By Kristopher Paige
Books, films, and music provide us with a window into a variety of portrayals and images of Black men and women throughout history, as they go about their lives in both mundane and extraordinary ways.
The genres and quality of the wide selection of films, books, and music relating to the black experience may vary, but the underlying themes of justice and empowerment don’t. Through the arts, we are, as an audience, able to gain a fuller understanding of how representation, for better or worse in some instances (like in the case of blaxploitation films), can uplift, celebrate, or even further marginalize black culture. That’s why now, more than ever, these works help us ascertain a better and more nuanced comprehension of the issues facing our nation today.
For the indulgences of the reader, what follows is a personally curated list of 18 recommended films that I find to be either educational or enlightening in how they both portray and convey the black experience.
A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, Moonlight is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. Profoundly moving in its portrayal of the moments, people, and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are, this may be the best film on the list.
Just Mercy (2019)
A powerful and thought-provoking true story, “Just Mercy” follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation. One of his most incendiary cases is that of Walter McMillian, who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them.
BlacKkKlansman presents racism as a dichotomy between the absurd and the dangerous; the film’s intentional laughs often get caught in one’s throat. Director Spike Lee and his co-screenwriters adapt a story first told in Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. Stallworth was a Black Colorado Springs police officer who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, going so far as to speak with David Duke on several occasions. Stallworth’s undercover police work, aided by an immeasurable assist from his White partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) helped expose and quash an attack on Black activists.
Django: Unchained (2012)
Two years before the Civil War, Django, a slave, finds himself accompanying an unorthodox German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz on a mission to capture the vicious Brittle brothers. Their mission successful, Schultz frees Django, and together they hunt the South’s most-wanted criminals. Their travels take them to the infamous plantation of shady Calvin Candie, where Django’s long-lost wife Broomhilda is still a slave. An outrageous, violent, maybe empowering exploitation film; not for family movie night.
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, a city in Alabama named Selma became a battleground in the fight for suffrage. Despite violent opposition, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 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.
FruitVale Station (2013)
A dramatic rendering of a real-life tragedy, Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant, a man shot and killed by a white police officer on a subway. A powerful, if not provocative examination at what it means to be a black man in the United States. Nearly every black man, whether or not he is president, tends to be flattened out by popular culture and the psychopathology of everyday American life, rendered as an innocent victim, a noble warrior or a menace to society. There is a dehumanizing violence in this habit, a willed, toxic blindness that Fruitvale Station at once exposes and resists.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
A gleefully vulgar spoof of Westerns that arguably killed the entire genre after ripping it to shreds. The film’s defining characteristic is its willingness to poke fun at the normally taboo subject of racism. The plot follows railroad worker Bart as he becomes the first black sheriff of Rock Ridge, a frontier town about to be destroyed in order to make way for a new railroad. Initially, the people of Rock Ridge harbor a racial bias toward their new leader. However, they warm to him after realizing that Bart and his perpetually drunk gunfighter friend are the only defense against a wave of thugs sent to rid the town of its population.
Jackie Brown (1997)
As an underpaid, middle-aged flight attendant caught smuggling money for menacing gun runner Ordell Robbie, Jackie Brown’s style, grit, and intelligence are on full display as she concocts a complicated scheme to double-cross both Ordell and the cops, aiming to get away with half a million dollars in the process. Jackie Brown, played by iconic blaxploitation actress Pam Grier, acts as a resistant modern black heroine, perpetually ready to challenge any man who gets in her way.
Queen and Slim (2019)
An intense outlaw romance, Queen and Slim follows the story of titular characters Slim and Queen, as their first date takes an unexpected turn when a policeman pulls them over for a minor traffic violation. When the situation escalates, Slim takes the officer’s gun and shoots him in self-defense. Now labelled cop killers in the media, Slim and Queen feel that they have no choice but to go on the run and evade the law. When a video of the incident goes viral, the unwitting outlaws soon become a symbol of trauma, terror, grief and pain for people all across the country.
Another Ryan Coogler film, Creed again delves deeper into what it means to be a black man as the main plot revolves around the rise of of Adonis Creed, the son of the boxer Apollo Creed killed in Rocky IV . It updates the themes of its predecessor film franchise Rocky, becoming a story about masculinity and integrity in the era of #BlackLivesMatter. In the same vain as Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed is an emotional story about loss, and how sometimes going the distance is more important than getting the prize. The dialogue is sparse enough to feel real, the emotional beats are earned, and the social context authentic.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 Years a Slave is based on the incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life. One of the most searingly intense portrayals of slavery ever put on film, exercising onscreen brutality to bludgeon slavery’s grim, cruel and conscience-less degradation.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Life is a struggle for single father Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith). Evicted from their apartment, he and his young son (Jaden Smith) find themselves alone with no place to go. Even though Chris eventually lands a job as an intern at a prestigious brokerage firm, the position pays no money. The pair must live in shelters and endure many hardships, but Chris refuses to give in to despair as he struggles to create a better life for himself and his son.
Black Dynamite (2009)
An action-comedy parodying Blaxploitation films of the 70’s, Black Dynamite puts stereotypes on a pedestal, and subsequently stomps all over them. The absurd plot goes as follows – after “The Man” kills his brother and poisons the neighborhood with tainted liquor, a black kung fu fighter wages a war that takes him all the way to Nixon’s White House.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
A timely and timeless film. Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. This is a layered and emotional story about black men and their place throughout the historic fight for equality while being entirely earthed in their sense of belonging and relationships.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
This film centers on the efforts of a young Black man to reclaim his childhood home, a now-expensive Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood of San Francisco. A wistful odyssey populated by skaters, squatters, street preachers, playwrights, and other locals on the margins, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a poignant and sweeping story of hometowns and how they’re made—and kept alive—by the people who love them.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
In 1979, the American activist and novelist James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, “Remember This House.” The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck uses a documentary-format to envision the book James Baldwin never finished (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson!).
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
In this comedy-drama, Joanna Drayton, a free-thinking white woman, and her black doctor fiancee named John Prentice travel to San Francisco to meet Joanna’s parents, who are wealthy liberals who must confront the latent racism the coming marriage arouses. Also attending the Draytons’ dinner are John’s parents, who vehemently disapprove of the relationship. The film epitomized mainstream Hollywood’s liberal leanings at a time when more revolutionary films about social upheaval, such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, were recasting American sensibilities.
Get Out (2017)
In what could be considered a contemporary horror take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Get Out follows an interracial couple as they reach the meet-the-parents milestone. Rose invites her black boyfriend, Chris, to a weekend getaway upstate with her family. 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 never could have imagined.
After viewings of all of these films, it becomes apparent that stories like those told in Fruitvale Station and Creed are replacing the mainstream portrayal of black people (so often relegated to comic, criminal, or sidekick roles) with fully drawn characterizations that don’t depend on white saviors, jokes, or spectacular action. It's a significant and hopeful sign that maybe, in some ways, the film industry, and by extension society as a whole, is moving more towards equality than we give it credit for.
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Donations to these policy-reform organizations will go toward legislative efforts to overturn systemically racist policies at either national, state, or local levels.
• Moms Demand Action; donations will be matched dollar for dollar by Everytown, Moms Demand Action’s parent organization
• Take Action Chapel Hill; Chapel Hill, North Carolina
• Austin Justice Coalition; Austin, Texas
• Dallas Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression; Dallas, Texas
• The Refugee Dream Center; Rhode Island
• Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance; Rhode Island