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30 Best Movies About Black History
March 6th, 2011
Movies have the amazing ability to transport us to a different place and time. A great film removes us from our current reality and asks us to become a part of the characters' world. We travel centuries and span continents all from the comfort of our own home. We are asked not only to enter a character's world, but also to share that character's joy and fear, challenges and strength. While a great movie allows us to escape into its world, it also forces us to reflect upon our own world and condition when we return. It is this self reflection that has the potential to create an impact and illicit action. The following films are both entertaining and thought provoking explorations of the black experience throughout history. Each one forces us to reflect upon our own position within these sometimes not so fictional worlds.
- Roots (1977): Alex Haley chronicles the story of his own family across many generations. Beginning with Kunta Kinte, an 18th century African who is captured and sold into slavery in the United States and tracing Kinte's life and the lives of his descendants in the U.S. until he comes to Haley himself. This film gives a thorough look into the history of one African-American bloodline.
- Glory (1989): Considered one of the best civil war movies ever made, Glory is the true story of how Colonel Robert Shaw leads the first all-black volunteer company in the United States Civil War. Shaw and his company not only battle the enemy, but also struggle to fight the racism and prejudices within their own Union army.
Amistad (1997): Based on the true story of a slave mutiny that took place aboard a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the United States in 1839 and the legal battle that followed. This film examines the fundamental definition of personhood and freedom.
Malcolm X (1992): Based on the book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley, Malcolm X tells the story of the provocative leader's journey to civil right activism through religious conversion.
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961): Based on the screenplay by Lorraine Hansberry (who was the first black female playwright to make it on Broadway), this film examines the struggles a young black father and husband encounters when trying to support his family during a time plagued by racism and segregation.
- The Rosa Parks Story (2002): This film tells the iconic story of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to obey a Montgomery, Alabama segregation law prompts the first major Civil Rights demonstration in the country.
- The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974): Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, this television movie was one of the first films to explore African American characters with true depth and sympathy. The film follows Jane Pittman as she recounts memories of being a young slave in the American South at the end of the Civil War to her views on the current civil rights movement when she is 110 years old.
- The Color Purple (1985): Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple explores the challenges an African American woman growing up in the early 1900's in the rural south faces. This film delves into issues concerning poverty, racism and sexism.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Based on the award winning novel by Harper Lee, this movie follows the lives of a young white family in Alabama as Atticus Finch, the father, represents a wrongly accused black man in court. The story explores justice, innocence, race relations, and ethics as Atticus' children are forced to see the horrendous prejudice within the small town they call home.
- With All Deliberate Speed (2004): This documentary examines the landmark Supreme Court Case decision in Brown v. Board of Education with interviews from people directly involved in the case.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005): Based on Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, this movie follows Janie Crawford, an independent black woman, through her several marriages as she gains a sense of self worth and identity.
- Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999): This movie explores the life of the pioneering performing artist, Dorothy Dandridge. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge follows the young star through her early days, performing with her sister, to her Best Actress Oscar nomination, and finally to her premature fall to prescription drugs.
- In The Heat of The Night (1967): This 1967 film tells the story of an African American homicide detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi that is plagued by overwhelming racism and prejudice. In The Heat of The Night won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and best Actor.
- 4 Little Girls (1997): An historical documentary directed by Spike Lee detailing the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young African American girls attending Sunday School. The tragic event is recalled by the girls' families and friends, while others comment on the event's broader consequences in civil rights legislation.
- Heat Wave (1990): This television movie, set during the Watts Riots in 1965, tells the story of Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Richardson. Richardson is the only journalist on staff able to cover the story because he is black and white reporters were unable to gain access to the area and the rioters.
- Conrack (1974): Based on the autobiographical novel The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy, this film features a young teacher who is assigned to teach a group of all black students on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina. While he finds that the student's are nearly illiterate and extremely neglected by the state educational system, he is faced with issues involving racism and segregation deeply wrought within the community.
- The Great White Hope (1970): Heavy weight champion boxer, Jack Jefferson (based on the life of real boxer Jack Johnson), struggles to withstand the blows of racism and hatred, while thriving in a sport formerly ruled by white men.
- Sounder (1972): Based on the novel by William H. Armstrong, this movie tells the tale a loving yet poverty stricken family of black sharecroppers living in Louisiana during the Depression. Sounder portrays a young boy's coming of age as he learns to read while his father is in prison.
- Cooley High (1975): Set in Chicago in the 1960's, this story centers on a group of high school friends from "the projects." The story begins as a humorous depiction of life in an urban high school; however, the plot quickly changes when the two main characters are accused of a crime they did not commit. This film addresses issues of racism and discrimination.
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967): This film was the first movie to approach the subject of interracial marriage in a positive manner. As a young white American girl brings her young African American doctor fiancé home to meet her parents, the film depicts the discomfort her family and friends feel about her new fiancé.
- A Soldier's Story (1984): Set near the end of World War II, this movie examines the life and death of an African American sergeant who was in charge of a racially segregated unit. This movie deals powerfully with issues of racism and segregation in the U.S. Army.
- Something the Lord Made (2004): Based on a true story, this movie illuminates the obstacles a young black man encountered on his path to becoming a heart surgeon. Something the Lord Made dramatizes the relationship between Dr. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas as they pioneered heart surgery techniques in Baltimore in the 1940s.
- A Great Day in Harlem (1994): This documentary tells the story of photographer Art Kane's 1958 iconic photograph of all the great jazz musician of the era.
- Eyes on the Prize (1987): This documentary discusses the Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965. The filmmakers used only primary sources, such as archival footage and real interviews with persons immediately involved in the events being discussed. The film puts special focus on the everyday people who influenced the cause.
- Ali (2001): This film is a dramatic biography of great boxing icon Muhammad Ali from 1964 to 1974, recounting the boxer's capture of the heavyweight title, conversion to Islam, criticism of the Vietnam War, banishment from boxing, and reclaiming of the title in 1974. Ali depicts the great social and political upheaval the United States was thrown into following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr..
- Men of Honor (2000): This film dramatizes the courageous story of African American sailor, Carl Brashear, who dreams of becoming a U.S. Navy Master Diver in 1948. Men of Honor illuminates the racism and prejudice Brashear encountered and surpassed in order to achieve his goal.
- Do the Right Thing (1989): This highly controversial film depicts a neighborhood in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. As the temperature rises on this little street, so do the tensions between the characters inhabiting it. Do the Right Thing explores race relations and stereotypes through its depiction of violence and unease on a small urban street.
- Remember the Titans (2000): This film takes place in 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia at a newly desegregated high school. Based on a true story, Remember the Titans explores the challenges a newly appointed African-American coach faces when coaching the now racially integrated high school football team.
- Akeelah and the Bee (2006): Akeelah Anderson, a young black girl from South Los Angeles, strives to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Akeelah and the Bee takes a profound look at issues of education in low socioeconomic African-American communities.
- Bamboozled (2000): Directed by Spike Lee, this satirical film uncomfortably explores race depiction and stereotype in the media. As a Harvard educated black writer becomes fed up when his tame ideas about modern black families are ignored, he devises a plan to point out stereotyping and prejudice in the media. He proposes a risky show with African-American actors in black face. To his shock and surprise, the network and, in turn, America loves it.