A while back, we created a timeline of American history using 30 different movies. Now, in celebration of Black History Month, we’ve created a similar timeline focusing solely on the black experience in America, as represented throughout film history. Additionally, we’ll only be using movies made by nonwhite directors, which, of course, limits the titles we can use somewhat — after all, the depressing fact of the matter is that there are likely more movies about black history directed by white directors than by directors of color (particularly when it comes to mainstream studio productions). By selecting only movies directed by such filmmakers, though, we’ll gain a much more personal—and altogether more insightful—view of black history in America.
Antebellum: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) and Sankofa (Haile Gerima, 1993)
We previously included 12 Years a Slave on our History of America in 30 Films list, as it just may be the best film ever made about the institution of slavery in the United States. Steve McQueen created something here that is absolutely uncompromising; his portrait of slavery is not at all sanitized, and the movie is all the better for it. Maybe the best thing about the film is how transportive it is, by providing an intensely detail-oriented portrayal of the antebellum South. Any timeline of black history in American cinema is likely to start with something about slavery, making this the perfect place to begin. From here, we can draw a direct line to the continuing struggles of the black American community today.
Sankofa is something a little different — it’s a similarly compelling movie about slavery, but with a twist. Mona, a Black American fashion model, while at a photo shoot in Ghana, is transported back in time to a plantation in the United States. There, she lives in the body of a house servant. Yes, maybe this sounds a little too much like fantasy to include in a list about history, but the portrayal of the harsh life of a slave is as accurate here as in any other film. And, of course, director Haile Gerima is making an explicit point about remembering the historical roots from which one came in using this time travel element as part of the story. It’s an extremely personal movie, making its portrayal of history all the richer.
Early 1900s: Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
Here’s a fact about Daughters of the Dust that’s surprising, and yet not all that hard to believe when you think about it: this was the first feature-length movie by an African-American woman to have theatrical distribution in the United States. And it came out in 1991! It certainly goes to show how much black directors, particularly women, have been ignored by mainstream Hollywood throughout most of its history. But to the benefit of cinephiles everywhere, the film has recently been restored in honor of its 25th anniversary, so seeing it is now even easier than ever. Daughters of the Dust is set in the early 1900s and focuses on the story of a family of Gullah women living on an island in the southern United States. It’s a unique culture that’s not often seen in film, and for that reason alone it’s worth watching. It’s a beautifully made movie, and a special vision from director Julie Dash.
Harlem Renaissance: Brother to Brother (Rodney Evans, 2004)
It may not be a movie you’ve heard of before, but Brother to Brother is probably the most thorough cinematic portrayal of the Harlem Renaissance. In the film, Perry, a young, gay black man in the present day, befriends an older homeless man named Bruce Nugent. Nugent, who was a painter and writer during the Harlem Renaissance (and also openly gay), is a real-life figure, though the portrayal of him here is fictionalized. Nugent tells Perry all about the old days and, in black and white flashback sequences, we learn about Nugent’s relationships with such monumental figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Aaron Douglas. Its dual timeline structure, while unique, allows director Rodney Evans to show how the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance (as well as the struggles of writers like Bruce Nugent) still reverberate today.
Civil Rights Movement: Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) and Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
Here are two vastly different films about the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X is an epic, clocking in at over three hours, following the title figure from his childhood to his assassination in 1965. It recreates many of the most important moments of his life, all powered by a tour de force performance from Denzel Washington. By focusing so squarely on one individual, Spike Lee is able to tell the larger story of the Civil Rights Movement in general. Selma, on the other hand, is a smaller movie (in the best way possible). Its focus is mostly on the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, and while David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. is clearly front and center, many other Civil Rights leaders of the time (such as current U.S. Representative John Lewis) are also depicted.
1980s: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Here’s another one we included on our History of America in 30 Films list. Do the Right Thing is, simply put, one of the greatest films of all time. It absolutely had to be included here. Just as he did with Malcolm X, Spike Lee focuses so sharply on a specific subject here—a single day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn—that he’s able to draw many broader points about race in America. And even aside from some of the more important issues raised by the movie, it’s also just a really great snapshot of a neighborhood that’s changed a lot since the film’s release in 1989.
The Movie Industry: Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987)
While fictional, Hollywood Shuffle is a perfect addition here, as it’s basically a parody of the history of cinema from the perspective of a black actor. Like all great comedies, there’s a ton of truth in it. Director Robert Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor. But as a black man, the pickings for roles are slim, to say the very least. Early on in the movie, he has to audition for a movie called “Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge.” This is typical of the kind of roles he has access to: stereotypical, shallow, and demeaning. Townsend, through comedy and satire (much of the movie is made up of Taylor’s fantasies of different movies), brings to light the casual racism of Hollywood by using absurdity to hammer home the point that black actors often have to settle for roles that are far from substantial or meaningful.
The Future President: Barry (Vikram Gandhi, 2016)
2016 saw the release of two movies about the young Barack Obama — Barry is ultimately probably the better of the two (though Southside With You is also quite good). The film is set during Obama’s college years in the early 1980s, beginning when he first arrives at Columbia University in New York City. It’s a very interesting portrayal of what the molding of a future president’s mind may have looked like. Throughout the movie, “Barry” (as he was called then), struggles with his identity. The son of a black father and a white mother, he often feels torn between worlds; most of the movie’s dramatic weight involves him trying to best navigate his course between those worlds. At this early stage, the young Barack Obama is not yet a fully formed figure, but through the search for his intellectual identity, we see the beginnings of the man he’ll become.
Bonus: Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema
This pick will rest outside of our timeline a bit, but in terms of a historical document, this might be the most important inclusion. Kino Lorber’s collection of films by African-American directors, originally released on DVD in 2016, has recently been added to Netflix. They span a period from World War I to the middle of the century, and there’s some absolutely fascinating stuff included. There’s everything from short films, to full-lengths, to documentaries. A lot of this was not readily available until recently, and watching any of the films included is not only a great window into black history, but also into the history of cinema in general. The sheer variety of the movies and the originality of directors (the most notable one perhaps being Oscar Micheaux) are a great addition to anybody’s film education. For the adventurous movie lover, this is an essential collection.