It’s summer movie season now — though it doesn’t feel like it — and with some parts of the US tentatively reopening, theaters are also reopening in some places, while drive-ins are having a moment. But with most traditional movie theaters nationwide still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many people exercising caution in returning to public spaces, plenty of us are starting the summer movie season at home.
Film releases have not slowed down just because theatergoing has. Each weekend, on streaming services and through “virtual theatrical” releases, new and newly available movies arrive to delight cinephiles of all stripes.
This weekend, seven new and newly available movies bring the world to you — including movies you can watch for free. There’s a mind-bending fictionalized take on a famous author, and a story of teenage girls that goes sideways. There’s a documentary about young people who are infiltrating the country’s way of dealing with unauthorized immigrants. Films about the criminal justice system, South Carolina’s Gullah community, and the heritage of Jamaica are newly available to watch at no cost. And there’s a freewheeling doc about friendship, performance, and freestyle rap. (Most of the films that were newly released in recent weeks are also still available to watch.)
Here are seven of the best movies, from a range of genres, that premiered this week and are available to watch at home — for a few bucks on digital services, through virtual theatrical engagements, or to subscribers on streaming platforms.
Khalik Allah’s documentary Black Mother is an astonishing film. I’m not sure whether to call it a lyrical ethnography or an immersive personal essay. All I know is it casts a spell from the start and is impossible to forget afterward. Allah grew up traveling to visit family in Jamaica, some of whom appear in the film — most prominently his grandfather, whose voice is heard in some of the narration and who appears in the film’s imagery. There’s no “story” to Black Mother; instead, it’s a meditation on birth and death, life and gestation. The film is structured like a pregnancy, with “chapters” for each trimester and for birth, and it’s almost wholly non-diegetic, meaning the sound and the images of Jamaica’s people and landscapes are layered on top of one another, rather than synced up. The effect is dreamlike, even as Black Mother simultaneously presents a critique of Jamaica’s colonialist history and a vision of its beauty.
How to watch it: Black Mother is newly streaming for free on the Criterion Channel; you don’t need to have a subscription to watch it. Criterion has also removed the subscriber wall for a variety of other films from black filmmakers available to non-subscribers, including Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta, Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, and more.
Daughters of the Dust
In 1991, Daughters of the Dust became the first feature film directed by an African American woman to open theatrically in the United States. Written and directed by Julie Dash and set in 1902, it tells the story of three generations of women from the Gullah community on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island who are preparing to migrate north. They fight to preserve the cultural heritage of their forebears — former West African slaves who practiced the traditions of their Yoruba ancestors. The film gained widespread acclaim as a lyrical work that combined rich language, lush visuals, and song to tell its story, in which various women’s experiences as mothers, daughters, lovers, and survivors intertwine. It’s a classic depiction of black femininity and a fierce love letter to the Gullah community as well.
How to watch it: Daughters of the Dust is newly streaming for free on the Criterion Channel; you don’t need to have a subscription to watch it. (It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.) Criterion has also removed the subscriber wall for a variety of other films from black filmmakers available to non-subscribers, including Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta, Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, and more.
The Infiltrators is a true story, and its stakes couldn’t be higher. After a man named Claudio Rojas is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Florida and sent to a detention facility in Broward County, his family contacts a group of activist DREAMers called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA). The group decides that Marco Saavedra, a volunteer, will self-deport, so as to be sent to the same detention facility and find a way to keep Claudio from being deported. By using documentary footage and interviews with the story’s real-life subjects, as well as restaged scenes filmed with actors, The Infiltrators reveals how the facility imprisons unauthorized immigrants, sometimes for years, without a trial. It’s suspenseful, enlightening, and infuriating.
The American practice of capital punishment is inextricably linked to much of what’s wrong with our justice system: its focus on punitive rather than restorative measures; its indisputable bias against the poor, mentally ill, and marginalized; its captivity to racial bias. That’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set viewers’ sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change.
Based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling 2014 memoir of the same name, Just Mercy tells the story of Stevenson’s early career as an attorney working to reverse wrongful convictions in Alabama and details the founding of his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Just Mercy isn’t just about the death penalty; it’s also about how old attitudes toward low-income people and toward black Americans, in particular, have played out in the American justice system. Shifting how we think about capital punishment will shift the way we think about what the justice system is supposed to do.
How to watch it: For the month of June, Just Mercy is available as a free digital rental on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. (You can also purchase a digital copy of the film from these platforms.)
Stylistically, director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) is a perfect match for Shirley, a period psychodrama about a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young) who moves with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to Bennington, Vermont, after he picks up a teaching post there while finishing his dissertation. His supervisor is professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife is the sardonic and brilliant author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss); her short story “The Lottery” has just been published in the New Yorker, and she’s starting work on the novel that will become 1951’s Hangsaman. Shirley is a thoroughly engrossing, sometimes disorienting tale that plays out like a mystery, the kind where you’re never quite sure where reality ends and delusion (or maybe the truth) begins.
How to watch it: Shirley is streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and on-demand providers. If you’d like to support a local theater, you can also watch it through a “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the Neon website for more details. (You will receive a link after buying a virtual ticket.)
We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Andrew Fried started filming the performers of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv hip-hop group, in the summer of 2005. Nobody knew then that members of the group — like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Anthony Veneziale, and Christopher Jackson — would become part of shaping the future of American theater with shows like In the Heights and Hamilton, or that their show would itself end up on Broadway. We Are Freestyle Love Supreme recounts the group’s early days with footage of performances and interviews with the group’s members, and shows how friendship can sometimes turn into world-changing collaboration. It’s a light movie, best for Hamilton and In the Heights fans or those who enjoyed the stage show and want to figure out how it came about, or even just for aspiring freestylers. But while the film itself may not be groundbreaking, its subjects certainly are.
How to watch it: We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is streaming on Hulu.
Zombi Child runs along two timelines. One follows the happenings in 1960s Haiti after a man is buried — and then seems not to be dead at all. The other, set in the present day, follows a teenage Haitian girl named Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), who begins attending an elite boarding school in Paris and becomes close friends with a set of girls. “Zombi Child is the kind of lithe and lucid dream that gets its tendrils round your brain stem, so that when all hell finally breaks loose, you can’t jolt yourself awake from its grip,” Robbie Collin writes in the Telegraph.
How to watch it: Zombi Child is streaming on the Criterion Channel.