Year-End Goodness: The Best 2016 Movies, Music, Hashtags and More

By Sameer Rao Dec 21, 2016

While much of this year hurt—police killings, fallen icons, massacres, and…well, you know the rest—a boomlet of exceptional music, film, television and media by creators of color escaped the usual margins of pop culture and landed dead center in the cultural conversation. 

The five journalists who make up our editorial team experienced these works not just as reporters and critics, but as fans. We offer you our favorites across nine categories—movies, songs, music videos, albums, hashtags, TV series, YouTube videos, creators and podcasts. Check them out and please share your own in the comments.


The Movie: "Moonlight"

Truth be told, I didn’t like "Moonlight." That word is better suited to the sly foolishness of "Keanu" and the intellectual triumphs of "Queen of Katwe" and "Hidden Figures." And yet Barry Jenkins’ long-awaited third feature film is my favorite of 2016 because it has the gumption to tell the story of Chiron, a very skinny, very dark-skinned, poor, gay boy growing up in the late 1980s in Miami, without flinching or falling back on melodrama.  

Much has already been written about the Golden Globe-nominated supporting performance (and fineness) of Mahershala Ali. What robbed me of my breath though were the haunting portrayals of Chiron by three excellent actors, Alex Hibbert, 12, Ashton Sanders, 20, and Trevante Rhodes, 26. Also awesome are Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland, the actors who play Chiron’s only friend, Kevin, from youth to adulthood.

"Moonlight" is the first move I’ve ever seen that shows the internal life of a quiet, Black, gay boy without lapsing into Lifetime original movie territory or preachiness. Be sure to see it for yourself. —Akiba Solomon, editorial director

More of Akiba’s 2016 Favorites: 


The TV Show: "Atlanta"

Donald Glover is not new to this. He’s been releasing emo rap as Childish Gambino since ’08. He was the only Black writer on "30 Rock." He was Troy Barnes on "Community"—hell, his acting and writing resumé extends back a decade. 

But I’ve never felt personally connected to his work. While his music has always been good, the lyrics did nothing for me and the seeming fetishization of Asian women on his first studio album, "Camp," was off-putting. Loud and broad, "30 Rock" was never my kind of comedy, no matter how many episodes I tried to watch. And while Glover was pitch perfect on "Community," his former high school football star left rudderless at a community college was rarely the focus of the action in the ensemble comedy.Then "Atlanta" happened. I had zero expectations for the show until I read that it had an all-Black writer’s room, and that, as Glover said at a press event last summer, "The thesis with the show was kind of to show people how it felt to be Black." So I decided to watch.

Y’all: I almost cried at how intentionally, unapologetically, hilariously Black it was from the start. As the episodes dropped each week, I fell more deeply in love with the FX series. I’ve never seen television that went so hard for people who look like me. It wasn’t a parody of Black life. Or Blackness distorted through the prism of Whiteness, created by executives who have a Black friend and therefore must be experts on our lived experiences. Or preoccupied with explaining our culture to outsiders, or even relating it to universal themes that are sure to cross boundaries and therefore unite us all in this, our great post-racial America. It was clearly made for us, trusting viewers with situations both serious and absurd that always felt rooted in the unique experience that is growing up Black in the United States.

"Atlanta" is the epitome of "for us, by us," with a 33-year-old, perhaps unlikely leader at the helm. With some folks, I know what to expect. I wasn’t surprised that watching Issa Rae‘s "Insecure" felt like sitting on GroupMe with my girls. I wasn’t shocked that Solange made the Blackest Album on Earth; it was a given that my young daughter and I would use it to soothe our shocked souls in the hours following the general election. And of course Ava DuVernay crafted Black-centered television with a cinematic scope—she never disappoints.

But I am surprised that I have watched certain episodes of "Atlanta" five times ("I wear a thick brown leather belt" and "But the price is on the can though," have become shorthand in my friend circle). Surprised that the episode all about "Van," the show’s leading woman ("Value") would so poignantly explore the struggle of being a mostly-single mama trying to hold on for her family and her sanity. Surprised at how the show shifts so seamlessly in tone and structure without ever feeling contrived or gimmicky. Glover is my creator of the year because of his unexpected willingness to stand in our Blackness week after week—and how damn good he is at it. Kenrya Rankin, news editor

More of Kenrya’s 2016 Favorites: 



The Hashtag: #NoDAPL

This hashtag is emblematic of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the 1,172-mile-long crude oil pipeline set to run across four states from North Dakota to Illinois. The tag appeared on my radar around September, a couple months after I became familiar with the issue. The movement was alive and well even before then, but there wasn’t a hashtag with the visibility needed to amplify what was going on. 

Slowly, then suddenly and all at once, the hashtag erupted. Every day, I could search #NoDAPL—on Twitter or Facebook—and find out what was going on. Were people safe? Did a victory, even a small one, occur? Who arrived to the camp today? More than anything, however, this hashtag symbolized an act of defiance, an act of strength and camaraderie among movements. And it was a place I could go to see all who stood with the water protectors. It was a place to connect with folks around the globe who wanted to see the water protectors succeed. So as journalist, it helped me figure out the day’s 411, but as a human and fellow product of colonization, it helped me realize how beautiful—and ugly—a struggle can be. #NoDAPL highlighted that water is life. And in the time of Flints and environmental apathy, that’s powerful. Mni wiconi. —Yessenia Funes, climate justice reporter

More of Yessenia’s 2016 Favorites:


The Music Video: "Soy Yo," Bomba Estéreo

Bomba Estéreo’s "Soy Yo" video was easily the viral music video of the year—especially if you consider the Colombian group’s relative lack of U.S. fame before it spread like wildfire across social media here. With close to 10 million views on YouTube, the video brought together the group’s catchy electro-cumbia sound with a feminist empowerment narrative that made pretty much everyone, including me, smile.

Much credit for the hit goes to 11-year-old Sarai Isaura Gonzalez, who plays the starring role of proud chubby Brown girl flawlessly as the video takes her through the streets of New York City. As she interacts with the neighborhood mean girls or crashes an all-men pickup basketball game, she is the living embodiment of the chorus of the song, which translates to: "And don’t worry if they don’t approve you/when they criticize you/just say, this is me/This is me/This is me." When the video was released, I was already a fan of the song, which is from Bomba Estéreo’s 2015 album, "Amanecer," but I wasn’t mad when the video’s success brought the anthem to the frequently played rotation on my local Washington, D.C. Latino radio station. —Miriam Zoila Pérez, gender columnist

More of Pérez’s 2016 Favorites:



The Podcast: "Politically Re-Active with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu

I woke up many days this year with an omnipresent tension, knowing full well that opening my phone’s social media apps or turning my computer on would yield some new mind-boggling idiocy, violence or both. The whole inescapable shitcycle that brought Donald Trump the American presidency made me sick, from the primaries through the conventions and well into the present. Punctuated by horrific police killings of people of color and trials in which almost every involved officer got no or inadequate punishment, 2016 threatened to destroy what little faith I had in political institutions. I would’ve lost it all had it not been for two of the best anti-racist comedians, W. Kamau Bell* and Hari Kondabolu, putting their craft and own mental well-being on the line for the brilliant "Politically Re-Active" podcast.

Originally intended to focus on the election, the weekly podcast eventually spread its tentacles to the peripheral issues that ultimately served as proxy to the political climate. Guests as varied as Amy Goodman, Van Jones, S.E. Cupps and Dave Zirin partook in conversations that brought levity and clarity to the social justice issues at the heart of both comedians’ political concerns. In retrospect, "Politically Re-Active" helped listeners chronicle the media distortion that allowed Donald Trump to traffic in open racism without ever calling himself a racist—and to chronicle it in real time. Comedians like Bell and Kondabolu explore humor by subverting cultural norms, but before and after an abnormal election, their podcast helped folks invested in justice establish some modicum of equilibrium. With no clear sign about the podcast’s return, "Politically Re-Active" should be archived as a testament to ideological and emotional survival in threatening times. —Sameer Rao, culture reporter 

More of Sameer’s 2016 Favorites:

*W. Kamau Bell is a former board member of Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.