Our Black History Month Movie Marathon List: 30 Films You Need to See

Update 02-14-16: We also did an episode of the podcast covering our list and the Black Cinema History in general surrounding it. Check out episode #48 of the Say Something Nice Podcast, 2016 Black History Month Movie Marathon Special.

Despite what poor, misguided Stacey Dash might think, there is absolutely a need for Black History Month, and definitely a need for one in terms of film history. The images of African-Americans have come a long way over the last 100 years, evolving from particularly horrid racist caricatures to the super-cool archetypes of the blaxploitation period to a wider variety of heroes, villains, and everything in-between as time bore on.

My introduction as a college student to a lot of my favorite Black movies – and movies about Black people that I’d never seen – was in a Turner Classic Movies marathon programmed by film historian Dr. Donald Bogle, who traced the history of Black people in cinema from The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to Get on the Bus in 1996. Inspired by that concept, we at the Say Something Nice Podcast have come up with our own Black History Month Movie Marathon – 30 films for 29 days of February (thanks, leap year!).

Watch them one a day, binge-watch them, however you’d like – but do watch them, any time of the year, and preferably in order. We’ll be exploring several of these films more in-depth this month on the podcast, so be sure to listen each week!


01. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Who Made It: Directed by D.W. Griffith, produced by Griffith & Harry Aitken, written by Griffith & Frank E. Woods, based on the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon, Jr., distributed by Epoch Producing Co.
Who’s In It: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, and a lot of white folks in blackface
Where Can You See It: It’s in the public domain, so it’s everywhere. Here is a YouTube version.
Why You Should Watch It: To be very clear, you should only watch it once, and on a day where you won’t interact with people because you will be angry.


Within Our Gates (1920)

Who Made It: Written, produced & directed by Oscar Micheaux; distributed by Micheaux Book & Film Co.
Who’s In It: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault
Where Can You See It: It’s in the public domain, so it’s everywhere. Here is a YouTube version.
Why You Should Watch It: It’s the oldest Black movie we have a copy of.

The first film to be made in the traditional two-hour, three-act structure we think of a movie having today, The Birth of a Nation features the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, attempted to recontextualize their violence, and established a large number of racist Black film stereotypes using white actors in blackface. While many audiences praised the film (it was the first movie screened in the White House), the film reinvigorated the then-declining Klan, leading to decades further of racially motivated violence against African Americans (Nate Parker named his upcoming Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation entirely on purpose).

As an answer to The Birth of a Nation, a young indie Black filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux produced the earliest feature by a Black director known to still exist, Within Our Gates, in 1919. Micheaux had made an earlier film, The Homesteader, which is unfortunately lost. Within Our Gates centered on the romance of a Black doctor and a Black woman with a troubled family life and family history. Its successful 1920 release marked the start of Micheaux’s prolific career in what came to be termed “race films” – movies made for, and often by, African-Americans, and introduced audiences to his longtime leading lady, Evelyn Preer.


02. Carmen Jones (1954)

Who Made It: Produced and directed by Otto Preminger, written by Harry Fleiner based on the stage musical Carmen Jones by Georges Bizet and Oscar Hammerstein II, distributed by 20th Century Fox
Who’s In It: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Olga James, Joe Adams, and a young Diahann Carroll
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Netflix
Why You Should Watch It: Dorothy Dandridge.

Based on a 1943 Broadway musical, Carmen Jones features the classic Carmen story set in the all-Black worlds of rural North Carolina and the southside of Chicago. Despite the eyebrow-raising use of “dialect” in the film’s songs (“Dat’s Love”, for example), the film was the first all-Black film produced in Technicolor and widescreen CinemaScope. Following quite a few other all-Black musical films such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, the entertaining production made stars out of its now-famous cast. Dorothy Dandridge in particular was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work here, and her on-screen romance with Harry Belafonte was easily the earliest example of passionate Black sexuality in American cinema.


03. Nothing But a Man (1964)

Who Made It: Directed by Michael Roemer, produced by Roemer, Robert Rubin & Robert M. Young, written by Roemer & Young
Who’s In It: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, distributed by Cinema V
Where Can You See It: DVD
Why You Should Watch It: Groundbreaking indie film.

Jewish producer/director Michael Roemer put together this subtle, powerful film about African-American life in the rural south, at a time when such a thing was unheard of. It addressed issues of family building, poverty, illegitimacy, and the pride of the Black and and Black woman, in scenes masterfully played by leads Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. It didn’t receive wide distribution when it was made, but this minor masterpiece – featuring a song score full of then-current Motown hits – now has a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.


04. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Who Made It: Written, produced, and directed by Mario Van Peebles, released by Cinemation Industries
Who’s In It: Mario Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan
Where Can You See It: DVD
Why You Should Watch It: Mario Van Peebles.

Melvin Van Peebles helmed one of the earliest Hollywood studio films directed by a Black man, Watermelon Man, in 1970. He took the money he earned on that production and used it to make Sweet Sweetback, an avant-garde motion picture that took Van Peebles’ taste for the surreal, the psychedelic, and non-traditional (in all elements of filmmaking – writing, acting, directing, sound design, and music) and crafted a minor masterpiece about a male hustler (played by himself) on the run from “The Man”. The film’s success – it was produced for $150K and made $4 million at the box office – launched the “blaxploitation” movement in Hollywood, which spawned the next three films on this list and dozens more.


05. Claudine (1974)

Who Made It: Directed by John Berry, written by Lester Pine, produced by Hannah Weinstein (Third World Films); distributed by 20th Century Fox
Who’s In It: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Tamu
Where You Can See It: DVD
Why You Should Watch It: Black love.

Claudine is the earliest example of a Black studio romantic comedy, tracing the difficult but charming romance of a maid with six kids on welfare and her trash man boyfriend. Those descriptions may sound problematic, but the film reveals Claudine Price, “Roop” Marshall, and Claudine’s kids as unique, three-dimensional human beings, with beauty, grace, and heart that transcends their meager social status. The film features an Oscar-nominated performance by Diahann Carroll as Claudine, and a knockout song score from Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight & the Pips.


06. Cooley High (1975)

Who Made It: Directed by Michael Schultz, written by Eric Monte, produced by Steve Krantz; distributed by American International Pictures
Who’s In It: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Cynthia Davis, Corin Rogers, Maurice Leon Havis
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray
Why You Should Watch It: Nostalgia done right..

Cooley High works a lot as a Black counterpart to George Lucas’ 1950s nostalgia film American Graffiti (1973), as it is about a pair of Black teenage boys living in the Cabrini-Green projects in 1964 Chicago who find their carefree childhoods come to an abrupt halt after a joyride gone wrong. Again, despite its heavy subject matter, the film manages to leaven the heavy material with humor and humanity in ways that don’t cut the impact of the film as a whole. And like Nothing But a Man, it comes with a song-score provided by 1960s era Motown records. Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Garrett Morris – all actors arguably better known today for roles on TV sitcoms – ably depict their characters here, and director Michael Schultz and writer Eric Monte took Cooley High, modernized it a bit, and made it into another sitcom, What’s Happening!!


07. The Wiz (1978)

Who Made It: Directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Joel Schumacher, produced by Rob Cohen (Motown Productions), based on the musical The Wiz by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls, distributed by Universal Pictures
Who’s In It: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Google Play, iTunes
Why You Should Watch It: Michael Jackson.

The Wiz may share the same name as the 1975 all-Black Broadway show based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it deviates significantly from that source material. As adapted for film by Joel Schumacher (yes, that Joel Schumacher), The Wiz features an adult Dorothy – made that way so that Diana Ross could play the part – being transported by a snownado (?) to a magical Oz that looks a lot like a funky version of New York City. The most expensive movie musical made to that point (at $24 million, it cost four times as much as Grease, which was produced concurrently), the film still features hit songs from the Broadway show and the only leading film performance by Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. The film was unsuccessful enough in its original release to kill both Ross’ film career and blaxploitation cold, but has become a cult classic thanks to later television viewings.


08. Wild Style (1982)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Charlie Ahern; released by First Run Features
Who’s In It: Lee Quiñones, Sandra Fabara, Patti Astor, Fab 5 Freddy, Cold Crush Brothers
Where You Can See It: DVD
Why You Should Watch It: The first hip-hop movie ever.

While hip-hop movies are a dime a dozen today (literally, go to Walmart right now and have a look in the discount bin), in 1983, Wild Style was considered a risk. Produced on a very tight indie budget in 1981-82, the film featured a number of early hip-hop legends – Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, The Cold Crush Brothers – and captured on film said legends in the throws of the four elements of hip-hop: DJing, graffiti, MCing, and breakdancing.


09. Purple Rain (1984)

Who Made It: Directed by Albert Magnoli, written by Magnoli and William Blinn, produced by Robert Cavallo, Joseph Ruffalo, Steven Fargnoli, distributed by Warner Bros.
Who’s In It: Prince & the Revolution, Morris Day & the Time, Apollonia
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Google Play, iTunes
Why You Should Watch It: The music is awesome

Purple Rain was designed as a Warner Bros. Pictures produced showcase for Warner Bros. Records artist Prince, and the final film makes no attempt to hide its synergistic origins. However, no one watches Purple Rain to see great acting or writing (though Morris Day and Jerome are a lot of fun). We’re here for the music, most of which is gleaned from Prince’s landmark Purple Rain album. The rest – even the whole “purification in the waters of Lake Minnetonka” bit – is just padding until we can get “The Kid” back in front of a microphone.


10. A Soldier’s Story (1984)

Who Made It: Produced & directed by Norman Jewison, written by Charles Fuller (based on his play A Soldier’s Play)
Who’s In It: Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, David Alan Greer, Denzel Washington
Where You Can See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, GooglePlay, iTunes
Why You Should Watch It: A landmark film for Black actors

In 1967, Norman Jewison directed In the Heat of the Night, a Sidney Poitier vehicle which became the first film with a Black lead to win Best Picture. Sixteen years and many classic films later, Jewison helmed this film, based on the Charles Fuller stage play about an Black Army captain in 1944 Louisiana investigating the murder of a Black sergeant, featured excellent performances from Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, and a talented newcomer named Denzel Washington. A Soldier’s Story was the first film with a majority-Black cast to be nominated for Best Picture, and also garnered nominations for Caesar (Best Supporting Actor) and Fuller (Best Adapted Screenplay).

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