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

 

21. Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Julie Dash, produced by Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones (American Playhouse/Geechee Girls/WMG Film), distributed by Kino International
Who’s In It: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier
Where Can You See It: It’s out of print, but there are DVD and VHS copies out there if you can find them
Why You Should Watch It: It’s the first theatrical American feature film directed by a Black woman

Julie Dash’s first feature film took her nearly fifteen years to conceive before executing, but when she was ready, she found Hollywood unreceptive to the concept. With funding from PBS’s American Playhouse, Dash was able to produce her unique and highly stylized film about a Gullah family preparing to migrate from their home on St. Helena Island in South Carolina to New York City in 1902. Dash drew upon her own personal family history and extensive research in order to make the film, which is now in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

 

22. Malcolm X (1992)

Who Made It: Directed by Spike Lee, written by Lee & Arnold Pearl (& James Baldwin), produced by Lee & Marvin Worth (40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks), distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Who’s In It: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Albert Hall, Delroy Lindo
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: It’s Malcolm X, dammit.

Warner Bros. first attempted to make a Malcolm X biopic in the late 1960s/early 1970s, eventually making a documentary instead in 1972. They revived the project in 1990 with Norman Jewison attached to direct, a move publicly challenged by Spike Lee. Jewison stepped aside to let Lee helm the film, which already and Denzel Washington attached to star, and the resulting film is Lee’s other masterpiece. A balance between Lee’s own quirky style and a traditional biopic format, Malcolm X clears the floor for a masterful performance by Washington, often singled out as his best (and one he lost the Oscar for Best Actor for to Al Pacino). The film makes clear and plain the importance of Malcolm X as a historical figure and a human being, and in particular excellently handles his transformation from Detroit Red into Malcolm X and later his break from the Nation of Islam.

 

23. Friday (1995)

Who Made It: Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Ice Cube & DJ Pooh, produced by Patricia Charbonnet, distributed by New Line Cinema
Who’s In It: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, John Witherspoon, “Tiny” Lister
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: Because it’s Friday, you ain’t got no job (or maybe you do)…

Considering the prevalence of marijuana in Black counter-culture, dating back to the jazz age, it’s interesting that “stoner” comedies in the Cheech and Chong lane were all but nonexistent until Friday. Helmed by then-music-video director F. Gary Gray and written by star Ice Cube and DJ Pooh, Friday eased the hard-edged Cube into comedy settings (look at him now!) and made a star out of his co-star, Chris Tucker. It’s one of the most quotable Black films of all times (“You ain’t gots ta lie, Craig!”), and many of its tropes are universally recognized and understood. There’s also a number of great supporting work from actors such as Regina King, Faizon Love, Yvette Wilson, and of course John Witherspoon and “Tiny” Lister.

 

24. Soul Food (1997)

Who Made It: Written & directed by George Tillman Jr, produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Tracey E. Edmonds, Michael McQuarn, Robert Teitel, Llewellyn Wells (State Street Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures), distributed by 20th Century Fox
Who’s In It: Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Brandon Hammond, Irma P. Hall
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: Despite what Huey Freeman thinks, it’s a great movie

Despite it not even being 20 years old yet, Soul Food is a landmark film for its handling of its largely Black female cast as human beings, something that is still unfortunately rare in American cinema. Inspired by writer-director George Tillman’s own childhood, the film depicts a multi-generational Chicago family, seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Ahmad, that falls into dysfunction when its matriarch has a stroke. Featuring a lot of great performances – Irma P. Hall as the grandmother, Vanessa L. Williams as the rich attorney auntie, and Nia Long as the young, newly married auntie, Soul Food combines pathos, humor, and melodrama to make a highly entertainable and relatable film (and later a Showtime TV series) – though I might ease up on some of the Crisco while making those Sunday dinners.

 

25. Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Kasi Lemmons, produced by Caldecot Chubb, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Amin & Nick Wechsler (ChubbCo Film/Addis-Wechsler), distributed by Trimark Pictures
Who’s In It: Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Meagan Good
Where Can You See It: DVD, iTunes, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: Smollett Season

Kasi Lemmons, who appeared as an actress in a number of earlier films (School Daze among them), made her directorial debut with this film, which combines elements of melodrama, suspense, and horror. While it featured knockout performances from heavyweights such as Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, the performance singled out by most reviewers in this film was that of 11-year-old Jurnee Smollett as the titular character. The film was widely praised and garnered multiple awards, with Roger Ebert declaring Eve’s Bayou the best film of 1997.

 

26. Dreamgirls (2006)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Bill Condon, produced by Lawrence Mark (DreamWorks Pictures), distributed by Paramount Pictures, based on the musical Dreamgirls by Tom Eyen & Henry Krieger
Who’s In It: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: The musical spectacle

We’ve talked a lot in passing about Dreamgirls on the show, but not much about it directly. Though it’s probably still too recent (just under ten years) to note it as such, it’s essentially the Carmen Jones of the 21st century, albeit without the problematic dialect. An adaption of a 1981 Broadway show that itself is “inspired by” (heh) the histories of The Supremes and Motown Records, Dreamgirls features impressive scale (at $80 million, it is the most expensive Black movie yet made as of this writing), several great song sequences, and notable performances from Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy (robbed of an Oscar for making a terrible comedy film right after this) and Jennifer Hudson, whose Oscar for Best Supporting Actress launched her into an acting and music career when her future had been declared all-but-dead after she lost on American Idol two years prior.

 

27. Pariah (2011)

Who Made It: Written & directed by Dee Rees, produced by Nekisa Cooper (Chicken And Egg Pictures/MBK Entertainment/Northstar Pictures/Pariah Feature/Sundial Pictures), distributed by Focus Features, based on the short film Pariah written & directed by Dee Rees
Who’s In It: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray
Why You Should Watch It: It’s an honesty and inspiring story. And you will cry

Dee Rees first made Pariah as a short film in 2007 while in graduate film school. Making the acquaintance of one of her professors, Spike Lee, Rees expanded the short to feature length, keeping the same lead actress (Adepero Oduye, who was 31 at the time of the feature’s release and convincingly plays a 17 year old). The honest and insightful journey of a brilliant lesbian teenager embracing her sexuality and identity despite her religious and bigoted mother, Pariah first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, becoming a sensation both there and in its limited release at the end of the year. Rees’ story is full of human touches that make its antagonist, the mother portrayed by a revelatory Kim Wayans, all the more of an intense force of opposition.

 

28. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Who Made It: Directed by Steve McQueen, written by John Ridley, produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan & Anthony Katagas (Regency Enterprises/River Road Entertainment/Plan B Entertainment/Film4 Productions), distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, based on the autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Who’s In It: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o
Where Can You See It: DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play
Why You Should Watch It: The impact.

Adapted once before for television in 1984, Solomon Northup’s autobiography Twelve Years a Slave tells a harrowing tale of a free Black man in the 1840s who is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery in New Orleans. Director Steve McQueen and John Ridley came up with the idea to adapt Northrup’s memoir while searching for a way to tell a different type of slave narrative than that usually seen in feature films. The result was a tour-de-force of suspenseful, unrelenting filmmaking, and excellent turns from its lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor, as well as Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, and its breakout star, Lupita Nyong’o. Named the best film of 2013 by many, 12 Years a Slave became the first film directed by a Black man to win the Oscar for Best Picture (McQueen is also a producer on the film, making him the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Picture), and also won for Best Supporting Actress (Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ridley).

 

29. Creed (2015)

Who Made It: Directed by Ryan Coogler, written by Coogler & Aaron Covington, produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King-Templeton & Sylvester Stallone (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), distributed by New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures
Who’s In It: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thomson, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashād
Where Can You See It: It’s still in cinemas; it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital HD on March 1
Why You Should Watch It: Coogler & Jordan may become the next Spike & Denzel

Creed may very well be the most successful fanfic in history. Rocky won the 1976 Oscar for Best Picture, but its sequels delved into caricature and lost the impact of the first film. All of this was reversed with Creed, a concept pitched by then-film students Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington to an uninterested Sylvester Stallone. Coogler took the rejection in stride, made an excellent and well-regarded film named Fruitvale Station, and resultantly got to make his story about the son of Apollo Creed, who asks a retired Rocky Balboa to train him. Michael B. Jordan, also the star of Fruitvale, does great work as the titular Adonis Creed, ably handling both the sports action scenes and his tender romance with Bianca, a hearing-impaired musician played by a charming Tessa Thompson. Phylicia Rashād trades in on her Cosby Show Clair Huxtable past (minus the baggage) as Apollo Creed’s widow, and Coogler steered a considered-past-his-prime Stallone into a Golden Globe winning performance. The film is currently in the news for being snubbed by the 2015 Oscar nominations save for Stallone as Best Supporting Actor, but despite Coogler or the film not getting a nod, anyone who sees Creed will appreciate the great work done here by Coogler – in his first studio film. First. Which just happens to be a spin-off of the most popular sports-movie franchise of all time, and just happened to be a critical and commercial success.

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