Over the past few years, Tubi has quietly amassed a thriving collection of Black-led independent films. This might come as news to anyone caught up in an endless scroll of Netflix offerings, but not to Tubi’s loyal and growing following. These are movies that get to the heart of the matter, like their titles: “Watch Your Back,” “Murder City” and “Twisted House Sitter.” In a sense, they are the latest descendants of basic cable thrillers, direct-to-video, Lifetime movies and low-budget B-cinema. But they have a loose energy and a generous sense of drama all their own.
“Cinnamon” is the first Tubi premiere under the Black Noir Cinema banner, an initiative led by Village Roadshow Pictures. It’s a kind bannerman: gas station attendant and aspiring singer, Jodi (Hailey Kilgore), and pickpocket, Eddie (David Iacono), team up for an inside job. The robbery becomes self-inflicted when someone from a local crime family – led by Pam Grier – is killed in the process. They lean heavily on the gas station owner, Wally (Damon Wayans), and then zero in on Jodi and Eddie.
The typical convoluted story of the get-rich-quick scheme is enhanced by some sharp set-ups and the bond between Jodi and Eddie, which has a charm to burn. The film belongs to a general universe of independent crime scapegoats, but the director, Bryan Keith Montgomery Jr., does not take the air out of the story with a knowing approach. There is still room for the eccentricity of Wayans’ unsurpassed peddler, Wally, and Grier’s Mama, a silent leader who gives permission to kill with a toss of her sunglasses.
Grier’s presence evokes an entire animated history of Black crime dramas, and the logo for Black Noir Cinema — featuring a gun-toting, Afro-sporting, flared-sleeved heroine in silhouette — even seems a callback to the 1974 “Foxy Brown,” in which she starred as a vigilante posing as a call girl to break up a crime ring and avenge her boyfriend’s death. “Cinnamon” pays homage to the grind — the years just ticking away for Jodi at the gas station and Eddie in his dead ends — but this isn’t the same struggle through an underworld associated with Grier’s 1970s work. In Variety interview on Black Noir Cinemaone of the producers of the film looked beyond the echoes: The initiative is about creating “Black folk heroes”, not recreating the blaxploitation genre.
The “Noir” in the program title suggests the doomed men in classic Hollywood thrillers who bet everything on extremely obscure schemes, and that could certainly apply to “Murder City.” Mike Colter plays Neil, a cop kicked off the force and jailed for helping his debt-ridden father with a drug deal. Released from prison after two years, he is caught working for a ruthless mob boss, Ash (Stephanie Sigman), but still thinks he can swing his way to good fortune and win back his wife’s trust. There’s a harder edge to his predicament than in much of “Cinnamon” — Ash in particular is one great customer — and a daisy of double crosses leaves viewers guessing about Neil’s chances until the final shootouts.
“Murder City” also leans into a bit of heartstring-tugging with Neil’s efforts to settle back into his own home, where Ash has become a dubious benefactor to his wife and son. But the director, Michael D. Olmos, more often keeps up a simmering menace, deploying some dark light when Neil visits his father (Antonio Fargas, a “Foxy Brown” alum) in prison, and dropping the odd tough one-liner. exchange (“Go to hell!” “I probably will”).
The “Black Noir Cinema” tag shows that Tubi is doubling down on Black creators and viewers (which helped the streamer surpass the Max service in a recent measure of audience share). But viewed against the rest of the lineup, “Murder City” suggests an aspiration for more polished and conventional versions of the stringy productions that already flourish on Tubi. “Cinnamon” may have premiered at the Tribeca Festival, but titles like “If I Can’t” have launched a thousand TikToks, marveling at their never-ending plot and, sometimes, their no-budget fight scenes.
“If I Can’t,” directed by and starring Tubi regular Mena Monroe, was recently listed as the most popular title on the streamer, probably for many of the same reasons that others might dismiss it as an over-the-top feature-length soap opera. But it also feels like an unfiltered update to a long tradition of I-will-live melodrama: Harlem (Monroe) luxuriates in the loving treatment of her adoring husband—a recurring theme in Tubi’s various soon-to-be-doomed marriages—only to see him gunned down in front of her.She manages to recover and date with a new man – only to find herself the object of his physical and psychological abuse.
Monroe’s gentle manner and resilience make her a sympathetic center in the middle of all the storylines, which include being judged by others for staying too long with her abusive boyfriend. “If I Can’t” has a rollicking momentum shared by many Tubi films, cruising in and out of moments of passion, high drama and casual banter with a don’t-look-back ease that can make more carefully plotted films feel cheesy. a bit dry You won’t see “If I Can’t” open the New York Film Festival, but this year’s actual opener, “May December,” hinges on boundary-breaking melodrama and the truths that lie within.
There’s also no denying the ingenuity and efficiency of another standalone Tubi offering, “Locked up,” from the Cleveland-based director David C. Snyder. (Tubi feels like a haven for non-Hollywood directors, with Detroit another time for creation.) This 77-minute wonder begins with a puzzle — four women wake up locked in a blue-lit basement, strangers to each other — and unwinds with the laid-back fun. of a terrible pub story.
Cuts and flashbacks connect a bank robbery and a man named Locke, but much of the fun rests on the interaction and suspicions between the foursome (Myonnah Amonie, Brittany Mayti, Buddy Vonn and the reliable scene-stealer Joi Roston). Amnesia is rampant as they ponder what might have happened: “I have a boyfriend, but… I don’t think he’s crazy.” The film is unpredictable but definitely more tightly constructed than “If I can’t”, which contains all the betrayals, sudden deaths and pure present moments often found on Tubi.
Far from everything on Tubi has the same talent, watchability or even professional polish, as the TikTok hashtag #tubimoviesbelike attests. But as a home for independent Black filmmakers and viewers, it occupies a unique place now. Especially when measured against the perils of one-size-fits-all studio content, the pleasures and essential authenticity of the Tubi showcase cannot be ignored.