Watching Black America: 37 Films

By Dan Clendenin

In my Eighth Day essay last month called “Reading Black America,” I highlighted 14 book reviews that I thought deserved special attention in our country’s Black Lives moment. The essay included a longer list of over sixty-five reviews about Black Lives. These books include a broad array of perspectives and genres: novels, history, economics, politics, culture, theology, poetry, photography, biography, and autobiography.

This month I do something similar with films. Since we launched in 2004, JWJ has posted nearly 900 reviews of movies from 112 countries. Looking through our archives, which you can do by clicking on the drop down menu for film in the navigation bar above, I identified 37 films that speak specifically to the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, my list is subjective. And, the list is limited to films about Black America. I have not included films about other people of color, like Latino or Asian films. I could similarly make a hefty list of films in our archives only from Africa.

In his book Sculpting in Time (1986), the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky says that “the allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” In that spirit, here are 37 films that “ploughed my soul,” and, I pray, “rendered it capable of turning to good.”

To see the full movie review, click on the blue hotlink.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

In 1853 Solomon Northup published an autobiographical slave narrative called “Twelve Years a Slave.” Northup was a free-born African American from Saratoga Springs, New York, who enjoyed a good life with a wife and two children. He was kidnapped in 1841 when he took a job in Washington, DC, where his “employers” drugged him and then sold him into slavery. This movie dramatizes that true story.

13th (2016)

This infuriating documentary by Ava DuVernay (Selma) takes its title from the 13th Amendment of the Constitution that formally abolished slavery on December 6, 1865: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But the reality of the last 150 years tells a different story.

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Ryan Coogler.

42 (2013)

This isn’t a great movie, but it tells an important story. In 1945, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers major league baseball team decided to do the unthinkable and sign a “colored” player to his team. He had identified his perfect candidate, Jackie Robinson, the first athlete ever to letter in four sports at UCLA, and a commissioned officer in the army.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013)

This epic and award-winning documentary miniseries was written by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in collaboration with 30 other historians, and originally aired on PBS in the fall of 2013. It consists of six episodes that cover 500 years of black history. In early 2014 a two-DVD set was also released. The six episodes are all about one hour long.

Amazing Grace (2019)

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) gave two concerts on back-to-back nights before live audiences at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts/LA. She was twenty-nine at the time, and already a superstar with hits like “Respect” and “Think” (she was on the cover of Time magazine in 1968); but she wanted to return to her roots and sing the songs of her childhood days in her father’s Detroit church. The album “Amazing Grace” that resulted from these two concerts became the best-selling gospel record in history.

Aretha! Queen of Soul (2018)

One day after Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) died on August 16, 2018 at the age of seventy-six, PBS aired this twenty-seven minute tribute to her life and legacy. Franklin began as a child singing in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit (her lifelong home), and even traveled all around the country with him: “The church and gospel music were certainly my roots, not to mention the many other good things that came from the church. It’s just a feeling you get there that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Black Panther (2018)

First there was Superman in 1938. Then came Captain America in 1941. Fast forward to today and we have “Black Panther,” which is the wildly anticipated 18th superhero movie by Marvel Studios. “There have been black superheroes before,” observes Anthony Lane, “but none have been given dominion over a blockbuster. Nor has the genre, until now, allowed black identity to be the ground bass of a single tale.”

The Butler (2013)

In this historical drama “based on a true story,” director Lee Daniels tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a butler in the White House who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1986. The movie is based on the real life of Eugene Allen.

Chasing Trane (2016)

This ninety-minute documentary about the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–1967) tells the inspirational story of one of the greatest musical geniuses of his generation. Coltrane’s story begins in Hamlet, North Carolina, where both of his grandfathers were pastors. That historically racist context and deeply spiritual family combined to find expression in Coltrane’s jazz, which was nothing more and nothing less than a musical medium in search of what is eternally good, true, and beautiful.

Dear White People (2014)

This comedy about race takes place at the fictional Winchester University, where Samantha White, a biracial student, is elected head of her black residence hall. Sam hosts an edgy campus talk show called “Dear White People,” where she deconstructs what it means to be black to white people.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s study of urban racial tensions stirred controversy when it was first released. Did he intend to advocate violence or merely record it as so many have experienced it? At the end of this film powerful quotations from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X support either view.

Eyes on the Prize (1987, 1990, 2006)

In its original 1987 format, Eyes on the Prize consisted of six one-hour episodes that covered the years from the 1952 murder of Emmit Till and the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education to 1965 and the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Clayborn Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, has called Eyes on the Prize “the principal film account of the most important American social justice movement of the 20th century.”

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Ava DuVernay.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station won several awards at both Sundance and Cannes for its dramatization of the murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by BART police in Oakland on December 31, 2008. It’s the first film by director Ryan Coogler, who was still a film student at USC when he pitched the idea back in 2011.

Get Out (2017)

In this director debut, Jordan Peele produced a movie that was on any number of “best of 2017” lists. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has earned a remarkable 99% approval rating. The story revolves around a young black photographer named Chris, who reluctantly agrees to visit the family of his white girl friend Rose at their lakefront country estate. “Do your parents know I’m black?,” Chris asks Rose. “Don’t worry,” she responds, “they’re not racists. My dad would have voted for Obama a third time!”

Green Book (2018)

Whatever else you might say about this controversial film, it has won a boat load of awards. And Spike Lee tried to walk out of the Academy Awards ceremonies when Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture (staffers made him return to his seat!). “Based on a true story,” the movie pairs a black classic pianist named Don Shirley with his white driver-fixer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, who’s an Italian thug-bouncer from New York City. They take an eight-week tour through the deep south, and encounter the predictable forms of overt and violent racism.

Harriet (2019)

This biographical drama tells the story of the slave Araminta Ross, who after she gained her freedom took the name Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), and then went on to become a legendary abolitionist on the Underground Railroad. The director Kasi Lemmons faced an artistic challenge with this movie, which likely explains its formulaic approach. Although Tubman remains an inspirational hero, she’s also a biographer’s nightmare.

The Help (2011)

This movie is a dramatization of the best-selling book of the same title written by Kathryn Stockett. The story shines a harsh light on the overt racism in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s (where Stockett was born and raised). Parts of this movie are painful to watch, other parts are just petty and despicable. But that’s what life was like back then and there.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

When James Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind an unfinished, thirty-page manuscript called “Remember This House” that he had discussed with his literary agent. The book project was to be Baldwin’s deeply personal reflections on three of his friends who had been assassinated — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film director Raoul Peck brings this manuscript to life by using only Baldwin’s own words, narrated either by Samuel L. Jackson or Baldwin himself, along with powerful archival images from the 1930s to the present.

The Jazz Ambassadors (2018)

The cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually reached a stale mate of mutually assured destruction in the 1950s, after which the battle turned toward winning global public opinion. The Soviets churned out propaganda films about the horrors of American racism, including lynchings. The Americans created the US Information Agency that jump started things like Voice of America. About this time, the black congressman Adam Clayton Powell had an idea — why not deploy American jazz musicians as cultural ambassadors to the non-white world in order to improve the country’s profile?

Jimi Hendrix, Hear My Train A Comin’ (2013)

There’s a cottage industry of books and films about Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970). This PBS movie claims to be “the definitive documentary” about “the greatest guitarist of all time.” Hendrix had two personas. On stage he was flamboyant and supremely confident, playing his upside down guitar left handed, behind his neck, with his teeth, on his elbow, etc. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and many others played the Ed Sullivan show, but never Hendrix; he was too much.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

It’s astonishing that this remarkable film is the directorial debut by Joe Talbot. It had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance festival, where Talbot won awards for Best Director and Creative Collaboration. At a simple level the story is about a thirty-something black man named Jimmie, who is obsessed with his childhood home — an iconic Victorian in San Francisco that is now occupied by a white couple. He says that his grandfather, “the first black man in San Francisco,” built the home with his own hands in 1946, after coming home from the war. Really?

Let the Church Say Amen (2004)

In this documentary director David Peterson takes us to World Mission for Christ International, a tiny black Pentecostal storefront church a few blocks from the nation’s capitol. I think I counted four pews in the sanctuary. But the thirty or so parishioners have followed the advice of a sign on the wall: “keep the fire burning.”

Michael Jackson’s This is It (2009)

It goes without saying that Michael Jackson had few peers as a dancer and singer. This documentary also reveals the depth of his creative imagination, attention to detail in everything from lighting to guitar riffs and costume design, work ethic, sheer passion for performance, and, yes, the nuttiness which required the concert directors to tip-toe, bow, and scrape before his majesty.

Moonlight (2016)

This second feature film by the writer-director Barry Jenkins premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2016. Since then, reviews, both popular and professional, have been off the charts. The Tomatometer, for example, clicks in at 98%. The power of the film rests in its ability to make us empathize at a deeply human level with a protagonist with whom we have almost nothing in common.

Mudbound (2017)

This “Netflix Original” historical drama made numerous top ten lists for 2017. On Metacritic, the film earned an aggregate rating of “universal acclaim.” Mudbound debuted at the 2017 Sundance festival, and is based upon the 2008 novel of the same title by Hillary Jordan. The story revolves around the relationship between two families that work one patch of land, one white and one black, along with all their respective ghosts of slave history, racist institutions, cultural Christianity, economic systems, and a very muddy and impoverished land.

Precious (2009)

Claireece “Precious” Jones is a sixteen-year-old Harlem teenager who’s morbidly obese, totally illiterate, very black, and the mother of a Downs Syndrome child whom she calls Mongo. She’s pregnant again, and both children are the result of rape by her father. Critics have complained that Precious trades on demeaning racist stereotypes, but Sundance honored it with awards, and fans say that it’s a realistic part of the black story. Black superstars Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry lent their name and assistance to the film.

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Barry Jenkins.

Race Matters: America in Crisis (2020)

The day after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, protests erupted in the United States and, eventually, in 2,000 cities in over 60 countries around the world. While most of these protests were peaceful, others turned violent, and involved incidences of police brutality. This PBS NewsHour “Special” originally aired nationwide on June 5, 2020, and attempts to address the outrage over Floyd’s murder and the “deep wounds of racism” that it exposed.

Ray (2004)

Critics have generally raved about this film, and why not? Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of one of the world’s greatest singers is marvelous (the soundtracks are Charles’s originals). Born into grinding, rural poverty in Albany, Georgia, Charles’s mother Aretha moved her family to Florida when he was an infant. By age 7 Charles was completely blind from glaucoma. This film tracks his life from then until 1966 or so when he finally beat a twenty-year heroin addiction.

Red Tails (2012)

During World War II, the black pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen who comprised the 332nd Fighter Group fought two wars — one against the Germans and another against the overt racist policies of the American military. The movie opens with a quote from a 1925 study by the US War College that concluded: “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient, and cowards in the face of danger. They are therefore unfit for combat.” The film shows how these patriotic, skilled, and brave pilots disproved these despicable stereotypes and broke through the many racist barriers.

Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker who is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and is given a life sentence at the Shawshank Prison. Similarly, longtime inmate “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) was wrongly denied parole two times, and no wonder, for everything about this prison is evil. Warden Norton is a fundamentalist Christian who issues Bibles to every incoming prisoner, quotes Scripture, whistles “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and who otherwise is a sadist. So, we root for the criminal inmates against the “good” government prison that tries, unsuccessfully, to dehumanize them.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Toni Morrison’s (1931–2019) long and illustrious career as an editor, novelist, essayist, playwright, and librettist earned her just about every award imaginable for a person in her position — a Nobel Prize for literature (1993), a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize (1988). She finished her formal career as a professor emerita at Princeton in the Humanities, where she “retired” in 2006. This documentary film was released six weeks before Morrison died on August 5, 2019.

Tupac: Resurrection (2003)

In this documentary Tupac Shakur — gangsta rapper, movie star, rape convict, and murder victim — narrates the story of his own life and work. And what a work, with 36 million albums sold (most of them since his death in 1996 at the age of 25), and 150 songs still unrecorded. As I watched this film I moved through successive waves of fascination, admiration, empathy, and then anger and revulsion.

Twenty Feet From Stardom (2013)

This film will appeal to baby boomer music lovers. Director Morgan Neville explores the ambiguous careers of the black female backup vocalists for many of the greatest bands, from Darlene Love and Merry Clayton in the sixties to contemporary singers like Judith Hill. These are enormously talented people who worked hard to find their niche, but no one has ever heard of them.

Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives (2003)

The end of the Civil War freed about 4 million slaves in America, a significant number of whom lived into the 1940s. During the Depression, the Federal Writers Project hired people to interview and record first person narratives from these former slaves, the last first-hand resource that could document their experiences. Today the Library of Congress houses 2,000 such interviews, in their original “dialect” and broken English, in the simply-titled Slave Narratives. This film uses original still photographs, contemporary re-enactments, slave music, a running commentary by Whoopi Goldberg, and dramatic readings of those original slave narratives by contemporary African-American actors and actresses like Oprah Winfrey.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

This Netflix-produced bio-documentary about the legendary Nina Simone (1933–2003) opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and was later short-listed for a 2016 Oscar for Best Documentary. The director Liz Garbus does many things well in this film, the best of which is simply to let us linger, watch, and listen to the legendary blues and jazz artist display her music genius and free spirit.

White Like Me (2015)

A few days before I watched this 68-minute documentary by Tim Wise on YouTube, Honda Motor Co. agreed to pay a $24 million fine for lending practices that charged minority people higher interest rates (July 2015). Wise (b. 1968) is perhaps the leading anti-racism educator-activist in the country, having spoken on more than a thousand high school and college campuses, and conducted training for hundreds of schools, corporations, and law enforcement groups.

White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019)

This one-hour documentary, which would be an excellent church resource, tells an important story, and even though we have heard this story before, it’s an important one that bears repeating — namely, the 500-year complicity of the American church with institutional racism.

Dan Clendenin:

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