Special Features – A History of Black Film

Sean Guard celebrates Black History Month with a selection of acclaimed African American films…

In the light and celebration of Black History Month, I’ve put together a small collection from the vast library of highly-acclaimed African American films. From Cicely Tyson to Denzel Washington to Spike Lee, I’ve included some of the classic films and miniseries that have come to contribute to my generation and others’ education of the struggles and contributions of Blacks in the past and present. Now, seeing as how there are tons of film to go over that fit rather easily into this category, this assemblage of titles are only a tip of the Black iceberg…

Native Son (1951)

Based on the novel by Richard Wright, this film focuses on a young black poverty stricken man living in 1930s Chicago. He takes a job as a chauffeur to a white family, which takes a turn for the worse when he accidentally kills the teenage daughter of the couple and then tries to cover it up. It stars Wright himself and Gloria Madison. It was later remade in 1986 starring Victor Love and Matt Dillon.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man (Brock Peters) against an undeserved rape charge, and also tries to teach his children the truth against prejudice. Based on the novel by Harper Lee, this film contains mostly white characters but displays a wonderful and early eye-opening story about racism in our early history.

Roots (1977)

The legendary miniseries starring Levar Burton as Kunta Kinte and chronicling author Alex Haley’s family line from enslavement to liberation.

King (1978)

Starring Paul Winfield as Dr. King and Cicely Scott Tyson as Coretta, this miniseries spans the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stretching from his days as a Southern Baptist minister up to his assassination in Memphis in 1968.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979)

Made-for-TV movie starring Constance Good as a young Maya Angelou. The film is based on writer Maya Angelou’s childhood, about a young girl in the South who is sent to live with her grandmother after her parents’ divorce.

The Color Purple (1985)

The life and trials of a young African American woman played by Whoopi Goldberg during the 1930s in Georgia. Based on the novel by Alice Walker, the film also stars Danny “I’m too old for this shit” Glover and Oprah Winfrey. This movie is quite possibly one of the top 5 most influential and critical films in African American film history.

Cry Freedom (1987)

In one of Denzel Washington’s earlier films, he plays Steven Biko, a black activist. His friend, South African journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), is forced to flee the country after attempting to investigate his death.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Two FBI agents, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, with wildly different styles arrive in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone’s hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence. Classic film directed by and starring Spike Lee along with Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, Robin Harris and many more.

Glory (1989)

Matthew Broderick plays Robert Gould Shaw who led the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company. Showing his fighting through prejudices of both his own Union army and the Confederates, this film showcases Denzel Washington in what is said to be his breakout role as well as Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes.

Lean on Me (1989)

We’re back again with Morgan Freeman who plays the dedicated but tyrannical Joe Clark as he is appointed the principal of a decaying inner-city school in Paterson, New Jersey that he is determined to improve. Based on a true story, this film takes the audience on a roller coaster of feel good and determination following not only Clark but his school of students as they try to co-exist to make their institution better.

The Long Walk Home (1990)

Two women, black and white, in 1955 Montgomery Alabama, must decide what they are going to do in response to the famous bus boycott lead by Martin Luther King. Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek headline this civil rights movie.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington continued his rise to fame by playing the title character of one the most influential and sometimes questionable civil rights leaders of our time. Directed by Spike Lee, the film also starred Angela Bassett and ran for 202 minutes.

Panther (1995)

During time in history when racial tensions were at an all-time high, a new political party was created. The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense. Kadeem Hardison, Courtney B. Vance, Bokeem Woodbine, Angela Bassett and Chris Rock star in this film about the legendary Black Panther movement.

A Time to Kill (1996)

Matthew McConaughey plays a young lawyer who defends a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) accused of murdering two men who raped his 10-year-old daughter, sparking a rebirth of the KKK. Sandra Bullock and Kevin Spacey also star in this film which led to the birth of one Jackson’s most famous lines, “Yes they deserved to die and hope they burn in hell!”

Get on the Bus (1996)

Get on the Bus follows several Black men on a cross country bus trip to the Million Man March. This inspiring film stars a host of different black actors like Isaiah Washington, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce and Charles S. Dutton.

Amistad (1997)

An all-star cast headlines this film about a 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship that was traveling towards the northeastern coast of America. Matthew McConaughey again plays a lawyer but this time defending a group of black slaves who were aboard the ship. Much of the story involves a court-room drama about the free man (Djimon Hounsou) who led the revolt. Djimon Hounsou puts on a break-out performance in this his first major motion picture role. Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman also star.

Rosewood (1997)

This film is a dramatization of a 1923 horrific racist lynch mob attack on an African American community was started by the lie of white woman who claimed she was raped by a black man. Ving Rhames, Jon Voight and Don Cheadle star in this rather vivid telling, and showing, of the many ways to exterminate a town of black folk.

Remember the Titans (2000)

The true story of a newly appointed African-American coach (Denzel Washington) and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit in Virginia.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Don Cheadle takes on the true-life story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who took it upon himself to house over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda. Sophie Okonedo and Joaquin Phoenix also stars. The film really takes the audience deep into the goings on of brutal civil wars within Rwanda and opens its eyes as well to the awful genocide in other part of the African continent.

Brooklyn Boheme (2011)

An intimate portrait of the black arts movement that exploded in Fort Greene from the mid-1980s through the 90s as told by writer, historian and Brooklyn resident Nelson George.

Please chime in and comment with your choices of black film, past, present or currently in production that should be included on this list. If you have any thoughts about African American projects that should be made into film, feel free to add those as well…

Sean Guard
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