23 Awesome Movies About Black American Historical Figures to Watch This Month and Beyond
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Black History Month is here! Why not use this moment to shop at Black-owned businesses, reread the works of bell hooks and Toni Morrison, or even...plan a movie marathon? Some of the greatest films ever made have detailed Black history, celebrated Black culture, and amplified the voices of Black artists. Some of these movies outline moments in the Civil Rights Movement. Some celebrate culture, and some literally created it. Read on for a handy watch-list of 23 movies centered on Black historical figures, stories, and moments, a cinematic roadmap through major moments in Black history, culture, and beauty for all to enjoy.
Hidden Figures (2016)
The world was never the same after the Hidden Figures trio hit the screen. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, this film follows the true stories of three Black NASA mathematicians—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan— who played an integral role in the Space Race and were not initially given the credit they deserved.
Malcolm X (1992)
This biographical titan of a film stars Denzel Washington as the eponymous Malcolm X and follows his early years, his conversion to Islam, his rise as a Civil Rights leader, and his eventual death by assassination in 1965.
This 2013 sports film stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to play in the MLB. Fun fact: Robinson’s jersey number (42, obviously) was retired from Major League Baseball in 1997, so it’s all his.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is a romantic drama adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name. The film stars KiKi Layne as a young woman fighting to clear the name of her partner Fonny (played by Stephan James), who has been falsely accused of rape. Friends of Baldwin's say the original novel inspired, in part, by what happened to Baldwin's friend William “Tony” Maynard, Jr., who was falsely accused of murdering a white Marine.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Starring Chadwick Boseman and the great Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was inspired by the career of an iconic real-life blues singer named Ma Rainey, focusing specifically on a single recording session in 1920s Chicago.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan and details the death of Oscar Grant, a young man killed by police in 2009. An indie darling, this film won awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival.
King Richard (2021)
The calm before the “keep my wife’s name out of your mouth” storm, King Richard stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. As we all know, Smith snagged an Oscar for his performance in this film, but the movie is remarkable on its own even without the drama.
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, and Topher Grace, BlacKkKlansman is a 2018 “Spike Lee joint” about the real-life work of Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective to infiltrate the KKK in 1970s Colorado.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
This 2021 historical drama details the history of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who was killed by the FBI in 1969. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as the FBI informant who played a role in Hampton's death. Kaluuya took home the 2020 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work.
Home Videos (2019)
If the only Jerrod Carmichael work you've seen was his hosting gig at the 2023 Golden Globes, you have some movie homework, my friend. Carmichael’s documentary, Home Videos, sees the comedian interview his family members about all things life, Black love, and...R. Kelly? Go ahead and give it a watch.
Sermon on the Mount (2019)
A sister doc to Home Videos, Sermon on the Mount follows Carmichael through more conversations with his friends and family about Black men's experiences, honesty, and forgiveness.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
One of auteur Spike Lee’s most famous films, Do the Right Thing follows the racial tensions between residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood in the dead heat of summer. Despite the weight of that charge, the film is really a comedy drama and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999. Lee wrote the screenplay in two weeks after hearing about the police shooting Eleanor Bumpurs as well as the 1986 "Howard Beach racial incident" where a Black man died.
Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary 13th unpacks injustices in the American prison system, exploring issues of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. The title comes from the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
From the mind of John Singleton (Poetic Justice, Snowfall, Empire), Boyz n the Hood has a stacked cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Regina King, and Angela Bassett. (Seriously, this may be the most star-studded cast of all time.) The film explores gang culture in South Central Los Angeles and made Singleton the youngest person and the first African American man to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, cementing his name in cinematic history.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
This 2019 film follows a young man working to reclaim the home his grandfather built decades earlier in San Francisco, now an overpriced, gentrified hellscape for Black homeowners. (And it's based on the true story of Jimmie Fails.)
Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther: You know him, you love him. Does this Marvel film detail any IRL Black history? No, but its release became history in 2018. The Marvel movie was the highest grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker (Ryan Coogler) and the first superhero film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The late Chadwick Boseman became an instant cinematic icon and a historic figure in the world of Black art.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Black culture is Black history, and Straight Outta Compton is one of the best biographical stories ever made. Following the rise of the iconic hip hop group N.W.A, the film was produced by some of the living members of the band and stars Ice Cube's son.
This 2014 historical drama stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., focusing on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. An awards darling in its year, Selma was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won Best Original Song.
Love & Basketball (2000)
The semi-autobiographical ultimate sports romance film, Love & Basketball follows two court-crossed lovers pursuing professional basketball careers and falling in love. Starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, the film has become a cult classic since its release in 2000. Among a list of heavier historical watches, this film is 127 minutes of love (and basketball).
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This biographical drama follows the life of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped by conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Lupita Nyong’o in her first feature film role, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
The Butler (2013)
This historical drama spans decades of American history, following the life and memory of Cecil Gaines, a Black butler in the White House played in this movie by Forest Whitaker. In the film, Gaines witnesses some of the most influential political and social events of the 20th century.
The Hate U Give (2018)
Inspired by real-life tragedy, this 2018 movie follows the experience of a young Black girl entrenched in white culture who witnesses her friend be shot by police, shaking her worldview and making her question her role in the world.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
This 2016 documentary is based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript and is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. I Am Not Your Negro unpacks the history of American racism in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
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