As the continued protests over police brutality against black Americans place a renewed focus on the importance of elevating the voices of black writers, artists, thinkers and creators, boutique cinema streaming service the Criterion Channel is making it free to view a raft of films from black creators and centring black lives.
What makes a piece of art worthy of being enshrined in the canon has as much (or more) to do with who is defining what is canon-worthy than anything inherent to the work itself. For decades, the Criterion Collection has been considered the gold standard in cinema labels by film buffs. Criterion has long championed “important classic and contemporary cinema from around the world” through its home media releases and, since 2019, the Criterion Channel streaming service.
In a tweet shared yesterday, the company voiced its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and announced that the recent protests have motivated intra-company discussions of how they can “build a better, more equitable, and more diverse Criterion,” a process that will begin with reconsidering the role they play in determining what films are considered “Criterion-worthy” in the first place: “…whose voices get elevated, and who gets to decide whose stories get told.”
Black Lives Matter. pic.twitter.com/aRwDVjuI0O
— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) June 4, 2020
As a show of solidarity, Criterion has announced an ongoing $US5,000 ($7,206)/month donation to organisations fighting racism in America, and right now on the Criterion Channel—a subscription service that typically runs $16/month—has removed the paywall from 15 films from black creators:
We are 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.
As of this writing, the films—which are highlighted in a carousel on the Criterion Channel homepage—are still behind the paywall, but the streamer has indicated that once they are available for viewing, all of the supplementary material that surrounds them, including interviews, essays and behind-the-scenes features that place them in a historical context, will be available to view for free as well.
If this sounds like the sort of company you want to give your money to, this isn’t a bad month to do it: Throughout June, the Criterion Channel’s programming will also be highlighting queer films and creators in support of Pride. Particularly if you’ve tired of scrolling endlessly through the chaff of lazy blockbusters and a hodgepodge of movies you’ve never heard of before on Netflix, the Criterion Channel is fantastic. The simple fact that someone with a point-of-view is curating the catalogue makes a huge difference; knowing that they are doing so with an eye toward inclusion and social justice (alongside simple entertainment) makes it all the better.
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources.