In a year of Black Death, the movies showed us Black Life

Micheal Ward as Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as Martha in "Lovers Rock" from the "Small Axe" film series.
Micheal Ward as Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as Martha in "Lovers Rock" from the "Small Axe" film series.Parisa Taghizedeh/Amazon Prime Video

From a literal plague that took the lives of a disproportionate number of people of color, to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubury and, most recently, Casey Goodson, 2020 has threatened to become the Year of Black Death. When "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer in August, it felt like an especially cruel blow - one that shattered not just the life of a brilliant young artist, but the dreams of a community for whom he symbolized Blackness at its most historically regal and cosmically aspirational.

But while anguish and outrage mounted, something else was happening on our screens. When the theaters closed and American audiences encountered endless streaming choices, what they found were films that, in a variety of ways and through disparate forms, presented Black stories as quintessentially American and, ultimately, universal.

It's not hyperbole to say that the most important movie of the year wasn't a blockbuster or indie sleeper hit, but the 10-minute video that teenager Darnella Frazier made of Floyd's death, an improvised documentary that became a chilling chronicle of one man's desperation and another's impunity. The video ignited waves of protests and demonstrations across the country, offering hope that a multiracial coalition might finally reach critical mass around issues of anti-Black racism and criminal justice reform.

But it also presented a reminder of White Americans' troubling relationship to Black trauma, from its deeply private and distressing content to the fact that it's Frazier who has to bear such excruciating witness. Once, photographs of lynchings were widely shared for the incitement and entertainment of White consumers. They were the popular culture of their day, just as "The Birth of a Nation" trafficked in the denigration and violation of Black bodies that, along with outright erasure, served as one of the founding aesthetic building blocks of Western cinema.

Now, images of similarly grotesque acts go viral not on postcards or in ornate movie palaces, but on social media; not for titillation, their circulators insist, but as a call for solidarity and social change. Still, even when they're received in that spirit, it's possible to wonder why anyone needed to be shown such humiliation and viciousness to do something about a problem that's anything but new. As Angela Bassett says in "Between the World and Me," quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates in HBO's recent adaptation of his book: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body."

It felt as if we were being constantly reminded of that dismal and enduring truth throughout 2020. Which makes it all the more gratifying that amid so much agony and destruction, very different - and equally accurate - truths were emerging on our home screens.

From such carefully observed coming-of-age dramas as "Premature" and "Miss Juneteenth" to the wildly stylized high school thriller "Selah and the Spades" and the comedy "The Forty-Year-Old Version," we saw African American protagonists - most of them women - grapple with romance, self-worth, intergenerational conflict and their own emerging power. Interestingly, those themes also threaded through one of the year's biggest hits - "The Old Guard," in which KiKi Layne gave as good as she got playing a mythic immortal soldier opposite Charlize Theron. And the same could be said of "Small Axe," Steve McQueen's five-film anthology for Amazon in which he captures the dualities of pain and beauty, grief and healing, trauma and tenderness within the context of London's West Indian community in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

"Alex Wheatle," the fourth film in the series that arrives on Amazon Friday, chronicles the life of the young-adult author who endured savage treatment at the hands of early caretakers and the English police. As McQueen's admirers know, the filmmaker has never shied away from representing Black suffering, as evidenced in his Oscar-winning drama "12 Years a Slave" and in the "Small Axe" films, which often depict graphic, merciless violence.

McQueen's visual grammar often entails staging a violent sequence with blunt, brutal verisimilitude, then lingering on the aftermath in queasy silence. His cinematic language is so unflinching that some viewers have instinctively turned away, or accused him of exploitation.

Admittedly, McQueen's implacable gaze presents some provocative questions when it comes to spectatorship: for Black viewers, such forthright depictions might be too painful and personal to contemplate, or they may simply stray too far from traditional notions of beauty, pleasure and entertainment.

For White audiences, the calculation is far more freighted. Even those viewers who don't reflexively resist McQueen's most confrontational images may instead find themselves identifying with the Black character being harmed, rather than taking a moment to reflect on how they relate to the ones doing the harm. Or they might watch and dutifully shake their heads about how awful racism is, congratulate themselves for recognizing that fact and retreat into a self-protective bubble of perpetual concern - a form of empty sanctimony aptly called "Oh dear"-ism by the experimental documentary maker Adam Curtis.

What makes McQueen's work distinctive - what allows its to go beyond mere spectacle - is its intense subjectivity, a quality shared by a bracing number of films that emerged in 2020. The mundane details of life in small-town Texas that give Channing Godfrey Peoples's "Miss Juneteenth" its poetry are of a piece with the real-world backstory that director Gina Prince-Bythewood insisted on for Layne's supernatural heroine in "The Old Guard." And that bone-deep understanding is just as palpable across a range of styles and sensibilities, from experimental portraits like Merawi Gerima's "Residue" to straight-ahead theatrical adaptations like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and the upcoming "One Night in Miami."

These works have accrued into what feels like a collective invitation, not just to watch Black bodies as they fight and love, fail and persevere, conquer the space-time continuum and navigate everyday earthly existence - but to get inside those stories, making room for genuine empathy, comprehension and, just maybe, transformation.

That intimacy has been infiltrating Hollywood for the past decade, in work by McQueen and Prince-Bythewood, as well as Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees and Ryan Coogler. In the hands of such newcomers as Gerima, Peoples, Tayarisha Poe ("Selah and the Spades"), Radha Blank ("The Forty-Year-Old Version") and Zora Howard ("Premature"), it was all the more potent this year for having been beamed directly into our homes, where the distance of the towering 30-foot screen gave way to a less mediated, more human-scale encounter.

In our most private moments, the anger and shame conjured by viral images of dehumanization were overlaid with images that reflected resilience, self-sufficiency and raw, spontaneous joy. The resulting palimpsest reflects the contradictions and possibilities of American cinema in the 21st century. For most of its history, film has been one of the most lethal tools in normalizing and fetishizing Black Death. With a new generation of filmmakers seizing the means of production, it's might finally becoming a tool for restoring Black Life.