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, eight 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, Martin Luther King, Jr., South Carolina’s Gullah community, and the heritage of Jamaica are newly available to watch at no cost. (Most of the films that were newly released in recent weeks are also still available to watch.)
Here are eight of the best movies, from a range of genres, that premiered this week or are newly available to watch at home — for free or a few bucks on digital services, through virtual theatrical engagements, or to subscribers on streaming platforms.
America to Me
From Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, comes this 10-part documentary series about the challenges of achieving true racial integration in one of Chicago’s most progressive public schools, located in the city’s suburban Oak Park neighborhood. America to Me introduces us to a number of students and teachers as they begin the school year. All of them are charismatic and fascinating, and James is careful to reveal his hand early, exploring why he chose these particular subjects and noting the resistance his project faced from some members of the school’s administration. But the characters themselves are compulsively watchable, and as an expertly constructed docuseries, America to Me feels like a high school drama, except one where the stakes are real.
How to watch it: America to Me is streaming for free on Starz.
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.)
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, which follows King at the height of his influence, beginning with his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win and ending with his famous march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery the following year. Directed by Ava DuVernay, it’s a stirring illumination of the difficulties that King and his associates faced in gaining the support even of those who publicly praised their work, as well as of arguments about tactics and goals within the movement. The film also dramatizes the personal pressures King faced from political leaders at the state and federal levels, and the myriad ways those pressures threatened his fight. Selma is inspiring, yes, but it’s also rousing and confrontational. King’s words are often trotted out in support of various people’s agendas, particularly in times of racial strife. But his life demonstrates a steely, radical determination and an unwillingness to bend to anyone who might stand in the way of justice.
How to watch it: For the month of June, Selma 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.)
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.