Cinema is 127 years old, and throughout its history, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of great flicks. Many great films of the modern era feature actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and the beloved Samuel L. Jackson. It’s easy to take for granted that those actors, among many, others, are African-Americans who are part of black history; a long story of struggle and perseverance.
When movies began, circa 1890, African-Americans had only been allowed to vote for 15 years. In 1906, when The Kelley Gang became the first feature-length film, poll taxes and literacy tests kept most poor, primarily black citizens from voting. In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance exposed black culture like never before while sound revolutionized film. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the first time the struggle of African-Americans would be broadcast to a television audience en mass. In 1966, the first interracial kiss occurred on camera during an episode of Star Trek.
During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, hip-hop, Eddie Murphy, and Will Smith among so many others changed the mainstream for the better. But while there’s a long way to go for true equality in America, stories of black history will carry on to remind people of how long a fight it’s been.
This week in Black History Month we look at ten films about Black History from the last 17 years.
Ali – 2001
Big Willy is a truly phenomenal actor when he’s not doing his typical action movie schtick. In Ali, he plays the G.O.A.T. (there can be only one), Muhammed Ali. Directed by Michael Mann, the film is a tour de force for Will Smith who received an Oscar nomination. Where many movies about Ali focus on the bombastic persona, Mann takes a more grounded approach. Ali delves into the boxer’s conversion to Islam, outspoken political nature, and his years-long ban from the ring.
The Great Debaters – 2007
Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters is based on the true story of an all-black debate team from Wiley College who aspire to be on equal footing with the all-white debate teams. Of course, to make matters worse, this struggle for equality is happening in the 1930s Jim Crow South. But like an ensemble Rocky, Washington’s film soars to an uplifting end with a lasting impact on the lives of black men and women forevermore.
Night Catches Us – 2010
Before Anthony Mackie donned the Falcon suit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was delivering a nuanced performance in Night Catches Us. A story about a former Black Panther returning to his neighborhood, the film is underrated for its dramatic weight. Night Catches Us weaves reality and fiction into this story of broken families, friendships, and the fragility of history.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 – 2011
A found-footage documentary, The Black Power Mixtape, uses long-shelved tapes made by Swedish journalists during the late 60s and early 70s. For a long time, the tapes remained buried in the basement of a TV station. But the tapes feature interviews with some of the most prominent black leaders of the time like Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and Bobby Seale.
Fruitvale Station – 2013
Before Ryan Coogler revitalized the Rocky franchise with the critically acclaimed Creed, the young writer/director made his feature debut with the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station. Based on events that took place in Oakland, California in 2009, Fruitvale Station stars Creed’s Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. The film details the last 24 hours of young Oscar who’s shot dead by police why waiting for for a train.
The Butler – 2013
Lee Daniels’ film portrays the real life of White House Butler Eugene Allen who served seven different U.S. Presidents. In the movie, Eugene becomes Cecil as Forest Whitaker steps into the shoes of the proverbial fly on the wall. The Butler’s perspective and outstanding performances drive forward a film that presents the struggle for civil rights from a unique angle.
42 – 2013
Perhaps no other story connects the struggle of African-Americans with the average American like that of Jackie Robinson. The Hall of Fame baseball player was the most important black American to play in the Major Leagues. Not only did Robinson play, he dominated. Shrouding the praise he received for his skills were threats made against his life. Robinson persevered and opened a floodgate of talent that continues to flow to this day.
12 Years A Slave – 2013
A superstar team of writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen come together to turn one of the most important documents regarding slavery into one of the most celebrated movies since Roots. That’s a mouthful, but 12 Years A Slave is a dense film, like a moving novel onscreen that takes viewers from light to the depths of darkness and back again. It’s a look at a part of black history that should never be forgotten.
Selma – 2014
The award-winning Selma depicts events surrounding the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King (no pressure) and features Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Carmen Ejogo, and more in important historical roles. The march ended in King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech and was instrumental in helping the Voting Rights Act become law.
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People – 2014
What better way to end a celebration of films about black history than a documentary about the history of African-American photographers. After all, films are nothing more than pictures passing by your eye-holes at 24 FPS. Through A Lens Darkly is a touching look at the beauty of African-American people in photos, but also a stark reminder of the horrors many of those beautiful faces have witnessed.