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Many mainstream films are shot in the Caribbean. They may even highlight fantastical depictions of pirates in the ocean (no shade), but rarely do we hear the buzz around films or documentaries created by Caribbeans and/or representing the islands’ people.
There is an abundance of storylines that call attention to the lifestyle of those living in Caribbean countries. Some portray a lighter narrative, while others are gritty, drama-filled and startling. Regardless, these films are compelling, must-watch stories that many Caribbean and non-Caribbean Americans can enjoy, and they will evoke all types of emotions.
From Yardie taking place in Jamaica to Mala Mala portraying the lives of the trans community in Puerto Rico, here’s our list of films, documentaries and more that were either created by Caribbean filmmakers or speak to those living within the Caribbean.
1. Sprinter, 2018
Up-and-coming actor Dale Elliott Jr. does an incredible job portraying a Jamaican teenager with two goals in mind: reuniting with his mother, who moved to the United States when he was a child, and running as fast as he can to obtain a track-and-field scholarship at a U.S. school. The inspirational and uplifting film is executive produced by Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith and features a few major stars like Orange Is The New Black’s Lorraine Toussaint, comedian David Alan Grier and Empire’s Bryshere Y. Gray.
2. Mala Mala, 2015
Mala Mala is an immediate eye-opener and provides a glimpse of what the transgender community experiences in Puerto Rico. Directed by Antonio Santini (of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent) and Dan Sickles, the documentary is transformatively told through nine trans-identifying individuals.
3. La Granja (The Farm), 2017
First-time director Angel Manuel Soto intertwines three intersecting stories that focus on pursuing happiness and portraying hardships and hopelessness in modern-day Puerto Rico.
4. Espejuelos oscuros, 2015
“With this film, I’m sending a message about… how women are consistently held back,” Cuban filmmaker Jessica Rodríguez told Miami New Times ahead of the film’s release. Espejuelos oscuros (Dark Glasses) tells the tales of fearless women throughout three periods of Cuban history, but it’s how the story is told that sets an unusual tone.
5. Yardie, 2018
Award-winning actor Idris Elba took a stab at directing for the first time and helped bring the debut novel of Jamaican-born British writer Victor Headley to life. The story of Yardie takes place in the 1970s and 1980s in Jamaica and London, with first-person narration from the main character D (Aml Ameen). The young man is seen struggling with the tragic death of his brother, eager to get revenge, while conflicted with trying to walk on a somewhat righteous path. The film takes you on a journey through D’s attempt to heal and find his own righteousness in the midst of chaos.
6. Nicky Jam: El Ganador, 2018
This American-born Puerto Rican and Dominican reggaeton artist has been in the game for nearly two decades, but it wasn’t until recently that he opened up about the highs and lows of his life. The Netflix series takes viewers through Nicky Jam’s tough childhood living in Massachusetts to Puerto Rico and the early stages of his career, detailing how he started and overcame his drug addiction. The biographical series also dives into how he fell out of touch with longtime friend and collaborator Daddy Yankee. A few episodes can have one so engaged, you’ll forget the artist overcame his struggles. Graphic and traumatic scenes will have you on the edge of your seat.
7. They Are We, 2014
This is a unique and sentimental story of a group of Cubans connecting their traditions and roots back to Africa with the help of director and ethnologist Emma Christopher. The audience learns about the Gangá-Longobá people, a small group of Afro-Cubans in Perico, Matanzas Province, who have preserved and passed on various songs and dances through generations. It’s an incredible reunion of descendants who recognize each other’s similarities through music and dance.
8. Guava Island, 2019
The musical drama tells the story of a young musician Deni (Donald Glover), who tries to liberate the island’s working class through a vibrant music festival. Despite threats and challenges from the government that refuses to give its workers a day off, Deni is eager to give the people of the island hope. The indie film takes place in Cuba, starring Rihanna and Black Panther’s Letitia Wright.
9. Hotel Coppelia, 2021
Dominican film director José María Cabral gives viewers a different perspective of the 1965 Dominican Civil War through the eyes of five women working in the brothel. The bravery of these women willing to do whatever necessary to hold their grounds and save their livelihoods during the fight for democracy is a particular form of art.
If you enjoyed this story, check out how a merging of identities and a thick Trini accent helped this writer embrace his Caribbean heritage.
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