2020's must-see projects by Black artists
From Utopia Falls to Lovecraft Country, Amanda Parris shares her picks
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
I think it's fair to say that this new decade hasn't been off to the best start: threats of world war, catastrophic Australian bushfires, the devastation of the Iran plane crash, Prince Harry and Meghan "stepping back" from the Royal Family. OK, that last headline is more juicy than tragic — but put it all together, and the new decade feels like an inevitable continuation of the doom and gloom that defined the late 2010s. But I have something that may make the future look a little brighter.
I've curated a list of some of the most exciting projects created by Black artists that will be arriving in 2020. There are visual art exhibitions, plays, a new novel, an installation, a couple of films and new series. There's a lot coming down the pipeline, and even though my list's not comprehensive, it is a sneak peek into some of the work being created by Black Canadian and international artists.
Some additional good news: this roundup is the first chapter of my new professional project, Black Light. Black Light is a weekly column that will spotlight, champion and challenge art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
Why is this column important? Because from Mathieu da Costa to Aubrey Drake Graham, Black folks have long been translating, transforming and transgressing the Canadian landscape. Black Light will shine a focused and consistent light on those that do so through their art and examine them in conversation with the work being created by Black artists around the world.
The work created by Black artists often goes undocumented. It's a consistent and systemic problem in Canada — one that's created a cultural amnesia that renders Black art and Black artists invisible. Black Light is a small attempt to rectify this issue.
So without further ado, here is your sneak peek at the kind of creative projects Black Light will engage.
It's not every day that we get a sci-fi drama series about young people in the future discovering hip hop and using it as a tool for freedom, but in 2020 that's exactly the kind of out-the-box programming coming to CBC Gem. Utopia Falls is the brainchild of R.T. Thorne, the award-winning filmmaker behind a ton of your favourite music videos (and episodes of Degrassi). With Boi-1da serving as executive music producer and choreography by the iconic Tanisha Scott, this is an Avengers-level assembly of Canadian talent, and I for one am super excited to see their collective vision manifest. It begins streaming on CBC Gem Friday, Feb. 14.
The Negroes Are Congregating
First of all: amazing title. Second of all: if you're in Toronto in March, you should make time to see this play. Written by Natasha Adiyana Morris and celebrating its world premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille in March, The Negroes Are Congregating is a poetic yet scathing deep dive into racism in Canada and around the world. I had a chance to see a workshop production and I'm telling you, this play asks certain questions that will stick with you long after the curtains close.
Yaa Gyasi's debut novel Homegoing took the literary world by storm. Transcendent Kingdom is the follow-up to that bestseller, and it tells the tale of a Ghanaian family living in Alabama as they cope with depression, addiction and grief. The protagonist, Gifty, is studying neuroscience at Stanford University, trying to understand the source of her family's troubles. But when science can't provide the answers, she turns to faith. I'm excited to snuggle under my covers and read this one.
Flags of Unsung Countries
The Art Gallery of Southern Manitoba recently made a commitment to prioritizing the work of Black Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) women artists in the Prairies, and they have an exciting lineup on the way. It begins with an exhibit by the brilliant Liz Ikiriko, a Saskatchewan artist now living in Toronto. Flags of Unsung Countries originated at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina but will make its Manitoba debut January 16.
Initiated as an attempt to understand the journey of her father — a Nigerian immigrant living with mental illness in the Prairies — this photographic installation explores questions of migration, ceremony and the concept of home. Ikiriko's work as an artist and curator is constantly inviting viewers to question the relationships and systems that we so often take for granted and this exhibit promises to do much of the same.
In 2015, the internet was introduced to one of the greatest Twitter storytellers to ever grace the platform: Aziah "Zola" Wells. In a string of 148 tweets, she told the epic tale of a road trip to Florida that includes sugar daddies and pimps, stripping and prostitution, murder and a suicide attempt. Super serious topics, I know, but as told by Wells, it was an edge-of-your-seat social-media thriller that boasted famous fans like Ava DuVernay, Solange Knowles and Missy Elliott. The film version is coming to Sundance later this month. Directed by Janicza Bravo (who's also directed some of your fave episodes of Atlanta and Dear White People) and written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (the man who shook up Broadway with 2018's Slave Play), this movie promises to be a hell of a ride.
Produced by Jordan Peele, you say? That name is all it takes to spark my interest, but this new television series also has a number of other factors in its favour. It stars Jonathan Majors (one of my new favourite actors) alongside Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aunjanue Ellis and Michael K. Williams, and is a drama-horror that takes place in the 1950s Jim Crow American South (definitely a period ripe with material for horror). Misha Green is the showrunner, and if you ever watched Underground (which was tragically cancelled after just two brilliant seasons) you'll know why this is a very, very good thing. It comes to HBO later this year.
Viola Desmond's story deserves all the treatments: novel, major motion picture, rap songs, poems and, of course, the stage. Andrea Scott's play Controlled Damage has its world premiere at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax this February. What better way to celebrate Black History Month than by reliving a Canadian Civil Rights hero's courageous act of bravery?
Love is the Message the Message is Death
Condensing 400 years of history into a seven-minute looped video scored by Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam" sounds like an impossible task. But under the purposeful eye of Arthur Jafa, one finds a collage of images that showcases the nuance, pain, joy, sexuality, spirituality, mess, love and grief of Black life in the United States of America.
Hearing Kanye sing, "This is a God dream, this is a God dream, this is everything," while watching Jafa's meticulously edited array of images is an experience you don't want to miss. The installation is on now at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal to March 3.
Untitled Fred Hampton Project (formerly known as Jesus Was My Homeboy)
If you don't know the story of Fred Hampton — the young, charismatic Black Panther activist who was identified as a threat by the FBI and assassinated in his home by the police — please do some research before this film drops. His story is one that is both inspiring and tragic, enraging and mobilizing. It needs to be told and seen on the big screen.
Directed by Shaka King (a member of the dream team behind Random Acts of Flyness), produced by Ryan Coogler (oh, you know, just the genius who gave us Black Panther, Creed and Fruitvale Station, no big deal) and starring LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, I am counting down the days until this film arrives. (It's scheduled for August, but since it still doesn't have a name...who knows!)
Seriously, Disney: can we get an animated movie with Black characters who get to stay human beings for the entirety of the film?
As skeptical as I am, I'm going to give this new one a chance, only because it boasts a cast filled with so many of my faves, including Jamie Foxx, Questlove and Phylicia Rashad. The start of the trailer also hints at some great jazzy numbers and a storyline about following one's artistic passion (I'm always a sucker for narratives like that). It comes to theatres in June.
- An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Boi-1da ccomposed the score for Utopia Falls. The composer is Nikhil Seetharam.Jan 13, 2020 11:55 AM ET