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Great Films in African American History

Clockwise from top left: Daughters of the Dust, I Am Not Your Negro, Eve's Bayou, Killer of Sheep, The Watermelon Woman Cohen Media Group/Everett; Magnolia Pictures/Everett; Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett; Milestone Film & Video/Everett; First Run Features/Everett

This fall I plan to assign a more extensive film critique essay for my African American history courses.

This list includes film projects (documentary and otherwise) that depict African American history and culture.

Thanks to Not Even Past for being such a great initial resource. Additional film mostly (but not exclusively) covered themes related to ideas about gender and sexuality as well as more contemporary projects.

Pre Colonial African History

Mother Africa (BBC) (2020-- )

In this first episode, Zeinab Badawi travels across the continent examining the origins of humankind; how and why we evolved in Africa - Africa is the greatest exporter of all time: every human being originated in Africa.

The whole series is on YouTube and is a documentary film project that foregrounds the scholarship of African scholars on the History of Africa. There are 9 episodes.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade & Domestic Trade

Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg, USA)

In 1839, the slave ship Amistad set sail from Cuba to America. During the long trip, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) leads the slaves in an unprecedented uprising. They are then held prisoner in Connecticut, and their release becomes the subject of heated debate. Freed slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) wants Cinque and the others exonerated and recruits property lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to help his case. Eventually, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) also becomes an ally. (via Google)

Birth of a Nation (2016, Nate Parker)

Nat Turner is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner. With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner’s quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County. (via Google)

Invisible History: Middle Florida's Hidden Roots (2021)

The Emmy-nominated historical documentary INVISIBLE HISTORY: MIDDLE FLORIDA'S HIDDEN ROOTS sheds light on the invisible history of plantations and the enslaved in North Florida. With visually compelling imagery, the film explores the history of a people who contributed so much to what the region is today. (via Kanopy)

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (2008)

In TRACES OF THE TRADE: A STORY FROM THE DEEP NORTH, one family's painful but persistent confrontation with the continuing legacy of the slave trade becomes America's own. Katrina Browne uncovers her New England family's deep involvement in the Triangle Trade and, in so doing, reveals the pivotal role slavery played in the growth of the whole American economy. This courageous documentary asks every American what we can and should do to repair the unacknowledged damage of our troubled past.

This film especially asks what the legacy of slavery is for white Americans. It points to the fundamental inequity and institutional racism that persists and to the broken relationship between black and white Americans. It invites every viewer to consider what it will take to move beyond the guilt, defensiveness, fear and anger which continue to divide us.

Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival. (via Kanopy)

12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)

This is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in New York who was kidnapped and enslaved for twelve years before he was able to get word to his family in the North and be rescued. (via Google)

Civil War and Reconstruction

Glory (1989)

Tribute to the Army's first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, that was mustered up during the Civil War under the command of an inexperienced white New Englander. (via Google)

The West & American Empire

Harriet (2020)

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Haunted by memories of those she left behind, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) ventures back into dangerous territory on a mission to lead others to freedom. With allies like abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and the entrepreneurial Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), Harriet risks capture and death to guide hundreds to safety as one of the most prominent conductors of the Underground Railroad. Witness the story of a woman who defied impossible odds to change the course of her life and the fate of the nation. (via Google) Turn of the Twentieth Century

Daughters of the Dust

At the dawn of the 20th Century, a multigenerational African-American family prepares to leave the sea islands for the mainland. In conjunction with UCLA Film & Television Archive, Cohen Film Collection is proud to present a new restoration of director Julie Dash's groundbreaking film. (via Google)

The Color Purple (1985)

An epic tale spanning forty years in the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), an African-American woman living in the South who survives incredible abuse and bigotry. After Celie's abusive father marries her off to the equally debasing "Mister" Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), things go from bad to worse, leaving Celie to find companionship anywhere she can. She perseveres, holding on to her dream of one day being reunited with her sister in Africa. Based on the novel by Alice Walker. (via Google)

World War I & New Era

Many Steps: The Origin and Evolution of African American Collegiate Stepping (2002)

A lively exploration of the historical and cultural context of "Stepping," an energetic communal dance form sweeping college campuses. Young teams of dancers creatively add hip-hop movements to a tradition dating back to the early 20th century.

The origin and evolution of African American collegiate stepping is explored in this energetic and informative documentary. Stepping is a popular communal art form in which teams of young dancers compete, using improvisation, call and response, complex meters, propulsive rhythms and a percussive attack.

Stepping dates back to the early 20th century, when Black veterans of World War I enrolled in colleges. Inspired by their military training, they brought to their dances a highly rigorous, drill-like component and combined it with elements from other Black dances, just as today's steppers often add hip-hop movements. Spike Lee's 1988 film, School Daze, brought stepping to a wider audience.

Scholarly commentary from a wide range of disciplines points to a high degree of cultural retention in the dances. This commentary, interwoven with lively and exciting stepping performance footage, provides a historical and cultural context for this creative and affirming phenomenon sweeping college campuses.

"A comprehensive look at the art of stepping, providing a much needed historical explanation for one of the most misunderstood yet highly visible forms of self expression. This documentary is a must see for all members of Black Greek lettered organizations." - Walter M. Kimbrough, Albany State University (via Kanopy)

Rosewood (1997, John Singleton)

Rosewood, Florida, is a small, peaceful town with an almost entirely African-American population of middle-class homeowners, until New Year’s Day 1923, when a lynch mob from a neighboring white community storms the town. Among the carnage, music teacher Sylvester (Don Cheadle) and mysterious stranger Mann (Ving Rhames) stand tall against the invaders, while white grocer John (Jon Voight) attempts to save the town’s women and children. The film is based on a true story.

Within Our Gates (1920, Oscar Micheaux)

In this early silent film from pioneering director Oscar Micheaux, kindly Sylvia Landry (Flo Clements) takes a fundraising trip to Boston in hopes of collecting $5,000 to keep a Southern school for impoverished black children open to the public. She then meets the warmhearted Dr. Vivian (William Smith), who falls in love with Sylvia and travels with her back to the South. There, Dr. Vivian learns about Sylvia’s shocking, tragic past and realizes that racism has changed her life forever. (via Google)

Great Depression

Something the Lord Made (2004, Joseph Sargent)

Although Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), a black man in the 1930s, is originally hired as a janitor, he proves himself adept at assisting the “Blue Baby doctor,” Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), with his medical research. When Blalock insists that Thomas follow him to Johns Hopkins University, they must find a way to skirt a racist system to continue their study of infant heart disease. Thomas is indispensable to Blalock’s progress, but Blalock is the only one who is allowed to receive the acclaim. (via Google)

World War II

Miss Evers Boys (1997)

When nurse Eunice Evers (Alfre Woodard) is chosen to facilitate a program intended to curb syphilis rates among African Americans in rural Alabama, she is gratified to be able to serve her community. Over time, however, the study becomes twisted into a shocking human experiment in which patients are systematically denied much-needed medicine. Decades after the fact, Evers is called before a Senate committee to testify as to what really happened during the infamous "Tuskegee Study."

Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

During World War II, members of the U.S. Army's all-black division are stationed in the Tuscany region of Italy. Four of the soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller) become trapped behind enemy lines and separated from the rest of their unit after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy.

Red Tails (2012, George Lucas, Anthony Hemingway)

During World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Authority selects 13 black cadets to become part of an experimental program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The program aims at training “colored personnel” to become fighter pilots for the Army. However, discrimination, lack of institutional support and the racist belief that these men lacked the intelligence and aptitude for the job dog their every step. Despite this, the Tuskegee Airmen, as they become known, more than prove their worth. (via Google)

The 1950s & the Early Cold War

Eve's Bayou (1997)

Over the course of a long, hot Louisiana summer, a 10-year-old black girl, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), discovers that her family's affluent existence is merely a facade. The philandering of her suave doctor father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), creates a rift, throwing Eve's mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), and teenage sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), into emotional turmoil. Eve, though, manages to find some solace with her quirky psychic aunt, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). (via Google)

Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) makes his living as a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. Maxson once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but was deemed too old when the major leagues began admitting black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, Troy creates further tension in his family when he squashes his son’s (Jovan Adepo) chance to meet a college football recruiter. (via Google)

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950, Alfred E. Green)

After a successful baseball career in college and as a coach in the military, Jackie Robinson (playing himself) attracts the attention of Major League Baseball’s Branch Rickey (Minor Watson). Rickey wants Robinson to play in the minor leagues, believing he can become the first player to break the color barrier and play in the majors. The only catch: He is forbidden from defending himself against racial bigotry. Supported by his wife (Ruby Dee), Robinson is steadfast in his determination to win. (via Google)

Mudbound (2017, Dee Rees, Netflix)

“In the post-World War II Jim Crow South, two families, one black and one white, struggle to keep their farms and lives intact in rural Mississippi. Featuring Mary J. Blige, directed and written by black creatives and nominated for four Oscars (including Best Picture)..” (HuffPost)

The 1960s

At the River I Stand: The Climax of the Civil Rights Movement (1993)

Memphis, Spring 1968 marked the dramatic climax of the Civil Rights movement. AT THE RIVER I STAND skillfully reconstructs the two eventful months that transformed a strike by Memphis sanitation worker into a national conflagration, and disentangles the complex historical forces that came together with the inevitability of tragedy at the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This documentary brings into sharp relief issues that have only become more urgent in the intervening years: the connection between economic and civil rights, debates over strategies for change, the demand for full inclusion of African Americans in American life and the fight for dignity for public employees and all working people. In the 1960s, Memphis' 1,300 sanitation workers formed the lowest caste of a deeply racist society, earning so little they qualified for welfare. In the film, retired workers recall their fear about taking on the entire white power structure when they struck for higher wages and union recognition. But local civil rights leaders and the Black community soon realized the strike was part of the struggle for economic justice for all African Americans.

"More than any other Civil Rights documentary, this is a deeply emotional, riveting narration of black working-class resistance that speaks to the current crisis and jars our collective memory. To see these determined, dignified sanitation workers and to witness the Black Memphis community's solidarity with the strikers was enough to bring tears." - Robin D.G. Kelley, Columbia University

"Has all the impact of Eyes on the Prize. It would seem almost inconceivable not to acquire this video. Beautifully conceived, produced and presented." - Video Rating Guide for Libraries (via Kanopy)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

Scout Finch (Mary Badham), 6, and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), live in sleepy Maycomb, Ala., spending much of their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) and spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck), their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges, the trial and tangent events expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping. (via Google)

Detroit (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)

In the summer of 1967, rioting and civil unrest starts to tear apart the city of Detroit. Two days later, a report of gunshots prompts the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Several policemen start to flout procedure by forcefully and viciously interrogating guests to get a confession. By the end of the night, three unarmed men are gunned down while several others are brutally beaten. (via Google)

Four Little Girls (1997)

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated racist group. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, four African-American girls between the ages of 11 and 14 who had been attending the church's Sunday school, were killed in the blast. Director Spike Lee's somber 1997 documentary tells the story through new interviews and archival footage.

Freedom Riders (2010, Stanley Nelson Jr)

Renowned director Stanley Nelson chronicles the inspirational story of American civil rights activists’ peaceful fight against racial segregation on buses and trains in the 1960s. (via Google)

Freedom Song (2000, Phil Alden Robinson)

Owen (Vicellous Reon Shannon) is a young man living in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Surrounded by racism, Owen looks for inspiration in dealing with oppression, while his father, Will (Danny Glover), prefers to keep his head down after his bad luck with protests in the past. Will expects his son to follow suit, but their relationship is put to the test when Owen starts joining in peaceful protests organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (via Google)

Ghosts of Mississippi (1996, Rob Reiner)

Tells the story of the murder of Medgar Evans in 1963.

Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)

Dr Don Shirley is a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip, a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.

The Evers (2020)

On June 12, 1963, an assassin's bullet ended the life of Medgar Evers, the Field Secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. From the Emmy-winning director of "The Uncomfortable Truth" comes the incredible true story of one family's unbreakable love and tragic sacrifice in the name of freedom for everyone. "THE EVERS" is a powerful testament of love, faith and family in the quest for a better world.

The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)

In 1960s Mississippi, Southern society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college with dreams of being a writer. She turns her small town on its ear by choosing to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent white families. Only Aibileen (Viola Davis), the housekeeper of Skeeter’s best friend, will talk at first. But as the pair continue the collaboration, more women decide to come forward, and as it turns out, they have quite a lot to say. (via Google)

Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

Three brilliant African-American women at NASA — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world. (via Google)

I am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck)

In 1979, James Baldwin began writing “Remember This House,” a radical account of the lives and assassinations of three men he was quite close to: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. However, Baldwin had only written 30 pages of the manuscript before passing away in 1987. This documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, imagines what could have come of this never-finished book. (HuffPost)

Malcolm X (1992, Spike Lee)

A tribute to the controversial black activist and leader of the struggle for black liberation. He hit bottom during his imprisonment in the ’50s, he became a Black Muslim and then a leader in the Nation of Islam. His assassination in 1965 left a legacy of self-determination and racial pride. (via Google)

Mississippi Burning (1988, Alan Parker)

When a group of civil rights workers goes missing in a small Mississippi town, FBI agents Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) are sent in to investigate. Local authorities refuse to cooperate with them, and the African American community is afraid to, precipitating a clash between the two agents over strategy. As the situation becomes more volatile, the direct approach is abandoned in favor of more aggressive, hard-line tactics. (via Google)

Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams And Black Power (2005)

Robert F. Williams was the forefather of the Black Power movement and broke dramatic new ground by internationalizing the African American struggle. NEGROES WITH GUNS is not only an electrifying look at an historically erased leader, but also provides a thought-provoking examination of Black radicalism and resistance and serves as a launching pad for the study of Black liberation philosophies. Insightful interviews with historian Clayborne Carson, biographer Timothy Tyson, Julian Bond, and a first-person account by Mabel Williams, Robert's wife, bring the story to life.

Portrait of Jason (1967, Shirley Clarke)

On December 2, 1966, director Shirley Clarke and a miniscule film crew gathered in her apartment at the Hotel Chelsea. Bestowed for twelve hours with the one-and-only Jason Holliday, Clarke confronted the iconic performer about his good times and bad behavior as a gay hustler, on-and-off houseboy and aspiring cabaret performer. As the cameras rolled and Holliday spun tales, sang songs and donned costumes through the night, a mesmerizing portrait formed of a remarkable man. Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life,” but audiences may know it better as PORTRAIT OF JASON, a funny, stinging and painful meditation on pride and prejudice through the eyes of a legendary figure.

Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the South, discrimination was still rampant in certain areas, making it very difficult for blacks to register to vote. In 1965, an Alabama city became the battleground in the fight for suffrage. Despite violent opposition, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers pressed forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, and their efforts culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (via Google)

Walkout (2006 Edward James Olmos)

A teacher (Michael Peña) becomes a mentor to Chicano high-school students protesting injustices in public schools in 1968. (via Google)

The 1970s & Deindustrialization

At the River I Stand: The Climax of the Civil Rights Movement (1975)

Memphis, Spring 1968 marked the dramatic climax of the Civil Rights movement. AT THE RIVER I STAND skillfully reconstructs the two eventful months that transformed a strike by Memphis sanitation worker into a national conflagration, and disentangles the complex historical forces that came together with the inevitability of tragedy at the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This documentary brings into sharp relief issues that have only become more urgent in the intervening years: the connection between economic and civil rights, debates over strategies for change, the demand for full inclusion of African Americans in American life and the fight for dignity for public employees and all working people. In the 1960s, Memphis' 1,300 sanitation workers formed the lowest caste of a deeply racist society, earning so little they qualified for welfare. In the film, retired workers recall their fear about taking on the entire white power structure when they struck for higher wages and union recognition. But local civil rights leaders and the Black community soon realized the strike was part of the struggle for economic justice for all African Americans.

"More than any other Civil Rights documentary, this is a deeply emotional, riveting narration of black working-class resistance that speaks to the current crisis and jars our collective memory. To see these determined, dignified sanitation workers and to witness the Black Memphis community's solidarity with the strikers was enough to bring tears." - Robin D.G. Kelley, Columbia University

"Has all the impact of Eyes on the Prize. It would seem almost inconceivable not to acquire this video. Beautifully conceived, produced and presented." - Video Rating Guide for Libraries

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021)

At the heart of this feature documentary is the groundbreaking “Two Centuries of Black American Art” exhibition curated by the late African American artist and scholar David Driskell in 1976. Held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this pioneering exhibit featured more than 200 works of art by 63 artists and cemented the essential contributions of Black artists in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibit would eventually travel to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Brooklyn Museum. The film shines a light on the exhibition’s extraordinary impact on generations of African American artists who have staked a claim on their rightful place within the 21st-century art world. ©2021 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.

Claudine (1974)

Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother in New York City who endures an exhausting commute to the suburbs where she works as a maid for wealthy families. In one carefully tended white community, she meets Roop (James Earl Jones), a charismatic but irresponsible garbage collector. Romance quickly ensues, but Claudine doubts that their relationship is good for her six children, and Rupert, despite his good nature, is reluctant to take on fatherhood.

Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

There are so few coming-of-age movies about young black girls, which makes Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” such a vital part of black movie history. Starring Zelda Harris and Alfre Woodard, the film is set in the 1970s and follows the young tomboy Troy (Harris) during her both idyllic and difficult childhood in Brooklyn. (HuffPost)

Good Fences (2003, Spike Lee)

Tom is an upwardly-mobile black middle-class attorney determined to `end the colored man's losing streak'. Now the family is off to the suburbs. It is 1973, and the lily-white community of Greenwich, Connecticut, doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the American Dream. (via Google)

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It): Artist Melvin van Peebles (2005)

Melvin Van Peebles will always be known as the man who not only changed the face of black cinema, but independent cinema forever, when he made his groundbreaking (and taboo breaking) film "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song." But’s he’s always been a lot more than that, as a playwright, actor, author, stage performer, musician and who knows what else he’s done in his 80 years. And he’s likely not through yet.

But how did a guy who grew up on the hard streets of the South side of Chicago go from there to becoming a filmmaker, a Tony-nominated playwright, an Air Force navigator, a novelist in two languages, a pioneer of the rap genre, and a floor trader at the American Stock Exchange among other things?

Taking the title from a never published essay by Van Peebles, the film follows his unpredictable life and career, both supported by his motto: if opportunity fails to knock, then build your own damn door and get on with it. The film includes decades of archival footage and interviews with a wide range of people, including Spike Lee, the late Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Mitchell, the late pioneering filmmaker St. Clair Bourne and Van Peebles’ own sons, Mario and Max.

Da 5 Bloods

Four African American veterans battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam looking for the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. (Via Google)

Remember the Titans (2000, Boaz Yakin)

In Virginia, high school football is a way of life, an institution revered, each game celebrated more lavishly than Christmas, each playoff distinguished more grandly than any national holiday. And with such recognition, comes powerful emotions. In 1971 high school football was everything to the people of Alexandria. But when the local school board was forced to integrate an all black school with an all white school, the very foundation of football’s great tradition was put to the test (IMBD).

Five on the Black Hand Side (1975)

Mr. Brooks (Leonard Jackson) is an African-American barbershop owner who runs his household with an iron fist. One day, however, Mrs. Brooks (Clarice Taylor) tires of his stern approach and embraces a nonconformist attitude that's more in line with that of their children, including the philosophical Booker T. (D'Urville Martin) and Gideon (Glynn Turman), a black militant. Soon a battle of wills erupts in the Brooks household, and no one is going to readily back down. (via Google)

Sounder (1972)

The Morgans, a family of poor black sharecroppers in the Depression-plagued South, struggle to find enough to eat despite the help their hunting dog, Sounder. When father Nathan (Paul Winfield) resorts to stealing food, he is captured by police and sent to prison, and his wife, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), is left to care for their son, David (Kevin Hooks). Though Sounder has run away, David never gives up hope that his dog will return, just as he believes that he will see his father again someday.

Space is the Place (1974)

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, Ivan Dixon)

A former CIA agent (Lawrence Cook) organizes black teenagers into well-trained guerrilla bands bent on overthrowing the white establishment. (via Google)

Welfare (1975)

WELFARE shows the nature and complexity of the welfare system in sequences illustrating the staggering diversity of problems that constitute welfare: housing, unemployment, divorce, medical and psychiatric problems, abandoned and abused children, and the elderly. These issues are presented in a context where welfare workers as well as clients struggle to cope with and interpret the laws and regulations that govern their work and life.

"I wish all the public, as well as all legislators and politicians, could see this film. It could have been made in any urban area in the United States…" – James R. Dumpson, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Welfare, in Better Times

"WELFARE is an inside look at one of the key institutions around which society functions… and like his other films it is profoundly disturbing, especially for those with preconceptions … As Wiseman’s film shows, a welfare centre is a battleground with the poor fighting desperately against a complex web of Catch 22 regulations that can defeat even the strongest and cleverest… An amazing film." – Ken Wlaschin, London Film Festival Program, 1975


Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

Salvatore “Sal” Fragione (Danny Aiello) is the Italian owner of a pizzeria in Brooklyn. A neighborhood local, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), becomes upset when he sees that the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame exhibits only Italian actors. Buggin’ Out believes a pizzeria in a black neighborhood should showcase black actors, but Sal disagrees. The wall becomes a symbol of racism and hate to Buggin’ Out and to other people in the neighborhood, and tensions rise. (via Google)

My Brother's Wedding (1985)

A man who has struggled personally has conflicts with his upwardly mobile lawyer brother and well to-do fiancé and is reluctantly to be the best man at their wedding.

School Daze (1988)

At historically black Mission College, the activist-minded Dap (Larry Fishburne) immerses himself in a world of political rhetoric and social movements -- one day he hopes to rally the students as a united front. At the other end of the spectrum, Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the biggest fraternity on campus, is more concerned with maintaining a strict social order. In between, Dap's conflicted cousin, Half-Pint (Spike Lee), spends most of his time rushing the fraternity.

Tongues Untied (1989)

Marlon Riggs' essay film TONGUES UNTIED gives voice to communities of black gay men, presenting their cultures and perspectives on the world as they confront racism, homophobia, and marginalization. It broke new artistic ground by mixing poetry, music, performance and Riggs' autobiographical revelations. The film was embraced by black gay audiences for its authentic representation of style, and culture, as well its fierce response to oppression. It opened up opportunities for dialogue among and across communities.

TONGUES UNTIED has been lauded by critics for its vision and its bold aesthetic advances, and vilified by anti-gay forces who used it to condemn government funding of the arts.It was even denounced from the floor of Congress.

Winner of Best Documentary Film at the Berlin International Film Festival.

You Got to Move (1986)

Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver's documentary about Southern individuals working for social change elevates heart, heritage and community above all else. Whether it's fighting for civil rights, wages or shutting down excessive waste dumping, these Highlander people have been active in some of the most significant movements in the country. Rich in the language and music of the South, YOU GOT TO MOVE champions civil action and follows through on its titular command by making you want to move! (via Kanopy)

The 1990s

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2013)

Against a backdrop of sex, politics, and race, ANITA reveals the intimate story of a woman who spoke truth to power.

An entire country watched as a poised, beautiful African-American woman sat before a Senate committee of 14 white men and with a clear, unwavering voice recounted the repeated acts of sexual harassment she had endured while working with U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill's graphic testimony was a turning point for gender equality in the U.S. and ignited a political firestorm about sexual harassment and power in the workplace that resonates still today.

Against a backdrop of sex, politics, and race, ANITA reveals the story of a woman who has empowered millions to stand up for equality and justice.

Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival and the Hot Docs Film Festival.

The Strange Demise of Jim Crow (1998)

Not all the civil rights victories of the '60s were won at the cost of vicious beatings and mass arrests played-out in front of television cameras. THE STRANGE DEMISE OF JIM CROW reveals for the first time on film how many Southern cities were desegregated in a quieter, almost stealthy fashion with behind-the-scenes negotiations, secret deals and controversial news black-outs. It makes visible a fascinating case-study of how urban power is really wielded.

The film demonstrates how threats of demonstrations and civic strife compelled the power elite to negotiate with more moderate, "responsible" black leaders and neutralize arch-segregationists. At the same time, by censoring news coverage, Houston integrated peacefully but also undermined efforts to build a mass movement that might truly threaten and destabilize white power and privilege.

THE STRANGE DEMISE OF JIM CROW completes the story of the civil rights movement and is ideal for political science, sociology and history courses.

"A remarkable, riveting and thought-provoking documentary. A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at secret meetings, unexpected alliances and the suppression of the news." -

Houston Chronicle

Black Is....Black Aint (1995)

African-American documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs was working on this final film as he died from AIDS-related complications in 1994; he addresses the camera from his hospital bed in several scenes. The film directly addresses sexism and homophobia within the black community, with snippets of misogynistic and anti-gay slurs from popular hip-hop songs juxtaposed with interviews with African-American intellectuals and political theorists, including Cornel West, bell hooks and Angela Davis. (via Google)

Paris is Burning (1991, Documentary)

This classic 1991 documentary gives a vivid and dynamic (though cursory) glimpse into the gay ballroom culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s that was dominated by young queer black and Latino people who used the scene as not only a form of escape, but also survival. (HuffPost)

The Watermelon Woman (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

An aspiring black lesbian filmmaker (Cheryl Dunye) researches an obscure 1940s black actress billed as the Watermelon Woman. (via Google)

The Recent Past

The Aggressives : The World of Lesbian Subcultures (2012)

An insightful exposé on the subculture of trans men, lesbian "butches" and their "femme" counterparts who tow the line between gender definitions. Filmed over five years in NYC during the late 90's and early 00's, the featured "Aggressives" share their dreams, secrets and deepest fears.

A favorite of the film festival circuit, THE AGGRESSIVES is an insightful look at the little explored, yet highly dramatic subculture of lesbian butches as well as their "femme" counterparts who toe the line between gender definitions. This fascinating documentary features intimate and revealing interviews with six subjects.

Official Selection at the SXSW Film Festival.

"Crisp, concise, intimate." - Variety

Get Out (2017)

When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American man, visits his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family estate, he becomes ensnared in the more sinister, real reason for the invitation. At first, Chris reads the family's overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter's interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he could have never imagined. This speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of The Visit, Insidious series and The Gift) and the mind of Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) is equal parts gripping thriller and provocative commentary. (via Google)

Inside Obama's Presidency (2013)

As Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term, FRONTLINE takes a probing look at the first four years of his presidency. With inside accounts from his battles with his Republican opponents over health care and the economy to his dramatic expansion of targeted killings of enemies, FRONTLINE examines the president's key decisions and the experiences that will inform his second term. (via Kanopy)

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)

A look at three defining chapters in the life of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami. His epic journey to manhood is guided by the kindness, support and love of the community that helps raise him.

The Same Difference: Gender Roles in the Black Lesbian Community

A compelling documentary about lesbians who discriminate against other lesbians based on gender roles. Director Nneka Onuorah takes an in-depth look at the internalized hetero-normative gender roles that have become all too familiar within the African American lesbian and bisexual community.

This film features many queer celebrities, including actress Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, and Lea DeLaria from Orange Is the New Black, living daily with opinions about how identity should be portrayed. Onuorah's engaging documentary shines a light on the relationships and experiences within the queer black female community, intersecting race, gender and sexuality.

Official Selection at Frameline - San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. (via. Kanopy)

Stranger Fruit: An Investigation into the Death of Michael Brown (2020)

What really happened on August 9th, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri? That afternoon, Officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. ‘STRANGER FRUIT’ is the unraveling of what took place, told through the eyes of Mike Brown’s family.

Official Selection at the SXSW Film Festival.

"A powerfully compelling take on events surrounding the death of Michael Brown." - Michael Rechtshaffen, Hollywood Reporter (via Kanopy)

Two Distant Strangers (2020)

A man trying to get home to his dog gets stuck in a time loop that forces him to relive a deadly run-in with a cop. (IMDB)

Whose Streets?: An Unflinching Look at the Ferguson Uprising (2017)

Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, WHOSE STREETS? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri. Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy. Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters.

As the National Guard descends on Ferguson with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new resistance. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis know this story because they are the story. WHOSE STREETS? is a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live.

Nominated for Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

"EYE-OPENING. This is courageous, grassroots filmmaking at its best." – Dwight Brown, The Huffington Post

Timeless: Projects Relating to Culture, Ethnicity, Networks and Identity

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999)

THE BLACK PRESS: SOLDIERS WITHOUT SWORDS is the first film to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. It recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

THE BLACK PRESS takes viewers "behind the veil" of segregation to recover a distinctly Black perspective on key events from antebellum America to the Civil Rights Movement. It offers an intimate social history of African American life during these turbulent years - the achievements trumpeted, defeats pondered, celebrities admired, even the products advertised.

Black Indians: An American Story (2002)

"Black Indians: An American Story", narrated by James Earl Jones with music by the Neville Brothers, brings to light a forgotten part of America's past - the cultural and racial fusion of Native and African Americans. Many notable Black Indians include Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Tina Turner, Jesse Jackson, and, of course, James Earl Jones, a member of the Cherokee Honor Society. From the Atlantic Seaboard to the Western Plains, family memories and historical highlights reveal the indelible mark of this unique ancestry, and its continuing influence throughout the generations.

This film features many interviews of living, breathing Black Indians who share their personal thoughts, feelings, and outlook. As Gabrielle West (White Mountain Apache/Cree) said: “I did feel in between:” This production has won a CINE Golden Eagle Ward, an Aurora Gold Award, and an OMNI Intermedia Award.

Boss: The Black Experience in Business (2019)

From award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson comes a film that educates, informs, and examines more than 150 years of African American men and women who have embodied the qualities that are the heart of the American entrepreneurial spirit.

Color Adjustment: A History of African American Portrayal on Television (1992)

In this documentary, Marlon Riggs carries his landmark studies of prejudice into the Television Age. COLOR ADJUSTMENT traces 40 years of race relations through the lens of prime time entertainment, scrutinizing television's racial myths and stereotypes.

Narrated by Ruby Dee, COLOR ADJUSTMENT allows viewers to revisit some of television's most popular stars and shows, among them Amos and Andy, The Nat King Cole Show, I Spy, Julia, Good Times, Roots, Frank's Place and The Cosby Show. But this time around, Riggs asks us to look at these familiar favorites in a new way. The result is a stunning examination of the interplay between America's racial consciousness and network primetime programming.

Outstanding Achievement Award, International Documentary Association. Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival.

"A cogent and thoughtful survey of Black America as represented by American television, from the demeaning stereotypes of ‘Amos ’n Andy’ to the subtler, more insidious ones of ‘The Cosby Show’” - Janet Maslin, New York Times

The Order of Myths (2009)

The first Mardi Gras in America was celebrated in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. In 2008, it is still racially segregated. A fascinating investigation into our nation's history and traditions, this acclaimed, award-winning documentary illuminates the complexities of race relations in 21st century America.

Winner of the Truer Than Fiction Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Nominated for the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Brilliantly captivating. An invaluable portrait of us-and-them America, a smart, generous, poignant, quietly disturbing movie about secrecy and hospitality." - Robert Abele, The Los

Angeles Times (via Kanopy)

Soul Food Junkies: A Film About Family, Food & Tradition (2012)

Award-winning filmmaker Byron Hurt offers a fascinating exploration of the soul food tradition, its relevance to black cultural identity, and its continuing popularity despite the known dangers of high-fat, high-calorie diets. Inspired by his father's lifelong love affair with soul food even in the face of a life-threatening health crisis, Hurt discovers that the relationship between African-Americans and dishes like ribs, grits, and fried chicken is deep-rooted and culturally based.

At the same time, he moves beyond matters of culture and individual taste to show how the economics of the food industry have combined with socioeconomic conditions in predominantly black neighborhoods to dramatically limit food choices. The result is an absorbing and ultimately inspiring look at the cultural politics of food and the complex interplay between identity, taste, power, and health. Features soul food cooks, historians, doctors, and food justice movement activists who are challenging the food industry, creating sustainable gardens, and advocating for better supermarkets, more farmers' markets, and healthier takes on soul food.

The Spirituals: American Spirituals, Music and Slavery (2007)

A musical art form, the American Spiritual, was born out of the folk songs of slaves. Melodies of backbreaking work were hummed, sung, and passed on throughout the Deep South over fields of cotton, greens, cowpeas, yams, rice, peanuts, and okra. Sorrow songs were used to console and transmit secret information. With defiance, sorrow, and anger, the songs traveled, after being hummed in to the ear of the next arranger.

Few of these spiritual treasure songs have survived. With a great sadness, the American Spiritual Ensemble lament the songs that have been lost forever. Songs with words and passion as vital as: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Give me Jesus, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. Just a small portion of the original songbook has survived and the ASE has a mission to nurture, teach, sing, and watch over the spirituals that have remained.

The power of these songs lies in their ability to touch hearts whenever they are heard. The spirituals have survived generations and continue to inspire all over the world, from South Africa to the Middle East. *We Shall Overcome *is still heard wherever there is a struggle against social injustice. Listen to the spirituals that motivate, freedom songs, our anthems of the human spirit.

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