June 19, also known as Juneteenth, commemorates the date in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – issued on January 1, 1863 – was read to the remaining enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, who did not know that they had been freed over two years earlier.
Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day, and Cel-Liberation Day, finally became a federal holiday in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed legislation into law establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day. The President said on that day, "By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress, and grapple with the distance we've come and the distance we have to travel."
The traditions of Juneteenth can be traced back to the 19th century. It is a day of prayer, remembrance, appreciation of Black culture, and joyous celebration in homage to the incredible endurance, tireless activism, and the power of the Black community.
For decades, filmmakers have depicted the Black experience through the lens of important historical figures and historical movements. From documentaries to biopics, from the inspirational to the harrowing, the tribulations and the triumphs of Black Americans have been depicted. Here are a few of the many excellent films and documentaries worth checking out in observation and celebration of Black liberation and Juneteenth.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a powerful examination of various racial disparities faced by African Americans through the lens of one former slave woman’s life from the 1850s to the 1960s. On the eve of her 110th Birthday, Jane Pittman (played by captivating Academy Award-nominated actress Cicely Tyson) grants a special interview to a local journalist who wants to document her harrowing journey to freedom. Though the title suggests that it is a work of nonfiction, the film, based on the novel of the same name, was written as a fictional story to share an all-encompassing tale of true Black experiences. The film was directed by Academy Award winner John Korty and also stars Richard Dysart and Odetta.
Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, based on the novel by Alice Walker, is a classic. The drama is about a young Black Southern woman named Celie (Whoopi Goldberg in her debut role) who has to endure and learn to survive patriarchal abuse and incredibly harrowing racial discrimination. Celie finds solace and self-worth with the help of her two closest friends throughout the 40-year span of her life. The film features an all-star cast, including Danny Glover, Willard E. Pugh, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery. The Color Purple received eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress for Goldberg, Best Supporting Actress for Winfrey and Best Supporting Actress for Avery.
This documentary tells the story of Black ballerina Misty Copeland who made history when she became the first Black woman to hold the title of principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre in 2015 and one of the first Black dancers to play the role of Odette in a production of Swan Lake. It is an inspiring story that details Misty’s bout with homelessness, perseverance, and trying to overcome prejudice and perfectionism in the elite ballet world.
Loving is a biographical romantic drama about the real-life story and historical U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Richard and Mildred Loving (played Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively), an interracial couple whose marriage was a criminal offense by the Supreme Court of Virginia in the 1960s. The film offers a unique insight into just some of the plights faced by interracial couples during the height of segregation laws in America. The film garnered Negga her first Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
This documentary delicately balances the celebration of the transgender icon’s life with that of a true-crime whodunnit mystery. Academy Award-nominated director David France and LGBTQ activist Victoria Cruz team up to re-examine the circumstances leading up to the mysterious death of Marsha P. Johnson in 1992. This visceral documentary also shines a light on historical gay liberation and transgender rights movements throughout the 1960s and 1990s.
Crip Camp is an impactful and eye-opening documentary that allows disabled people in front of and behind the camera to detail their own stories about oppression, liberation, and the fight for equality during the 1977 Disability Rights Movement in San Francisco, also known as the 504 sit-in. A notable sequence in the film involves the involvement of the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. During the span of the 28 day occupation, activists faced shortages of basic supplies like medicine, toiletries, and food. Luckily, one of the disabled protesters, Brad Lomax, who was also a member of the Black Panther Party, got involved with bringing the Panthers and the disabled movement together. In doing so, the Black Panther Party mobilized and kept everyone fed for all 28 days of the occupation for free. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Miss Juneteenth is a southern drama that follows the story of a once optimistic and popular Texas Beauty Queen named Turquoise (Nicole Beharie). Years after her Miss Juneteenth pageant win, Turquoise has become a semi-jaded single mother who yearns more than anything for her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to compete in the pageant and live the life her mother couldn’t have. The film, directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, offers a unique take on the Juneteenth holiday by showcasing the real-life competition that also champions Black pride and cultural traditions.
This eclectic documentary is a blend of historical accord and musical prowess. Questlove’s Academy Award-winning film centers on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which was a jubilant celebration honoring Black history, political unrest, perseverance, culture, and fashion. Summer of Soul features never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, and more. It also features commentary from Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Alan Leeds, and Gladys Knight.
Sidney looks back on the legendary actor and activist's life and legacy through interviews with Sidney Poitier himself, as well as those that he inspired and influenced: Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, and more.
The film traces Poitier's life's story from his childhood in the Bahamas to Hollywood, where he came to fame against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Reginald Hudlin directs, with Derik Murray and Oprah Winfrey producing. The documentary was made in close collaboration with the Poitier family.
Civil: Ben Crump is a documentary set to give an intimate look at the life of landmark civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Crump, the civil lawyer for the families of George Floyd, Andre Hill and Breonna Taylor, is on a mission to "raise the value of Black life in America." Produced by Kenya Barris, Roger Ross Williams and Lauren Cioffi, the film offers a behind the scenes look at Crump's upbringing and continued advocacy.
By Destiny Jackson