

Tommy. Sometimes sympathetic; others slimy, he gives a capable and complicated performance.

Surrounded sometimes stays on the surface with Mo’s emotions and it would have made the character stronger to find a way, even with her quietness, to give her more of a voice and nuance. Otherwise, the interesting context and stunning visuals make Surrounded a compelling Western movie.

Surrounded was written by Justin Thomas and Andrew Pagana and directed by Anthony Mandler. It runs 100 minutes and is rated R.

Genius: MLK/X, the fourth season of the National Geographic show that previously covered Einstein, Picasso, and Aretha, weaves together the biographies of two Civil Rights giants, Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), contrasting their ideologies, life stories, and legacies.

I have long been fascinated by the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. There are plenty of books and other resources that take up their dynamic, but my curiosity drew me to this show. I am torn about its effect. On one hand, the lead performances are strong and the production quality is beautiful.

On the other, in taking up two whole biographies, this season maybe tries to do too much and moves a little too quickly and superficially through the subject matter. I am hopeful that the remaining four episodes dive deeper.

Genius: MLK/X was created by Kenneth Biller, Noah Pink, and Suzan-Lori Parks. It runs for 8 episodes, half of which aired as of this writing. It is streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

On Netflix, Rustin tells the story of another Civil Rights hero, Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo, in an Oscar-nominated performance), dealing with racism and dodging homophobia as he organizes the March on Washington. In many ways, Rustin is a familiar biopic. It has a moving, important story, but no tricks up its sleeve. The production is at its best when it uses music to move with rhythmic monologues and quick cuts to create a fun, buzzy portrait while also taking on serious topics around race, rights, and sexuality. While depicting the difficulties of Rustin’s relationships with MLK and the NAACP (whose leader is played by Chris Rock), the screenplay gives Rustin countless well-crafted rebuttals. When the screenplay’s tempo falters, it compensates with verbal excellence.

Colman Domingo’s performance is captivating, so full of energy and passion. His work in the role carries a film that sometimes drags along, in the trenches of personal conflicts. The story ends on a sweet moment of servant leadership that, in less capable hands, would have hit too corny a note. After Domingo’s depiction of Rustin, however, I was ready to watch other people admire him for a minute.

Rustin was written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black and directed by George C. Wolfe. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Nominated for an Oscar and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Short Film (Live Action), Netflix’s The After has a gut-punch of an opening so strong that I wanted to quit. But I stuck through the next 14 minutes to see the rest of David Oyelowo’s gripping performance as Dayo, a grieving man driving for a rideshare service in the aftermath of a tragedy. He picks up a passenger who reminds him of the life he should have and perhaps sparks a healing process. It will break your heart enough that you should ask if you are prepared to weep.

In its brevity, The After creates a whole range of human drama in under twenty minutes by providing quick snapshots of Dayo in his grief and the struggles of his passengers. Oyelowo runs through emotions like he’s doing scales. His performance is short but powerful, a real showcase of his talent.

The After was written by John Julius Schwabach and Misan Harriman, who directed. It runs 18 minutes and is rated TV-MA.

Kasey Butcher

Kasey Butcher

She is proud to be a Ft. Wayne native, a graduate of Homestead HS, Ball State University & Miami University. She became involved with journalism editor-in-chief for her high school magazine. She authors the "At The Movies with Kasey Butcher" review. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer