Tubi Is Streaming Thrilling Films by New Black Directors for Free

Over the past few years, Tubi has quietly amassed a thriving collection of Black-led independent movies. This might come as news to anyone caught in an endless scroll of Netflix offerings, but not to Tubi’s loyal and growing following. These are movies that get right to the heart of the matter, like their titles: “Watch Your Back,” “Murder City” and “Twisted House Sitter.” In a way, they’re the latest successors to basic cable thrillers, straight-to-video, Lifetime movies, and low-budget B-cinema. But they have a loose energy and generous sense of drama all their own.

“Cinnamon” is the first Tubi premiere under the banner Black Noir Cinema, an initiative led by Village Roadshow Pictures. It’s a nifty standard-bearer: a gas station attendant and aspiring singer, Jodi (Hailey Kilgore), and a pickpocket, Eddie (David Iacono), team up for an inside job. The robbery becomes a self-own when someone from a local crime family — led by Pam Grier — gets killed in the process. They lean hard on the gas station owner, Wally (Damon Wayans), and then zero in on Jodi and Eddie.

The typical tangled tale of the get-rich-quick scheme is enhanced by some snappy setups and the bond between Jodi and Eddie, who has charm to burn. The film belongs to a general universe of indie crime capers, but the director, Bryian Keith Montgomery Jr., doesn’t take the air out of the story with a knowing approach. Yet there’s still room for the eccentricity of Wayans’s outmatched huckster, Wally, and Grier’s Mama, a taciturn kingpin who gives the go-ahead to kill with a flip of her shades.

Grier’s presence evokes a whole vibrant history of Black crime dramas, and the logo for Black Noir Cinema — featuring a gun-toting, Afro-sporting, flared-sleeve 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 bust a crime ring and avenge her boyfriend’s death. “Cinnamon” pays tribute to the grind — the years just ticking away for Jodi at the gas station and Eddie in his dead-end hustles — but this isn’t the same struggle through an underworld associated with Grier’s 1970s work. In a Variety interview about Black Noir Cinema, one of the film’s producers 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 iffy schemes, and that certainly could 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 jail after a couple of years, he’s trapped into working for a ruthless mob boss, Ash (Stephanie Sigman), but still thinks he can wangle his way to a windfall and win back his wife’s trust. There’s a harder edge to his predicament than in much of “Cinnamon” — Ash especially is one cool customer — and a daisy-chain of double-crosses leaves viewers guessing at Neil’s chances till the final shootouts.

“Murder City” also leans into a little heartstring-pulling with Neil’s efforts to resettle in 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 noir lighting when Neil visits his father (Antonio Fargas, a “Foxy Brown” alum) in jail, and dropping the odd tough-guy one-liner exchange (“Go to hell!” “I probably will”).

The “Black Noir Cinema” label shows that Tubi is doubling down on Black creators and viewers (who helped the streamer surpass the Max service in a recent measure of viewership share). But viewed against the rest of the lineup, “Murder City” suggests an aspiration to more polished and conventional versions of the shoestring 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 go-for-broke plotting 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-survive melodrama: Harlem (Monroe) luxuriates in the doting treatment of her adoring husband — a recurring theme in Tubi’s assorted soon-to-be-doomed marriages — only to see him shot to death in front of her. She manages to heal and dates a new man — only to find herself the object of his physical and psychological abuse.

Monroe’s soft-spoken manner and resilience make her a sympathetic center amid all the story’s ups and downs, which include being judged by others for staying too long with her abusive boyfriend. “If I Can’t” has a rolling momentum shared by many Tubi movies, cruising in and out of moments of passion, high drama and casual banter with a don’t-look-back ease that can make more cautiously plotted films feel a bit arid. You will not see “If I Can’t” opening the New York Film Festival, but this year’s actual opener, “May December,” relies on boundary-breaking melodrama and the truths that lie within.

There’s also no denying the ingenuity and efficiency of another independent Tubi offering, “Locked In,” from the Cleveland-based director David C. Snyder. (Tubi feels like a haven for non-Hollywood directors, with Detroit another hotbed for creation.) This 77-minute wonder starts with a puzzle — four women wake up confined in a blue-lit basement, strangers to one another — and unspools with the relaxed fun of a terrific bar story.

Cutaways and flashbacks link a bank heist and a man named Locke, but a lot of the fun rests on the interplay and suspicions among the foursome (Myonnah Amonie, Brittany Mayti, Buddy Vonn and the reliable scene-stealer Joi Roston). Amnesia runs rampant as they ponder what might have happened: “I have a boyfriend, but … I don’t think he crazy.” The film is unpredictable but necessarily more tightly constructed than “If I Can’t,” which contains all the betrayals, sudden deaths and pure what-now moments often found on Tubi.

Far from everything on Tubi has the same flair, 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 right now. Especially when measured against the perils of one-size-fits-all studio content, the pleasures and the essential authenticity of the Tubi showcase can’t be ignored.

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