No movie celebration for Black History Month would be complete without a look at that most joyous of Hollywood genres, the musical. The rich tapestry of American music created by Black artists has been a major factor in decades of outstanding song-and-dance classics, some of which still haven’t gotten their full due.
Here are 10 recommended titles (not including music-themed biopics) to start programming throughout February – or any other month.
The trailblazing Dorothy Dandridge made history with her Best Actress nomination for this colorful Otto Preminger production, an Oscar Hammerstein II update of the Bizet opera Carmen that showcased her alongside a killer cast including Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Shot in glorious CinemaScope, this version moves the famous story to World War II as parachute factory employee Carmen ends up leading a handsome military man down a wayward path of passion and murder. Dandridge and Preminger would return and bring along Sidney Poitier for another lavish musical in 1959 with Porgy and Bess, which is now mostly unavailable for viewing, outside of the Library of Congress.
Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar win for Supporting Actress is just one of the joys to be found in this long-gestating screen version of the 1981 Broadway smash. Taking strong inspiration from the history of American R&B music of the ’60s and ’70s, Bill Condon’s film is a kaleidoscopic look at a three-member girl group (Beyoncé, Hudson and The Princess and the Frog’s Anika Noni Rose) whose careers together and apart cross paths with record executive Jamie Foxx and a scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated Eddie Murphy as the dynamic but tragic Jimmy “Thunder” Early.
Following his indie comedy hit Hollywood Shuffle (1987), director, co-writer and star Robert Townsend shifted gears with this look at a fictitious five-member R&B group inspired by several real chart-topping acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops. From early battles of the bands through chart success, the members have to overcome personal obstacles including addiction and collapsing marriages as they try to keep the beat that made them stars in the first place.
None other than OutKast starred in this audacious 1930s-set musical, with childhood friends played by André 3000 and Big Boi embarking on a music-fueled adventure involving crime and romance in a Georgia town. Cicely Tyson, Macy Gray, Terrence Howard, Ben Vereen and Patti LaBelle are highlights among the star-studded supporting cast, while the soundtrack pulses with an era-scrambling mixture of music genres.
Originally planned for the stage, this musical fantasy is designed for holiday viewing but can get your toes tapping any time of the year. Journey (Madalen Mills) heads off on a quest born from the double-crossing of her inventor grandfather, Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), by his scheming apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key), with more than a few friends and foes met along the way.
The legendary song score by Prince for this electrifying rock musical took home an Academy Award, which is no surprise considering it includes all-timers like “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and the epic title number. Prince draws inspiration from his own life in Minneapolis here to star as The Kid, lead singer for The Revolution in a dramatic rise on the local music scene as he deals with love, parental conflict and his real-life bandmates.
Spike Lee’s second feature (and first studio film) is now seen as a major entry in his body of work with its song-studded look at a fictional Black college in Atlanta inspired by Lee’s own experiences at Morehouse. The first of two musicals directed by Lee (the other being 2015’s Chi-Raq), it was also the debut effort for costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who went on to work on many of Lee’s films and win an Oscar for her work on Black Panther (2018). Don’t miss the chance to see an impossibly young Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito, too!
Long before Dreamgirls, this cult classic favorite charted the odyssey of Sister and the Sisters, a girl group inspired by The Supremes, as they climb their way up from Harlem and deal with personal setbacks to get their music heard. Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith dazzle as the three talented sisters, with Philip Michael Thomas and Mary Alice also making early-career appearances. The soundtrack was the handiwork of the legendary Curtis Mayfield, and the film was remade in 2012 with Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston and Cee Lo Green.
Classic Hollywood musicals don’t come much splashier than this all-star spectacle inspired by the life of stage and screen star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, with actors including Lena Horne, who unforgettably performs the title song. Horne also appeared in another classic musical with an all-Black cast that same year, Cabin in the Sky. Loaded with energetic numbers, Stormy Weather saves its big showstopper for the climax with the Nicholas Brothers unleashing what many still regard as the greatest dance number ever put on film. Even Fred Astaire said so, and who are we to argue?
The Broadway smash that reinvented the family classic The Wizard of Oz for the funk and soul generation was drastically rewritten for this Motown production directed by Sidney Lumet, moving the location to a fantasy version of New York City and casting Diana Ross as an adult Dorothy carried off into a land full of magic and menace. Along the way down the yellow brick road you get some all-time earworms like “Ease on Down the Road,” “You Can’t Win” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”