11 movies that celebrate a variety of Black stories
In 2022, there’s no denying that one of the most influential vehicles for education and change is film. Sure, we could recommend endless informative and impactful books to read to learn about the Black experience this month, but it’s just a fact that many of us are more likely to watch a movie. So, to help our readers learn about Black life in America at a time when race is at the forefront of a number of important events and conversations, we’ve compiled 18 films that showcase the history of Black oppression and celebrate stories of Black excellence.
While it’s important to continue learning about the issues Black people face and have faced in this country and what the Black experience is like year-round, Black History Month is a great time to start.
Movies to watch during Black History Month
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
This drama/romance film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin. It follows a young Black couple named Tish and Fonny as they fall in love against the backdrop of 1970s Harlem. Their sweet and irresistible love story takes an ugly turn when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. You will find yourself falling in love with Tish and Fonny as they fall in love with each other. You will also feel Tish’s anger and hopelessness as she tries desperately to understand how to navigate a racist and hostile judicial system that locked up her soulmate for something that he very clearly did not do.
Another masterpiece by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. Covering three periods in the life of a young Black man named Chiron, Moonlight offers rare insight into the complexities of Black masculinity. But it does much more than that — it’s an honest and intimate portrayal of the bonds made between family, friends, and community, and what it means to be Black and gay in America.
The Hurricane (1999)
In June of 1966, two Black men gunned down three white men at a New Jersey bar. Later that night, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a champion middleweight boxer, was arrested along with his friend John Artis simply because they were in the area and vaguely matched the description of the shooters. In what is now seen as one of the most high-profile racist miscarriages of justice, Carter and Artis were convicted of all three murders by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison. Despite public outcry, including from well-known figures such as Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, Carter spent 19 years in prison before being released. But Carter’s life was not without controversy, and the film, which stars Denzel Washington as Carter, has been criticized for leaving out crucial information about Carter’s violent tendencies. Still, it’s an important look at how flippant the American justice system can be.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Part documentary, part visual letter, I Am Not Your Negro uses excerpts of James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, to explore America’s history of racism. It focuses on three vastly different but seminal figures of the Civil Rights movement, all of whom Baldwin was friends with and all of whom were assassinated within five years of each other: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. The film brilliantly weaves Baldwin’s own writing — narrated with controlled intensity by Samuel L Jackson — with footage of the films, events, and people Baldwin references. The scenes of angry white mobs opposing integration in the 1960s are uncomfortably familiar to a modern audience and highlight how divided our country still is today.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of a group of Black female NASA mathematicians who were instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, the film tackles both sexism and racism through a story that will engage both adults and kids alike. In fact, we at KCM encourage you to watch this one with your kids, namely because it gives some long-overdue credit to Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and their contributions to math and science.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Queen Viola Davis does it again. In this film based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, Davis plays Ma Rainey, an over-the-top blues singer who is set to record a new album with her band during a studio session in 1927 Chicago. Davis’ performance as the indomitable, larger-than-life Ma Rainey is matched in both energy and fervor by Chadwick Boseman, who plays a trumpet player and aspiring songwriter named Levee. The film marks Boseman’s last role before he died of colon cancer at age 43, and it is a remarkable performance to watch.
If you have not already seen 13th, drop everything and watch it now. If you’ve already seen it, drop everything and watch it again. It’s difficult to comprehend how filmmaker Ava DuVernay manages to weave so many pivotal and shameful events in our nation’s history, starting with slavery all the way up to the modern prison system, into one short film. This stunning and masterful exploration of the United States’ history of racial oppression and its role in the mass incarceration of people of color will probably make you angry. It will probably make you uncomfortable. And it will definitely make you reexamine who the criminal justice system is actually meant to protect in our country.
The Hate U Give (2018)
When author Angie Thomas published her debut novel, a young adult book called The Hate U Give, it was almost immediately optioned for a film. The story follows a young Black teen girl named Starr Carter, who feels stuck between two worlds as she attends a majority white prep school and lives in a majority Black neighborhood. As she tries to navigate what she feels are two sides of her personality, her life is turned upside down when she witnesses her childhood friend, Khalil, brutally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. The story is still wildly relevant, and Amandla Stenberg is exquisite in the role of Starr. This is another great film to watch as a family, and will certainly spark some important conversations.
Get Out (2017)
Get Out premiered to accolades from audiences and critics alike. The horror film, which not so subtly criticizes the American tendency to objectify Black bodies, follows a young Black man who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family and quickly realizes that there’s something very, very off about the town. The film earned writer-director Jordan Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, making him the first African-American to win the award.
Paris is Burning (1991)
This documentary, which was made over the course of seven years, follows New York City’s Black and Latino drag-ball scene in Harlem. The film offers a gateway into New York City’s Black queer community at a time when AIDS, homophobia, racism, and poverty were issues dealt with on a daily basis. Despite the acts of violence committed against this marginalized community, the subjects of Paris is Burning are full of joy, style, and extravagance, and they’re not afraid to strut their stuff.
Hair Love (2020)
This adorable Oscar-winning animated short from Sony Pictures Animation tells a simple story of a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. At just under seven minutes long, this short film manages to show a loving Black family tackling a whole host of topics from self-acceptance to conquering your fears, and — spoiler alert — it has a very happy ending.
The Gospel According to André (2017)
Honor the late fashion journalist André Leon Talley with this documentary about his life and career from his childhood in the segregated South to his iconic, barrier-breaking work at Women’s Wear Daily, W, and Vogue.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)
This film documents the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize-winner, from her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, and the frontlines with Angela Davis to ʼ70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali and her own riverfront writing room using her work and interviews with Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Oprah Winfrey, and others.
Maya Angelou and Still I Rise (2016)
Believe it or not, this was the first feature documentary on the singer, dancer, activist, poet, and writer who inspired generations with modern African-American thought that pushed boundaries.
One Night in Miami (2020)
This fictional account of when icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown spent one incredible and tumultuous night together is a compelling and relevant argument of the responsibility any public figure has to fight for what is right. Starting with a historic night in sports, the night leads the four men to discuss their differing roles in the Civil Rights Movement and cultural upheaval of the ’60s, and how each of them approached this through their own art in different but equally impactful ways.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
This Oscar-winning film focuses on the true story of what happened when William O’Neal was offered a plea deal by the FBI and ended up infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton.
Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington plays Malcolm X in this Spike Lee-directed biographical epic that follows the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader from his early life and career as a small-time gangster to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Just Mercy (2019)
Michael B. Jordan stars in this powerful movie based on the life of Civil Rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. Not only is this movie inspiring and entertaining, but it’s an impactful resource in learning about the systemic racism that plagues this country.