Any list of must-see movies will be imperfect in nature. There are just too many movies to choose from and no one has the same taste. This is no less true when researching black history films. I have tried to create a list that covers the full spectrum of American history from slavery to modern times and focuses on the black experience or incidents or events that are important to all Americans. I hope this list will serve as a springboard for further exploration of our American history.
1. Ill-gotten gains (1997)
With: Djimon Hounsou
The film “Amistadis often presented as Djimon Hounsou’s first film. Although it was the first film to truly introduce him to American audiences, his true debut had a much lower budget. Both films depict slavery in early America and therefore find themselves competing for the top spot, “Ill Gotten Gains” is a grittier and more graphic depiction of the slave trade. If you prefer better visual production and lots of monologues from Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey on the equality of man, an admittedly inspired performance by Hounsou and the wonderful addition of Morgan Freeman, then Amistad is more your cup of tea.
2. Glory (1989)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher
This film tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first regiment of all black soldiers in the United States. The film “features” Denzel Washington. In reality, Washington had planned six films before his exposure in Glory. While all of these movies are worth watching, “Glory” is set during the American Civil War and takes our second place in historical order.
3. impersonation of life (1934)
Preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry, which stores films it considers culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, “Imitation of Life” is one of the first films to suggest there might be a racial problem in America. Essentially the story of two single mothers, one white and one black, raising daughters. The idea of the black woman makes the white woman rich, and the black woman’s daughter pretends to be white. In addition to directly addressing issues of race by talking about them, the film also did something else, it provided us with a time capsule showing exactly what life was like when the film was made.
4. A soldier’s story (1984)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Howard Rollins, David Alan Grier, Adolph Caesar
The black master sergeant of a separate company of black soldiers is murdered in the Jim Crow South near the end of World War II and a black army officer is sent to investigate, which the white officers on the base do not are not happy. The film features a predominantly black cast and highlights many things that black soldiers had to deal with on a daily basis. Pay close attention to when Gullah or Geechee are mentioned and if you don’t know what it is, you have a little extra mystery to explore.
5. The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
With: Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding Jr., Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Allen Payne.
Sticking with WWII, we’ll take a look at the war from a pilot’s perspective – the pilots of the 332nd, the first black fighter pilots in the United States (Eugene Bollard should probably be considered the first American fighter pilot but he flew for France.)
6. Miss Evers Boys (1997)
Starring: Alfred Woodard, Laurence Fishburne
Have you ever wondered why the black community seems resistant to government medical programs? Well, in 1939, the United States Public Health Service initiated a study called “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Males”. During this study, the US government took a group of black men with syphilis and pretended to treat them for the disease when in reality they were watching the disease progress. The study ended in 1972. Miss Evers’ Boys tells this story.
7. Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
Starring: Sidney Poitier
A white girl brings her black fiancé home to meet her white, middle-class, liberal parents. Sydney Poitier; first black actor to win an Oscar, also won a Grammy and two Golden Globes as well as a BAFA, an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received the title Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. This list had to have Sidney Poitier on it and there were so many to choose from. A personal favorite, “To Sir, With Love,” is set in London, which just wouldn’t fit for a list like this. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” provides another, later, time capsule example of what life was like back then, and the contrast between “Imitation Life” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” shows that, at least in some respects, progress was made in the years that followed.
8. Malcolm X (1992)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Spike Lee.
Not only the story of Malcolm X, but also the story of the early years of the Nation of Islam and why Malcolm finally broke with them.
9. stir crazy (1980)
Starring: Richard Prior. Directed by Sidney Poitier (in his directorial debut.)
A buddy movie starring one of the greatest black American comedians of any generation and directed by Sidney Poitier. This movie leaves the heaviness behind and focuses on comedy because it’s important to remember that life can bring smiles too.
ten. jungle fever (1986)
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee. Directed by Spike Lee.
Let’s be honest, “Jungle Fever” is far from Spike Lee’s best movie, but even a bad Lee movie is better than almost anyone else’s best bad movie. The real beauty of this list entry is how it caps off the triptych that includes “Imitation of Life,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and that movie, “Jungle Fever.” Three films, roughly every 30 years, clearly showing the attitudes of the time reflected in the film itself. Lee would have had few opportunities to direct films in the 1930s. While not an impossible task, one need only look to Oscar Micheaux to see that the opportunities were far fewer. Even in the 1960s, Lee would have had no trouble becoming a filmmaker. “Jungle Fever”, then represents a leap in storytelling where black voices have more control over their own stories.