February marks the start of Black History Month, an annual month-long observance of the achievements of African Americans throughout the nation’s history, a time to reflect on, to pay homage to, and to celebrate the generations of African Americans who, in the face of tremendous adversity, have persevered and made noteworthy contributions to the nation.
The stories of Black historical figures and important periods in Black history have been featured in films for decades. The Black experience in America has also been depicted and examined through many fictional stories.
Here are a few of the many excellent films worth checking out to observe Black History Month.
In the 1970s, many films depicted the adversity African Americans have faced throughout U.S. history. Martin Ritt’s 1972 drama Sounder tells the story of the oldest son of a family of Black sharecroppers who comes of age in the South during the Great Depression. The film, starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Spike Lee has long been among the filmmakers responsible for landmark films depicting race relations in America. Lee’s monumental 1989 drama Do the Right Thing brilliantly captures racial tensions on one blistering hot day in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The film, regarded as one of the best films of the 1980s, received two Academy Award nominations, including one for Lee’s screenplay.
Written, produced, and directed by Julie Dash, the film stars Cora Lee Day and Alva Rogers. Set in 1902, Daughters of the Dust tells the story of three generations of Gullah (also known as Geechee) women in the Peazant family on Saint Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina, where African folkways have been maintained. The film portrays a generational split when Haagar wants to move away from Nana, the matriarch of the family, and migrate out of the Southern United States and into the North.
John Singleton’s 1991 drama follows the lives of young men in South Central Los Angeles, exploring race, relationships, violence within the community, and the future prospects for the youth. The landmark film, starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Laurence Fishburne, received two Academy Award nominations, both going to Singleton himself, one for directing and another for his screenplay. Singleton became the youngest director and the first African American to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award.
Cheryl Dunye's 1996 debut film, The Watermelon Woman, earned a place in cinematic history as the first feature-length narrative film to be written and directed by an out Black lesbian filmmaker. In the film, Cheryl – played by Dunye herself – is working at a video store in the 1990s and watching lots of movies when she stumbles upon an old black-and-white film from the 1930s featuring a stunning Black actress who is only credited as "the Watermelon Woman" instead of by her name. Cheryl sets out to discover the identity of this actress. The Watermelon Woman, shot on 1990s video cameras – providing grainy era-specific images – and on 16mm film, is an exploration into film history while doubling as a romantic comedy.
Written and directed by Dee Rees, Pariah is a powerful coming-of-age and coming out film that follows a 17-year-old Black teenager navigating the emotional minefields of first love, heartache, identity and self expression. Executive produced by Spike Lee, the film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Excellence in Cinematography Award.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an autobiographical drama about Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery. The film received nine Academy Award nominations and won 3 Oscars – including Best Picture.
Ryan Coogler’s 2013 biographical drama Fruitvale Station brought a true-life story of modern day police brutality and racial discrimination to the screen. Coogler’s powerful feature film directorial debut, starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with family, friends, and enemies on the last day of 2008.
Barry Jenkins’ 2016 drama Moonlight portrays a young African American grappling with his identity and sexuality while experiencing the struggles of growing up in Miami in the 1980s at the height of the war on drugs. The modern masterpiece, with a stellar cast featuring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex R. Hibbert, received eight Academy Awards nominations and won 3 Oscars – including Best Picture.
I Am Not Your Negro is a 2016 documentary centered on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, in which Baldwin tells the story of race in modern America. The film, directed by Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker who was the Minister of Culture of Haiti for a period in the 1990s, offers a snapshot of Baldwin’s keen observations on American race relations, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The 2016 drama Hidden Figures tells the story of several female African American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program, and were instrumental in sending astronauts to the moon. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner.
Denzel Washington’s 2016 drama, based on the August Wilson play, depicts a working class African American father raising his family and coming to terms with the events of his life in 1950s Pittsburgh. The outstanding cast includes Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. The film received four Academy Award nominations, and Davis won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her moving performance.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, this thought-provoking documentary explores the history of racial inequality in the United States following the Emancipation Proclamation and how the nation’s prison system is disproportionately filled with African Americans. It is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Marshall is a 2017 biographical drama in which the late Chadwick Boseman portrays Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, who went on to become the first Black Supreme Court Justice. The Reginald Hudlin film features “Stand Up for Something,” a song written by Diane Warren and Common – who also appears on the stirring song as a performer, alongside Andra Day. The song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ 2018 drama based on the book by James Baldwin, portrays a young pregnant African American woman setting out to prove her lover innocent of a crime he did not commit. The film received three Academy Award nominations, and Regina King won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance.
John Lewis: Good Trouble, a 2020 documentary by Dawn Porter, is a deep dive into the late legendary civil rights activist and Georgia congressman’s history. The film explores his 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health care reform, and immigration. The documentary, featuring archival footage and new interviews conducted for the film, is a beautiful portrait of the courageous leader.
Shaka King’s 2021 biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah details the story of Black Panther leader and activist Fred Hampton, who formed the city of Chicago’s first "Rainbow Coalition," a multicultural anti-racist movement. The cast features Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, and Jesse Plemons. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film won two Oscars, one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Kaluuya’s performance, and another for Best Original Song, which went to the soulful "Fight for You," by H.E.R., D’Mile, and Tiara Thomas.