Movies/Documentaries to Watch and Learn About Black History

The shortest month. Valentine’s Day. Chilly winter mornings. These are probably the first things that come to your mind when you think of February. However, did you know that February also happens to be Black History month? Also known as African American History Month, it is a time to recognize and celebrate the achievements of African American people and the legacies of strength and struggle against racism. As such, we must consciously make an effort in order to better educate ourselves when it comes to Black history. Only by learning from the past can we strive towards the goal of an inclusive future.

Here are a few movies and documentaries you can check out to better understand African American history:

1.     13th

In this Oscar-nominated documentary American filmmaker, Ava Duvernay combines archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars highlighting how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America. It not only focuses on the intergenerational trauma of slavery but also how large-scale corporations continue to reap its economic benefits. Duvernay uses examples from real life and popular culture to drive the point home. This documentary is a great starting point for those who wish to better understand and reflect on the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

2. Selma

Selma is the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people — a treacherous and life-threatening campaign that culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The best part about the film is that despite dealing with important historical events, it never feels like a monotonous lecture. This stirring drama will make you realize how far America has come since then, but how far it still needs to go.

3. Malcolm X

 Starring Denzel Washington as the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X, this film is a biographical epic. It charts the story of this human rights activist from his early life as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his - spoiler alert - eventual assassination. The movie is a story about injustice and yet, more importantly, a tale of resistance and revolution. If nothing else, this one quote by Malcolm X should persuade you to learn more about the man. “We declare our right on this earth, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

4. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

In her autobiographical slave narrative Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs asseverates, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” This statement is particularly insightful when read with reference to this documentary about Nobel prize-winning author, Toni Morrison. It takes us on a journey of her life and works allowing us to explore Black history through the spectrum of written work. It also offers the dual perspective of race and gender showing how slavery affects men and women differently.

5. Good Hair

Last but not the least, is Good Hair. A comical documentary starring and narrated by Chris Rock, this feature focuses on the $9 billion black hair industry. In an interview about the documentary, the actor revealed that he was first inspired to make this movie after his three-year-old daughter Lola asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” She has curly, wiry hair typical of many people of African descent. He realized she had already absorbed the perception among some black people that curly hair was not “good”. We see Rock visit beauty salons, barbershops, and hairstyling conventions to understand popular approaches to styling. Through this movie, we see a topic unexplored by any of the movies mentioned above - how Black history is closely related to the politics of fashion and culture.

The process of learning and unlearning preconceived notions and biases is continuous. It is not enough to merely watch these movies. We must, as allies, put this knowledge into practice by having those important conversations, raising our voices against injustice, and remembering to pass the microphone.