Tuesday marked the beginning of Black History Month, a time of the year dedicated to acknowledging Black history and celebrating the culture and accomplishments of the African diaspora. This year, I would like to acknowledge the Black community’s contributions to the film industry.
This is important to do because Black directors telling Black stories are not given enough attention. For example, the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 movies only includes two movies made by directors of color, and just one of them is Black. Even AFI understands this mistake, stating on their website “since its inception, American film has marginalized the diversity of voices that make our nation and its stories strong.”
Therefore, I have chosen five movies to recommend watching this month to help bring attention to Black cinema. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I believe it is a great start for anyone interested in expanding their taste in film.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing is the only movie by a Black director featured in the previously mentioned list by AFI. It follows pizza delivery man Mookie and other characters who live in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn as they go about life during the hottest day of summer.
Although there is a lot I could say about the stunning use of colors and cinematography, the symbolism and historical parallels are what make the movie stand out. There is subtle storytelling behind every detail in this movie, such as small baseball details that reference the Howard Beach incident.
The movie feels like a visual discussion about prejudice, gentrification and a need for communication. It gives the audience a chance to figure out on their own what they think is the right decision.
Do the Right Thing is not only a beautiful movie, but it is also a deeply important one that continues to be a real depiction of race relations in the U.S. The relevance of this movie can be seen in the deaths of Black people such as Latasha Harlins in 1991, Michael Brown in 2014 and George Floyd in 2020.
2. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is another film that condemns police brutality. However, unlike Do the Right Thing, it’s told in more of a documentary-style by recreating the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was killed.
Fruitvale Station is a work of empathy, showing us a three-dimensional main character with dreams and flaws. Grant tries to fix his relationship with his girlfriend, be a good father to his daughter and get his job back — all in 24 hours.
Yet, all of his attempts to become a better person never come to fruition due to his death at the end. I find this movie so powerful because this approach to making Grant feel like a real person makes the audience better understand the loss of life that occurred in real life.
3. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood was the directorial debut of John Singleton, and it shows what life was like within Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles at the time. It follows boys Tre, Ricky and Doughboy as they either try to get out of the city or succumb to its cycle of violence.
I find this movie extremely important for everyone to watch at least once in their life. The lessons that Boyz n the Hood teaches expose the inequality Black people face to a wide audience. It can feel preachy at times, especially during a scene where Tre’s father begins an abrupt lecture about gentrification and why Black neighborhoods face so many problems.
Just about anyone can learn from this, whether it is someone from a similar neighborhood who could see that the cycle of violence should be avoided or an outside learner who could understand what life is like for marginalized people.
4. One Night in Miami… (2020)
The Amazon original movie One Night in Miami… is the most recent movie on this list, but it is probably just as important as the others. Directed by Regina King and adapted from a play by Kemp Powers, it tells a fictional account of a real meeting consisting of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.
What I find important about this movie is the main conflict it creates between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, two friends and influential members of the Black community who had different methods of empowering themselves.
There is a discussion here about whether the Black community should separate themselves from or work within a system made by white people. Along with this major theme, One Night in Miami… addresses colorism, faith and other issues Black people face.
Like Do the Right Thing, this movie never pretends that there is one solution to any of the problems.
5. Love & Basketball (2000)
More lighthearted than the previous movies listed, Love & Basketball by Gina Prince-Bythewood tells the story of two people falling in and out of love with each other from childhood to adulthood, while also pursuing separate careers in basketball.
This movie is not as involved with the topics of racism and racial conflict as the rest I mentioned, but what it does do is create a romantic drama that is by and about Black people.
Love & Basketball shows Black people in a context where they interact with one another in the same way white characters in romantic movies do without any worry of societal pressures stemming from race. I believe that in and of itself can be empowering in a way.