The closer we get to the Academy Awards, film critics like myself tend to find ourselves doubling back over the previous year’s releases to see if we skipped any gems in our week-to-week grind. The two most glaring omissions for me were Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic “The Woman King” and Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic “Till.”

“The Woman King” had a lot going against its box office hopes. First, it predominantly stars Black women. It’s ostensibly an action film, a genre those same women are woefully underrepresented in. To top it all off, it’s directed by a filmmaker most known for romantic dramas like “Love and Basketball.” But Prince-Bythewood spent years developing a Black Cat movie for Sony’s fledgling Spider-Man villain universe before directing “The Old Guard” for Netflix, so she was up to this difficult task. 

The film takes place in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the early 1800s, following Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of an all-woman army called the Agojie. Nanisca is in the unfortunate position of trying to convince King Ghezo (John Boyega) to leave the slave trade and find alternative methods to keep the kingdom’s coffers full. Dahomey is on the brink of war with their larger rival, the Oyo Empire, so they must recruit more warriors. That’s where the audience’s heroine Nawi (breakout actress Thuso Mbedu), comes in. Through her training and indoctrination, we see that the Agojie are a near-utopian oasis of feminist strength nestled at the forefront of a society built on the subjugation of others. 

Say what you will about period pieces or the flattening of historical fact, but if you populate a movie with talented actresses like Davis, Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch, and have those amazing women murder slavers in exciting and thrilling ways, you’re going to have a winner on your hands. But if “The Woman King” is a film that had to, by necessity, cast historical complexity to the wayside to achieve its populist escapism, “Till” was fighting that battle in reverse. 

“Till” centers around a performance from Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother. This film’s tragic core and harsh subject matter were not suited to the post-COVID marketplace. Moviegoers want to be wowed, soothed, frightened, or amused. They do not want to devote hours of their strained lives to exploring generational trauma and Black pain. Even those still open to such storytelling would generally prefer to do so later, at home, on-demand, where they can take copious breaks or look at humorous TikToks in between the pathos. But it’s a credit to Chukwu’s considerable gifts as a filmmaker that the film is anything other than a torturous slog.

“Till” opens with Mamie (Deadwyler) driving her son Emmett (Jalyn Hall). The camera drifts back and forth between the two, observing the sheer mirth Emmett’s excitable presence brings and tethering it to the shining light in his mother’s eyes. But as they reach their destination, a shop in downtown Chicago, that light slowly drains from her. She shifts into every Black mother’s omnipresent worry for her child in this country. After some “light” racism from a shop guard, she ponders the raw, uncut hatred awaiting Emmett down South for the Mississippi trip he’s bound for. We, the audience, already know the violence in store for him, but from this point and through the rest of the film, she already knows herself.

Deadwyler’s performance is astonishing. Her screen presence helps the film walk a tightrope between facing the cruel reality of injustice head-on and celebrating the beauty of life and its most resonant relationships. The film itself begins to feel a bit too long past the emotional climax when Mamie demands an open-casket funeral for the unrecognizable remains of her dead son. However, it finds some fire still in its wretched and infuriating depiction of the trial of the boy’s murderers. Chukwu tells a broad story about how Black folks have had to set aside their grief to focus on the greater good of affecting change for our people.

Deadwyler, at multiple points in the film, delivers the impactful dramaturgy we’re so used to seeing excerpted during the Oscars telecast. Still, no such examples will be shown on ABC this year. She and “Woman King” star Davis campaigned dutifully  throughout awards season. They went to all the parties. They schmoozed with all the right people. But both were shut out from the nominations.

Ignoring that those detractors also seem to ignore Ana de Armas and her surprise nomination for “Blonde”, voters likely ignored these films for similar reasons I took so long to seek them out. White voters do not care about Black stories, so no amount of social lubrication will make them sit down to watch these films. 

I care very deeply about Black stories, but I have grown so tired of how many in the mainstream do little more than regurgitate Black pain or recycle bland white narratives with the same four trendy Black performers swapped in. Over the years, I have had to review many movies that are centrally and proudly about Black pain, and with every passing year, I find less reason to be enthusiastic about such content.  

I incorrectly pegged “The Woman King” and “Till” as more of the same, but both films surprised me in different ways. They ultimately make for a fascinating double feature as two tales about Black women and the indestructible bonds they can form with their progeny. If more Black films hit the big screen every year, pushing boundaries and making lasting impressions as these two did, we wouldn’t keep talking about snubs every year or the establishment’s canonizing approval.

We’d be too busy enjoying our embarrassment of cinematic riches to care.

“The Woman King” is currently streaming on Netflix. It and “Till” are available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, et al.