Black History Through Films

Black History Month may have just ended, but educating yourself never will. These past few years have been tough in many ways, and the release of footage behind the violence and racism towards black people has prompted more conversations about the injustices currently surrounding us. Throughout this time, I have focused on educating myself through several methods, including watching historical films and documentaries. Accompanied by powerful visuals and words, the stories come to life on screen, evoking all the emotions. Here are some of the historical, biographical films and documentaries that I found exceptionally inspiring and educational. :)

Malcolm X (1992)

“You are not an American, you are the victim of America!”

Directed by Spike Lee, Malcolm X is a biographical film about the one and only Malcolm X, played by Denzel Washington. The film shows the development of his activism as he journeys through his life, becoming familiar with Islam and learning about the racial injustices and prejudices in America. He realizes how the white man has tainted everything with underlying tones of white supremacy. The film focuses on his powerful leadership skills, highlighting his ability to move a crowd with a single gesture. While the film is quite long, it is definitely worth the watch.

Available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max

Selma (2014)

“Our lives are not fully lived if we're not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.”

This film is about Selma, Alabama, where the historical marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Centered around Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders as they fought against racial discrimination, the movie depicts the collective power of the people to create change. As the movement went on, the number of supporters grew. I remember watching how everyone, of various races, gender, and religious beliefs linked their arms together and marched from Selma to Montgomery in the fight for equality.

Available to stream on FXNOW

Selma 2014 movie directed by Ava DuVernay Pathé

13th (2016)

“In many ways, the so-called war on drugs was a war on communities of color, a war on black communities, a war on Latino communities.” - Angela Davis

I highly encourage everyone to watch this documentary. The film sheds a light on our broken legal system and how the 13th Amendment includes a loophole to continue slavery. America holds five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s because of mass incarceration. Even after the abolition of slavery, black people and other minority groups were targeted with the smallest crimes. The film challenges us to see how racism has followed us throughout history in so many different ways. It’s disappointing to see how the American justice system has continued to fail non-white Americans.

Available to stream on Netflix

Hidden Figures (2016)

“Every Time We Have A Chance To Get Ahead, They Move The Finish Line.”

An empowering film about Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae): three talented and ambitious black female mathematicians known as “human computers.” Working at a segregated NASA during the American-Soviet space race in 1961, they’re faced with sexism and racism in the workplace. However, their talent and ambition were far too advanced to go unrecognized. It was inspiring to watch the three women breakdown norms and take ownership of their work and their intelligence. 

Available to stream on Disney+

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

James Baldwin is an inspiring, articulate, beautiful man. His words are so powerful and insightful. As Samuel L. Jackson narrates through the film in the voice of James Baldwin, he explores the history and the experiences of Black Americans. Accompanied by clips from films, interviews, and historical events, the film also reveals how race is depicted through media and other outlets. The documentary is based on his unfinished project “Remember This House” about MLK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, and how they impacted him and the people.

Available to stream on Netflix

Portrait of James Baldwin Photo by Allan Warren distributed under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license

Just Mercy (2019)

“There’s always something that we can do. Whatever you did, your life is still meaningful, and I’m gonna do everything possible to keep them from taking it.”

This very insightful and touching film is about a young Harvard graduate, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who sets out to defend those on death row. Based on Stevenson’s memoir, the story follows his journey to defend Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who has been accused of murder and is put on death row. Stevenson is challenged by racism and the legal system as he fights for McMillian’s life. This film reminded me of people like Brandon Bernard, Dustin Higgs, and many others, whose stories were revealed late last year. Many Black Americans have been falsely accused of crimes, or have been given unfair trials, stripping them of their lives.

Available to stream on HBO

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

“Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.”

The new release that we were all waiting for, Judas and the Black Messiah, not only gives us a view of the Black Panther Party, but also how the FBI had infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to obtain data on their upcoming plans. Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party, leads his members to join hands with other Black, Latino, and White groups that have been exploited by a capitalistic system. The film depicts the powerful and solemn story of the Black Panther Party and how they used civil disobedience to lead their protests. 

Available to stream on HBO Max

 

These films and many others like them help us gain new perspectives into the history and treatment of Black Americans. It always surprises me how much one can learn from spending about two hours watching a film, but these stories have provided me with the knowledge to better understand the inequality that continues to exist in our communities and to become a stronger ally. There’s still a lot of learning and unlearning to do, but as we take the time to educate ourselves, we move one step forward in the right direction. So, grab that bowl of popcorn, and maybe a box of tissues, and spend some time learning from these stories about justice, strength, and power.