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Selecting just ten best movies about black history is quite a challenge, but this is a very personal list. I am certainly not attempting to proclaim that this is “the” list. I would, however, be very interested to see what other ideas for great movies you have.
Meanwhile, you will notice that “Lincoln” is not mentioned here. As Joel Boyce pointed out in his excellent blog, many blacks whom Lincoln would have known are missing from the film, and especially notable for his absence is Frederick Douglass.
1. The Color Purple (1985) was directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. Known especially for the roles played by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, it shows an African-American woman’s struggle to overcome poverty, adversity and a marriage to a brutal husband over a period of over forty years.
2. To Sir, With Love (1967) stars Sidney Poitier as the teacher who brilliantly handles social and racial issues in a school in the East End of London. James Clavell both directed and wrote the film’s screenplay, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by E. R. Braithwaite. As a bonus, the film’s title song, performed by Lulu, reached number one on the U.S. pop charts. This is a must-see for teachers.
3. Malcolm X (1992) is based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley and tells the story of this compelling leader’s journey to civil right activism through religious conversion. It’s a brilliant film, with masterful acting by Denzel Washington and direction by Spike Lee; however, I have mixed feelings because my would-be actor son was cast in the movie, but ended up on the cutting room floor!
4. How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) is a wonderful chick flick starring Angela Bassett as Stella Payne, a very successful 40-year-old stockbroker in California, who is persuaded by her New York friend Delilah Abraham to take a well-deserved vacation to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Once there, she meets a gorgeous man, just about 20 years younger than her, and the story goes from there.
5. Akeelah and the Bee (2006) features Keke Palmer as Akeelah Anderson, a young black girl from South Los Angeles, who struggles to take part in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This is not an amazing movie, but importantly, it examines issues of education in low socioeconomic African-American communities. It is directed by Doug Atchison and also stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne.
6. Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee is both brilliant and highly controversial. That’s because it depicts temperatures rising, along with tensions between neighbors, on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. Lee essentially uses one street to explore the enormous issue of race relations and stereotypes.
7. Sounder (1972) had us all in tears when I showed this to my fifth grade class. Sounder is the name of the dog owned by a young boy who is growing up and learning to read while his father is in prison. We are taken into the world of an extremely poor family of black sharecroppers living in Louisiana during the Depression.
8. In The Heat of The Night (1967) is a mystery story. Starring Sidney Poitier as a homicide detective from Philadelphia who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi, the movie does a fantastic job of portraying racism and prejudice. So good, in fact, that it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is another choice that reveals my bias as a former English teacher, but this is one of the best films I know that explores justice, innocence and race relations. The movie is based on the award winning novel by Harper Lee, and portrays the lives of a white family in Alabama as Atticus Finch, the father, played by Gregory Peck, represents a wrongly accused black man in court.
10. Roots (1977) was a winner for Alex Haley, who chronicles the story of his own family across many generations. He goes back to Kunta Kinte, an 18th century African who is captured and sold into slavery in the U.S., and moves forward following the lives of his descendants, until he arrives at himself.
What would you add to (or take away from) this list?