As more and more black directors enter the Hollywood system, we are seeing revisions to the industry's traditional portrayal of the villain.
Under white directors, villains have tended to be evil in the metaphysical sense, and if a person became a villain because of a life-changing experience, that event was almost never complicated. Something very bad happened (the unforeseen murder of a father or grandmother or uncle or wife), and that was it; he/she was transformed into a villain. In this way, the comic book villain was always morally inferior to us regular people. It usually takes much, much more than one thing, one event, for a normal human to totally commit to world-destructive evil.
For the most part, this has been the order in noir/crime thrillers and superhero films directed by white men: the villain, like the hero, tends to be morally simple. But in films directed by blacks, we see a radical break with this order. In this body of work (which is, admittedly, small), villains are not even bad people.
Take a look at 1996's Set It Off next to 2018's Black Panther. Both happen to be screening in Seattle in the same week. Both were directed by black men. What links the director of the former, F. Gary Gray, to the latter, Ryan Coogler, is not just color but the fact that both are Hollywood-grade directors. Meaning, unlike Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, and Kasi Lemmons—but like Carl Franklin, Antoine Fuqua, and Ava DuVernay—they, if need be, can make a film on any theme that the studio system believes is profitable. We can imagine Coogler directing a Captain America or James Bond film without missing a beat.
As for F. Gary Gray, he successfully directed a standard Hollywood thriller in 1998, The Negotiator. There was nothing in this film that said: made by a black man. The characters played by the film's stars, Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, could easily appear, with no adjustments, in a film directed by a white man. (The same goes for Gary Gray's remake of The Italian Job.) This is not the case with his 1996 film, Set If Off. Because the leading characters are black women, and the setting is a black neighborhood in LA, it demanded a re-envisioning of the genre, the heist film.
The view of crime from a purely black perspective can never be the same as one from a purely white, middle-class American one. I will go as far as to say that this has less to do with race than with class. Why? You only have to turn back to the Victorian era in Britain to find the answer. What did the middle-classes of that period call the poor? Not the working class or the proletariat. They called them the criminal class. It was clear to them that if the poor were not producing cheap products for mass consumption, they were producing crimes. This fact (crime as a means of survival), which was obvious to Victorians as the rise and the fall of the sun, has been obscured in the US by its racial history. Even to this day, we have the brightest right-wing stars (for example, Ben Shapiro) describing black poverty in precisely these Victorian terms: the criminal class.
In Set It Off, four black women are squeezed into crime by forces that are not at all fantastic or metaphysical. One loses a job and her only way out of the ghetto; another loses her child to the state because she cannot afford childcare while she works for low wages; another is battling to keep her brother off the streets and on the path to college; another wants to buy the freedom to express her love for a woman (the last is convincingly played by Queen Latifah).
These are not bad people. They are everyday women in the hood. Their transformation from law-abiding citizens to villains is not simple, but accumulative. The numerous steps leading to their crime spree are clear and understandable. Indeed, the best and most touching scene in the movie happens right after they rob a bank for the first time and are splitting the loot. One of them (Tisean—the woman who has lost her child to social services) is told by another (Frankie—the woman who recently lost her good job over bullshit) that she doesn't deserve a cut because she got cold feet before the heist and split. But pressure from the other two women makes Frankie submit and agree to give Tisean her undeserved cut. At the end of the day, she is one of them. She needs the money badly. She is a loving mother. This is ghetto love. If that scene does not make you feel all warm inside, you are monster.
We see a similar complexity in the villain of superhero film Black Panther, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). He does appear to have, like the usual bad guys, one event that triggered his conversion to evil. But he is not really that evil. In fact, he wants to liberate all black people around the world by making the advanced but secret technology of the East African country Wakanda available to all oppressed blacks around the world.
From a black person's perspective, how is this wrong or malicious? It sounds perfectly reasonable. But if you watch the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, what you will see is an evil that almost no one—no matter what color—can sympathize with.
What do the bad guys in Set It Off and Black Panther reveal? That black directors, like the Victorian criminal class, can't see villainy outside of its social context. With them, it's more than a matter of comic book complexity, but also a human tragedy. The death of the three women in Gary Gray's heist thriller is horrible. They had a lot of good in them. Similarly, the death of Killmonger is terribly sad. After all, he only wanted to improve the lot of black people. There are no mixed feelings when it comes to death of the Joker.