In what feels at present like a very unsteady and confused United States, one thing remains the same, however ignored or celebrated. The month of February is African-American History Month. This time of paying tribute to the generations of African-Americans who struggled to expand acceptance and inclusion for themselves and all members of their race, has been happening since all the way back to February 1926, when it was shorter, and called Negro History Week. It was embraced, and had a great and increasingly positive response, and in 1976, it was expanded and renamed African-American History Month.
There has been so much divisiveness, and so many displays of blatant racism witnessed over the last few months. An opportunity to be reminded of the artists, writers, and the many important members of our society who are people of color, is perfectly timed. I’m happy to recommend some great movies to educate, illuminate, and entertain, on a wide variety of subjects relating to people of color in the United States. I’ll be watching a film each day that touches on some aspect of African-American life: struggling, living, enhancing their communities, and making positive changes, all around our nation. Here are just a few I recommend:
NOMINATED FILMS AVAILABLE OR IN THEATERS NOW:
One of the many concerns of the march is to break the cycle of inequities of gender and race in the criminal justice system. As enlightening and motivating as it is depressing, co-writer and director Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the connection between the prison system and the history of racial inequality and oppression in this country is entirely engrossing. For all those who yearn to be informed about life and experience in the US, it is both eye-opening and horrifying. One in three young black men are expected to go to jail or prison in their lifetime. Is that statistic representative of the behaviors in our society or is there something more going on? DuVernay lays out evidence and facts that will change the way you see the justice and prison systems. (Netflix)
In case you hadn’t heard, Hidden Figures took Rogue One by surprise, overtaking it at the box office. It surprised again when it beat out La La Land for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The movie is based on the true story of three African-American women who significantly influenced the outcome in the launch of NASA’s first successful space missions. One of the reasons this film has done so well, apart from the acting and great screenplay, is the inspirational tone it has overall, despite inclusion of the women’s struggles portrayed therein. (In theaters)
A near perfect movie, Moonlight should be seen for its lyrical storytelling, its three-dimensional characters, and the fearless performances by the acting ensemble. Since it’s African American History Month, however, add to those reasons the fact that director Barry Jenkins is only the fourth black director nominated for an Oscar, and the film also got the first ever nomination in film editing for Joi McMillan, an African American woman. Let yourself fall for this coming-of-age story of a young boy who grows into a man, despite living in poverty with a crack-addicted mother. The three stages of this character’s life are portrayed by three different actors, and their performances make Moonlight all the more compelling. (In theaters)
If all you did was see Fences for the work of two-time Pulitzer prize winning African American playwright August Wilson, that would be enough reason. The fact that Denzel Washington both stars in and directs the film version, which was based on the screenplay written by Wilson before his death in 2005, adds more impetus. The third yet equally important motivation would be seeing Viola Davis in one of her best performances, one that is likely to glean her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. These fine actors come together to portray a 1950s working-class family dealing with all the issues of the time. (In theaters)
Directed by Ava DuVernay, and starring David Oyelowo in a career-defining role as Martin Luther King, Selma takes the audience through the often terrifying period in US history, when the right for equal voting rights was being fought through peaceful protest, and an epic march that took place in 1965. Both DuVernay and Oyelowo should have had a strong chance of winning Best Director and Best Actor at the Oscars the year Selma was released. Neither were even nominated, which is emblematic of the changes still needed in Hollywood to get to equal representation for women and people of color. (HBO)
THE SUNSET LIMITED:
The Sunset Limited is based on a play by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote the screenplay. It stars only two people, Tommy Lee Jones, and Samuel L. Jackson. I include this film on the list because it’s arguably the best performance of Jackson’s career. It’s also a great character study of two men, with very different world views, talking their different perspectives out, and ultimately feeling compassion for one another. Their performance together make for a completely mesmerizing cinematic journey. (On demand)
Fruitvale Station is the fictionalization of the real life experience of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old who was killed by a policeman. The film takes us through Grant’s experiences on the last day of his life. It’s directed by rising star Ryan Coogler (who is helming Marvel’s Black Panther) and features his frequent actor collaborator Michael B. Jordan, whose brilliance in the role of Oscar Grant catapulted him to stardom. Though overlooked at the Oscars, it garnered dozens of big awards around the world for its unflinching portrayal of police brutality and racism, and the depiction of a complicated young man working toward needed changes in his life. (On demand)
12 YEARS A SLAVE:
12 Years a Slave is another film directed by a gentleman of color, albeit from England. He is one of the four black men nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. The film made Lupita Nyong’o’s career, winning her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and also advanced lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor to the Hollywood A-list. It is based on a book released in the 1850s written by Solomon Northrup, a free black man in New York, who was abducted and sold into slavery. Knowing the rest of this true story is all the more heart-wrenching. Northrup attempted to bring his kidnappers to trial, but the charges were dropped, and he was never compensated for his years as a slave. Remember this happened only a little over 150 years ago. We are seeing the repercussions of slavery in the US still echo in our society today. (On demand)
Two immense figures in the history of Hollywood, who also lived very unusual, atypical lives, star in this now rather obscure film, which is a remake of a 1949 version. Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. are perfect in what amounts to a rather salacious story of sin, manipulation, and self destruction. Does Anna Lucasta have a B-movie vibe? Yes. However, I chose this instead of dozens of more famous, classic films, because seeing Kitt and Davis Jr., two stars of unparalleled magnetism, onscreen together should be essential viewing for all film and music lovers. (YouTube)
CABIN IN THE SKY:
Directed by Vincente Minnellli, and starring an insane number of the best African-American performers, this film is the Maserati of great black films. Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and a host of other black character actors are featured. It is the story of a compulsive gambler, his god-fearing wife, and a ‘bad’ girl. The choices he makes are being watched from beyond Earth, and those watching will either send him to heaven or hell. It’s is a light-hearted delight in which we get to see some of the best figures in African-American jazz and blues history. (On TMC February 6th, and on demand)
THE DEFIANT ONES: (1958)
Sidney Poitier partners with a surprisingly skilled Tony Curtis, as an angry black man and a white racist shackled together who escape prison, and have to work together to escape successfully. It takes superior talent to measure up to Poitier onscreen, but Curtis does it. The Defiant Ones features an Oscar-winning screenwriting and cinematography, as well as seven other nominations. In the history of films examining race relations on an intimate level, this is one of the essentials, along with another of Poitier’s historic films, In the Heat of the Night. (On demand)
PRESSURE POINT: (1962)
Here again, Sidney Poitier shows he is one of the top actors in history. In Pressure Point, he plays the chief psychiatrist in an institution working with a Nazi sympathizer played by Bobby Darin. Producer Stanley Kramer suggested casting Poitier as the doctor in a role that wasn’t race-specific, adding a dimension to the interaction between the characters, but adding significant risk for the the movie to flop, which it did. Kramer directed Poitier in two of his better known films, “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. (Amazon and YouTube)
Obviously there are hundreds of great films, both old and new, you could watch during Black History Month. If you’d like to see more, or get other recommendations, follow or find me on Twitter. I’ll be watching a film every day in February that will commemorate some aspect of African-American History.
This month we are reminded to accept, support, and celebrate an essential part of our American community in all the ways we can. One way I choose to do it is through film, and I’d love you to join me. The more ways we find to honor those around us, especially now, the stronger or more resilient America as a whole will be as a country. We will be needing a lot of strength and resilience.