A quote regarding Black mythology from Michael B. Jordan’s recent Vanity Fair interview has sparked conversation on Twitter.
“We don’t have any mythology, black mythology, or folklore,” Jordan told the publication. “Creating our own mythology is very important because it helps dream. You help people dream.”
While some speculated over what Jordan may have meant in the full context of the interview, others admitted that they didn’t believe they had ever been taught any Black mythology or folklore themselves. Though it isn’t as prevalent in the media as it should be, Black mythology and folklore have existed since the beginning of time, permeating our everyday lives as well as our artwork–whether we know it or not.
Jordan is right that mythology inspires people to dream, but thankfully, Black people have always been able to do so thanks to our rich history of mythology and folktales. Here are eleven films that showcase our deep-rooted African and African-American mythology.
1. Daughters of the Dust
Julie Dash’s 1991 classic film Daughters of the Dust draws on Gullah folklore and history to tell the story of three generations of Gullah women off the coast of St. Simon’s Island in Georgia beginning in 1902. The dreamy non-linear storytelling weaves in the true history of the slave uprising and mass suicide at Georgia’s Ibo Landing, with the Christian and African religious traditions and rites that have sustained the surviving people on the island for generations, even as they contemplate leaving their home.
2. Kirikou and the Sorceress
Michel Ocelot wrote and directed the French animated film Kirikou and the Sorceress, based on the folk tales of West Africa. In the film, Kirkou is an extraordinary boy who joins his uncle, his village’s last warrior, to fight an evil sorceress who has eaten the tribe’s males and removed the water from the tribe’s spring. The film was a critical success, garnering a 96 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan also praised the film’s score by Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour and wrote that the film’s “surprising honesty about the banality of evil makes the movie–even with all its magic–feel truly authentic.” The film was so successful that it garnered two sequels, 2005’s Kirikou and the Wild Beasts and 2012’s Kirikou and the Men and Women.
3. Beyoncé: Lemonade
Beyoncé’s stunning 2016 visual album brings the Yoruba Orishas to the forefront to illustrate the divine power of the feminine, both to destroy and to heal. Beyoncé routinely channels Oshun, the goddess of love, sensuality and femininity, and Yemoja, the goddess of water, the mother of the pantheon of Orishas and the patron saint of pregnant women.Through these goddesses, Beyoncé is empowered to traverse the waves of wrath and depression and end at a place of peace and healing.
4. Kwaku Ananse
Kwaku Ananse, a 2012 short film by Ghanaian director Akosua Adoma Owusu, combines the myth of the West African trickster god Ananse with a story about a young girl who comes to terms with her estranged father’s double life in America. According to Screen Anarchy, Owusu used the fable to convey Ananse’s message about life and humanity: “that there are two sides to everything and everyone.”
In the early moments of 1977’s Roots, Kunta Kinte’s father holds him up as a baby to the starry night sky to declare Kunta as an independent person who is greater than everything except for the universe itself. This scene evokes many of the folkloric traditions Kunta grew up with before being enslaved in America. However, the importance of a name, which links Kunta to his ancestral home of The Gambia, remains within Kunta’s psyche throughout his life. This leads him to pass on the tradition to his daughter, Kizzy, as well as many other tales and traditions from his birth country. Roots was a landmark film regarding finally portraying the plight of Africans in American history, but it also allowed for viewers to see that regardless of what might have been taught in history books, many Black people who were enslaved like Kunta did their best to keep old traditions alive through generations.
6. Oya: Rise of the Suporisha
British director Nosa Igbinedion brings the Yoruba Orishas to the superhero genre in the 2014 short film Oya: Rise of the Suporisha. The film, which we covered during its release, places the Orishas, mythological deities, in modern-day Britain as superheroes and Ade, one of the few people left who can still connect with the Orishas. The god Ade speaks to is Oya, who guards the door between the world of the Orishas and the world of humanity. If that door is opened, then the Orishas will punish man for forgetting them. Ade has to find the key to the door before the world as we know it feels the wrath of the Orishas. The film also inspired a miniseries, Yemoja: Rise of the Orisha, which we covered on Shadow and Act in 2017.
7. Eve’s Bayou
Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 film Eve’s Bayou brings Southern Gothic storytelling, Voodoo and Black Christian folklore to the forefront in this classic film about a young girl and her rich Creole family become embroiled in spiritual drama. A young Jurnee Smollett-Bell stars as Eve Baptiste, and Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson and Meagan Good play her family. When Eve, who has the gift of sight, finds out difficult truths about her family, she seeks the voodoo woman Elzora (Diahann Carroll) to put a death curse on the one causing her family’s drama.
8. I Ain’t Lying: Mississippi Folktales
African American folkloric tradition is explored in the 1975 documentary I Ain’t Lying: Mississippi Folktales. The Bill Ferris-directed documentary follows several storytellers and blues singers in the Mississippi communities of Rose Hill and Leland. The documentary shows the various ways in which folklore has manifested itself in African American culture, whether that’s through music, playing the dozens, religious stories and other forms of Black oral tradition.
9. John Henry (Disney’s American Legends)
Disney paid homage to one of the most enduring of African American folktale characters, John Henry, in the 2000 anthology film Disney’s American Legends. The “John Henry” segment of the film features the voice of Geoffrey Jones as John Henry, a “steel-driving man” who beat a steam-powered drilling machine only to die from an overworked heart. Alfre Woodard is also featured, voicing the narrator and the speaking voice of John Henry’s wife, Polly. Carrie Harrington portrayed Polly’s singing voice. Joh Henry also inspired the Marvel Comics character Steel.
10. Jumping the Broom
As the title suggests, the 2011 film from T.D. Jakes brought the concept of jumping the broom to the big screen. The film features an all-star cast including Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Laz Alonso, Loretta Devine and Mike Epps in a classic romantic comedy about two families from opposite sides of the tracks coming together for a wedding. But what makes the film stand out is its focus on the tradition of jumping the broom, one that enslaved Black people adopted in the 19th century to signify their marriage, since legal marriage was impossible. Once marriage for African Americans became legal in the U.S., jumping the broom fell out of favor. But thanks to Roots, the practice was revived in late 20th century Black wedding ceremonies.
11. Beasts of the Southern Wild
The 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild introduced Quvenzhané Wallis to the world and brought the mysterious energy of the Louisiana bayou back into the collective consciousness. By combining genuine issues of environmental changes and Black poverty with fantastical elements like the revival of the extinct aurochs, Beasts of the Southern Wild plays on the conceits of magical realism and the African American folkloric tradition of the South and creates something new.
For more breakdowns of Black folklore in film, check out Twitter user’s @kyalbr’s thread on the 1990 Danny Glover-starring film To Sleep with Danger and its usage of Black superstition.
What are your favorite films featuring Black folklore?